More than ever, sales teams are struggling to obtain customer appointments, manage their time, stay motivated and hit their goals. Coaching is an effective way to tackle these challenges and push teams toward high performance, but sales leaders and managers often struggle to know how to execute an impactful coaching system.

It is rare that training professionals look toward the academic research community for best practices. Let’s face it: Slogging through scholarly articles isn’t most people’s definition of fun. But there’s powerful and compelling evidence we can find there in which we can root our sales leaders’ and managers’ training programs. So, let’s take a look at what the research says.

The Need for Strong Sales Coaches

First and foremost, good training requires good coaches. Dahling, Taylor, Chau and Dwight (2016) analyzed 1,246 sales representatives across 136 teams in a large pharmaceutical company over the course of one year. They found clear evidence linking leadership coaching skill to the representative’s attainment of annual sales goals. Through their testing and analysis, they found that:

    • The lowest sales performance was associated with unskilled managerial coaches who engaged in frequent coaching interactions.
    • Highly skilled coaches elicited strong goal attainment in representatives, regardless of their level of coaching frequency.
    • Coaching frequency proved irrelevant, provided that the manager was a highly skilled coach.

Likewise, Peesker et al. (2019) found that among 60 salespeople at a major global information technology (IT) company, coaching was the most cited behavior that could enable sales performance. In short, we know that effective coaching from managers does lead to increased sales outcomes in the salesforce. Sales representatives who work for managers with strong coaching skills exhibit better performance, with significant financial value on their goals.

Yet, development programs for sales leaders often do not exist. Peesker et al. found that leaders are overwhelmed with roles that include a wide variety of duties and responsibilities, such as recruiting and strategic planning, making it difficult to spend time directly engaging and interacting with their salespeople and their customers. Further, sales leaders are under intense pressure to meet short-term targets, so they tend to neglect longer-term strategies that do not create immediate results, such as coaching their team.

What Does Strong Sales Coaching Look Like?

Even if an organization commits to strengthening its sales leadership programs, it may be unsure of how to improve coaching. So, let’s uncover what makes for effective coaching.

According to the academic research, effective managerial coaching involves several components:

The Coach Gives Individualized Attention

The coach must give specific guidance to each team member on a regular basis. This kind of continuous, tailored feedback leads to personalized performance plans and enhanced team performance.

The Coach Provides for an Open Exchange of Feedback

The coach should use downward feedback to provide direct reports with clarity about their goals and responsibilities, putting an emphasis on motivating the team for specific tasks and providing learning opportunities. Upward feedback, in return, clarifies to the manager that the team member understands this information. This continued exchange results in clear expectations and a trusting relationship between the supervisor and subordinate.

The Coach Models Good Performance

The manager should provide clear descriptions or examples of skills and behaviors that will contribute to sales reps’ success. Then, there should be models (i.e., role-plays or case studies) of effective — and ineffective — uses of those behaviors. This approach helps the sales team understand what both “good” and “bad” look like. Practice opportunities (with feedback) should follow, so that the skills become ingrained in the reps’ behavioral repertoire.

What Should Strong Sales Leaders Coach On?

Now, we understand what impactful, effective sales coaching looks like — but what are the key areas in which sales leaders should coach their team members? They could be the strongest coach in the world, but if they’re targeting the wrong areas, it’s a moot point. Stay tuned for the next article in this series, which will dig into the most effective content for sales coaching.