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Many sales leaders have a skill gap when it comes to coaching members of the sales team. Bridging that gap requires the courage to address a critical question that often goes unasked: What is coaching, and how is it different from the other activities sales leaders undertake?

Coaching salespeople is a process, not an event. It must take place in a safe environment where coach and salesperson meet privately and have the ability to share open, honest, fact-based feedback.

Many managers confuse coaching with training and view the process as a way to “fix” issues negatively impacting the bottom line, often creating an environment that feels less than safe for the salesperson. (How do you feel when someone tries to “fix” you?) Training is the imparting of new skills. Coaching, on the other hand, is a way of empowering salespeople to use their existing skill set more effectively in the context of the sales process and thus achieve greater success.

Coaching sessions require a strong up-front contract where both participants develop a meaningful agenda. This agenda becomes the focus of the session. A time contract is critical for the initial session as well as all succeeding sessions.

The three critical elements to understand during each coaching session are what, reason and importance. By this I mean the shared purpose of the coaching session (the what), why it is necessary to achieve the mutually agreed-upon goal (the reason), and the real-world impact the accomplishment will have to the salesperson (the importance).

Successful coaches are able to establish all three early on in the coaching relationship, and also to measure the level of trust the salesperson has in him or her. Trust is a key factor driving success. Trust can be measured using the same symbols we use to evaluate Olympic success: gold, silver, and bronze. Gold level trust is only achieved over time and must be the coach’s ultimate goal. The most productive coaching sessions involve the highest level of trust between participants. This high level of trust fosters internal exploration through openness and vulnerability and speeds growth and development.

Most successful coaches conduct two forms of coaching sessions: strategic and tactical. Strategic coaching focuses on helping salespeople think about the future, plan for success, and mitigate minor issues before they become larger problems. Tactical coaching focuses on helping salespeople with specific behaviors, attitudes, and techniques in the context of the job that prevent them from achieving greater success. Note that tactical coaching does not equate to “Here, watch me do it!”

In both strategic and tactical coaching, the number one focus of the coach is to ask critical questions in order to help the participant fully understand the situation driving the coaching session. Advanced questioning skills are the key to success here. They help the coach avoid what we call the “telling/fixing” trap: telling the salesperson what to do, with the aim of fixing a short-term problem. The coach’s best friend is active listening, as the simple comment “tell me more” gets the information ball rolling and allows the participant to “play a movie” of the relevant events leading up to the session.

Every coaching session should have a strategy or game plan designed to achieve the desired result. Coaching fails when one or both participants enter into the session spontaneously with no goal or plan for success. A good conversation may well be the result of an unplanned session, and both parties may end up “feeling good” about the conversation. Yet nothing meaningful or lasting will have been accomplished.

Often a gap analysis – a close examination of where the salesperson is now, compared to where he or she wants to be — is helpful, as this provides a growth map beginning with a discussion of the salesperson’s current state measured against their desired future state.

It’s possible that what you have just read about coaching has identified some possible “gap areas” in your own sales leadership skill set. So, ask yourself: Where could you help your team by bridging such a gap? Is it in the area of listening? Asking better questions? Setting a clear, mutually agreed-upon goal for the coaching session? Ensuring that the coaching session takes place in a private, safe environment?

Do what you want your salespeople to do: Conduct a gap analysis. Identify a specific gap that is holding you back in your personal skill set that is keeping you from performing optimally…and then close that gap!

Check out this webinar replay to learn more about scaling sales coaching.

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