Coaching salespeople: it’s better when both sides are willing participants!

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You only need to spend a few minutes on LinkedIn to realize the extent to which managers bear the burden of lofty expectations, huge ones, day in, day out. They have to be role models, see the big picture, foster progress, help others succeed, remain kind under all circumstances, transition from vertical to horizontal management, instill a desire to be bold as a team, etc. In short, managers—especially line managers—are expected to perform an array of massive tasks.  Try it for yourself. Read a few of the posts and articles and then ask yourself the question. Can we expect so much from managers? Another question: Are the people who “like” these articles prepared to do their part to help managers fulfill their mission?

Obviously, all these expectations are positive. Everyone understands that managers play a very important role in the success of their salespeople, and I wouldn’t dare suggest otherwise.  But I would simply like to point out that line managers are not wizards. Since Halifax Consulting was founded, we have met thousands of managers from all sectors.  Very few are not aware of what is expected of them. Very few do not understand the key role they play in their team’s success. Some may be heavy-handed, others may need to update their management methods, but that’s not really the hardest part.  Believe it or not, the hardest thing for many managers is to overcome the reticence of their sales staff to embrace the managerial initiatives implemented.

Far too many salespeople view coaching programs initiated by their manager as a form of distrust that calls into question their competence.  A business update meeting that goes into the slightest bit of detail is seen as micromanagement. A suggestion to improve on an area with lagging performance is viewed as humiliating.  Expressing the need to take results up a notch is quasi-synonymous with harassment. I hope that you find this description exaggerated and far removed from your own experiences. Though I fear that it may nevertheless bring to mind a few memories of ludicrous management situations.

  • Such as when managers are required to employ their full arsenal of diplomacy and persuasion skills to convince staff to work on developing their skills.
  • Such as when an older salesperson refuses to study their product ranges, claiming that their years of experience excuse them from making any further progress.
  • Such as when a salesperson’s expectations with regard to their manager and the company are inversely proportional to the effort shown by the seller in their daily work.

Put plainly, real life is not always as easy as the articles on management super heroes make it out to be.  Quality of work life comes up a lot, and it’s important for managers as well. Alongside the fulfilment of their duties and their motivation to do their utmost for their team, in my eyes managers’ mental health is also a matter of taking a step back and being lucid, to focus on what is really within their power and stop driving themselves crazy trying to fix lost causes.

In the lines that follow, which some may find a bit provocative, I’m going to suggest a few methods for dealing with these ludicrous management situations. These methods are not politically correct, but sometimes it gets to a point where playtime is over.

Want less time for coaching? Perfect, we’ll have more time to monitor results.

The first silly situation

You’re a manager seeking to do right and you want to help your salesperson develop a specific skill. You spoke with them (nicely), you demonstrated why it was important and you proposed a skill development plan. Basically, you held up your part of the bargain. You gave your time and have offered to give more to help them progress.  What happens next? You feel uneasy. Why? Because you can tell that the salesperson doesn’t want to make the effort. Because they only try to convince you that they don’t need to improve. Because it’s a pain in the… And you, as a good manager, try to find the right words to change their mind. The roles have been flipped!

You may be smiling as you read this, but I assure you that I didn’t make this up. Many managers have described this type of situation to me. So how should you approach it?  My suggestion: STOP!

That’s right, stop going the extra mile. Your staff member doesn’t want help from you. No problem. After all, my bet is that the skill you want to improve is one that the employee in question is supposed to have mastered, is it not? Nowhere in their contract does it say that you’re supposed to spend hours helping them on it, right?  Well then tell them that you’re not going to keep on insisting. Tell them in no uncertain terms that you’re delighted. Delighted because the time saved will be better spent elsewhere, with salespeople eager to learn. And most importantly, the time saved will enable you to spend more time inspecting the results with a fine-tooth comb. And the results should be outstanding, given how well the seller masters the subject.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

You work and I’ll help you!

The second silly situation

You’re an attentive, generous manager. From among the following situations, pick the one that most closely resembles something you could have experienced. You sent a salesperson to training, but you haven’t seen them put their new skills to use / You offered to finish up preparing for an important meeting together, but you are clearly the only one who took the time to get ready / You set up new tools to improve sales productivity, but once again you notice that no effort has been made to use them.

At the same time, that same salesperson asks for your help on a regular basis to put out a fire, or to request an override that needs to be handled ASAP. 

These types of situations are not as rare as one would like to think. Of course you NEED to be generous to be a manager. You have to be giving. To lend your time, your experience, your kindness. But your generosity cannot be an endless one-way street. At least not at a company, and even less so at the sales department, which is the archetypal results-oriented organization.  Being generous with people who don’t deserve it reduces your ability to support those who do.  We can all understand a lack of talent, but not a failure to act.  This will seem obvious to some readers, but let me assure you that we still meet many managers who painstakingly compensate every day for people who aren’t pulling their weight. If you’re an elite sports coach, you can tell them what needs to be done to improve and propose a training program, but you can’t do the running for them. The same goes for our line of work. Progress and performance are a product of personal effort. It’s not the manager’s job to lead all the tasks that enable salespeople to improve. If everyone holds up their end of the bargain, it will be much easier to reach your goals.

It takes hard work to make sales look easy

Peter Thiel

You don’t have enough time? Hit the MIZ!

Third silly situation

We’re once again going to assume you’re a kind, patient manager. One member of your team frequently tells you that they don’t have enough time. Not enough time to prospect, not enough time to fill out the CRM info, not enough time to prepare for meetings to a professional standard—you get the picture, you have the archetypal overwhelmed salesperson on your team. The problem is that all this hustle doesn’t produce results. What a shame. 

Here again, you may think that I’m being harsh. Maybe you see a bit of yourself in this description, because we all have a lot of plates spinning.  That’s why it’s important to give your staff regular reminders of the crucial importance of staying organized. I devoted a chapter to the subject in my latest book.  The expression Hit the MIZ was inspired by a quote by former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca:

If you want to make good use of your time, you’ve got to know what’s most important and then give it all you’ve a got. 

That says it all! The problem, a very common one in sales, is that we spread ourselves too thin. For proof, look no further than the statistics on the time sellers actually spent on sales. If you don’t want to be left speechless when one of your team members tells you for the umpteenth time that they don’t have time to do what you recommend, I suggest you remind them of the following principles:

First, being active is not synonymous with being productive, and the mark of a good salesperson is productivity.

Next, being organized is also a personal issue. You can’t blame everything on the company, the CRM, mean customers or some other song and dance.

And lastly, the same phenomenon exists at every company. The best are always those who do what others don’t have time (or don’t want) to do.

All things come to those who wait, like death, for example…

This article was written especially for sales managers. For the managers who always have to do their utmost to help their teams succeed.  But at times doing one’s utmost means reminding others of things that should be obvious.  The team should view the manager’s coaching initiatives as acts of generosity, a form of acknowledgment, opportunities to make progress together. Most salespeople understand this. Be careful not to tire yourself out with or become discouraged by those who don’t.

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