In sales coaching there is a difference between the presenting issue — what’s on the surface — and the real issue  — what’s causing it. Too many times, we fall into the trap of coaching to the presenting issue. The problem is, if we don’t get to the real issue, we can’t get to the real solution, which means we can’t get to real and lasting change with the capabilities we are coaching to improve.

How do we avoid falling into this trap? Follow the tips below to get started.

Get the Timing Right

Allocate the right amount of time to your coaching. Coaching sessions do not have to be long; in fact, the most effective sessions that I’ve seen are between 25 to 40 minutes.

Clear the Noise

If you go into a coaching session and you are thinking about all of the things on your to-do list or how you need to prepare for an upcoming meeting, it’s going to be tough to have the patience to dig beneath the surface. Be present and engaged with your coachees.

Navigate with Curiosity

Curiosity is one of the single most important factors to effective sales coaching. There are two main reasons why. First, curiosity will help us get to the real issue that lurks beneath the surface. Two, we can’t feel both curiosity and judgment at the same time, which means that the person that we are coaching will have a better chance of opening up and being vulnerable with us.  If they don’t feel safe, it is nearly impossible to get to the real issue.

Let’s use a simple example. Several years ago, I was coaching a sales manager, Liz, who observed one of her reps, Jane, not asking good discovery questions. Her questions seemed to be very surface level, and she seemed rushed. The temptation here was to coach Jane on the importance of discovery and discuss what good discovery questions sound like.

The problem with giving into that temptation is that it will only solve the problem if the problem is that Jane doesn’t know the value of good discovery questions or what they sound like.

There’s an important triage question that is useful here: Does Jane always, or usually, struggle with discovery or is this something that she struggles with only sometimes? If the answer is “sometimes,” keep digging.

Continuing with our example from above, when Liz and I met and she told me about her observation with Jane, I asked her the triage question above.  Liz replied: “That’s the funny thing. Jane is typically pretty good at discovery. Maybe she just forgot, or she just needs some reminders.”

Maybe, but probably not.

As it turned out, Jane’s issue had nothing to do with forgetting about discovery. Her issue had to do with her comfort level with the prospect.  Jane is a relational person; the type of person who likes to connect, build a comfortable rapport and get to know the person she’s interacting with. When she did discovery with other relational people, it was easy and comfortable for her to conduct a thorough discovery conversation. However, in this case, her prospect was a task-oriented person; he was down to business, did not like small talk and did not engage with her efforts to build rapport. It threw Jane off her game.

That was the real issue driving the behavior: Jane didn’t know how to adjust to a different style. Once Liz and Jane understood that, coming up with an actual solution that would help Jane in the future was much easier.

What Does Curiosity Look Like in Coaching?

Curiosity in coaching is when we suspend judgment and assumptions about why something is happening and instead, we help the coachee explore the root causes and distinctions (e.g., “Why this time and not the other times?”).

Here are some back pocket questions that will help you embrace curiosity in your coaching sessions to reveal true needs:

  • Tell me more.
  • What else?
  • What else is important to you about this?
  • What do you think led to …?
  • What factors do you think may have been at play?
  • Is this always the case for you?
  • How is this situation different than x?
  • What was different about this situation?
  • How often does this happen?
  • What makes this situation or conversation more comfortable than x?

The key is to suspend our judgment and our assumptions. We need to make the most of our coaching time. If we go into the coaching session believing that we know with absolute certainty why someone is doing what they are doing, their intention, or what’s driving their behavior, we will almost always come up short in being effective in our sales coaching. Embracing curiosity will help your coaching sessions generate lasting impact.