Written by Steve Gielda, Principal – Ignite Selling

Developing a Sales Coaching Strategy is of primary importance and of primary interest to many sales organizations. At Ignite Selling we have developed a Six Step Strategic Coaching Process. While at first glance it may look fairly simple, we find the straightforward approach to be easily implemented and understood by all parties.

We have previously discussed the first three steps:
Step 1: Selecting Your Targets
Step 2: Establishing a Preliminary Strategy
Step 3: Asking the Right Questions

Step 4. Taking Action – Moving in for the Attack
In selling, rigorous contingency planning just makes sense. Playing out the many “what if” scenarios, thinking through roles, responsibilities, and responses, and rehearsing are all essential elements of executing a strategy effectively. Too often Sales Managers believe their job is to be sure the sales reps know what to do so that they can then go do it. What they fail to realize is that they often assume the sales rep knows how and what to do. This assumption causes many great sales strategies to go to waste. We have seen some very smart sales strategies developed over the years, but unfortunately, they were poorly executed, and thus, never achieved the results that were expected. Sales managers often fail to realize they also have a role in executing the sales strategy, even if it does not involve leading from the front. It could be interacting with customers, or possibly, it could be making way for something to happen inside their own organizations.

The number one way to avoid these common traps is to write out the plan of attack. Top Sales Managers today realize that it’s a good idea to write down What, Who and When. What needs to be done to strengthen our position? Who is responsible for making it happen? When is it going to be done?

A good sales manager will ask questions that challenge the reps’ thinking. The questions asked often reveal how much the team does not know. Sometimes both the rep and the manager leave a coaching conversation with tasks to accomplish before the next meeting. Prioritizing the follow up tasks that need to be done can be helpful.

Establishing a well-thought-out action plan also allows for smart and timely follow up. Often the agenda for your next meeting with your rep is already established. It’s all about following up on the action items you both agreed were critical to the strategic plan. Don’t be surprised if additional action items fall out of the current strategy. Remember: a sales strategy is like a river. It often stays within the banks but occasionally can get rough and will expand to accommodate the current.

Step 5. Status Check
Stacy was a top performer working as an executive recruiter. He had great relationships with all of his customers. He was responsible for acquiring and managing the companies top 25 accounts. His account base included companies like Goldman Sachs, Moody’s, NASDAQ, and others in the financial market. He had been given a new opportunity when one of the executives he placed five years ago at VISA accepted a new job offer at American Express. Stacy had been trying to get into American Express for the past two years with no success. He knew this was the break he was looking for. His experience told him that he needed to be smart and develop a strategy where he can effectively leverage his contact. Stacy sat down with his management team to discuss how to best leverage his relationship to get his foot in the door at American Express. He and his management team developed a solid strategy. They discussed the potential traps and how to avoid and manage them should they arise. He rehearsed his plan and was ready to take action. A week later Stacy met with his management team to review how well the strategy worked. Stacy shared that though he didn’t achieve what he wanted, he was able to gain some new information that was critical going forward. He shared with his management team who the key influencers are in the decision for hiring executive recruiters. He also shared that he learned American Express was preparing to expand into the fleet fuel card business and were expecting to hire 7 new executives in the next 90 days to lead this new business unit. With this new information Stacy and his management team knew they had a real opportunity to help American Express and it would require an updated strategy.

An unfortunate reality of many sales managers is the fact that there is little or no follow up. Sales managers believe in this panacea that once they help develop the opportunity strategy their work is done. Too often this view of eager optimism is over-shadowed by a grim reality that critical circumstances in the account changed or the sales rep fell short of the expectations when executing the strategy. In either case, sales managers must do a status check to assess the impact or results of the opportunity strategy that was initially developed.

In some cases when a strategy isn’t able to be fully executed it could be because of factors outside the reps control. Think about a time when you established a solid strategy for helping your sales rep gain access to the C-Suite. The two of you sat down to understand who all of the key influencers are and you develop a strategy to leverage your advocates to get you access to the C-Suite. You discussed the potential barriers they may run into along the way and you even rehearsed how to overcome those potential barriers. Yet, there was one factor that no one could have expected that precluded your strategy from being fully executed. For reasons like this, it’s critical to meet with your sales reps for a Status Check.

Without a status check it’s difficult to determine if the strategy was faulty or if the execution was done poorly. We all want to believe our top performers know how to execute a strategy that was jointly developed. Unfortunately, even top performers sometimes fall short of our expectations when it comes to strategy execution. Therefore, this step allows managers to learn what when well and what didn’t go well. Its from this dialogue an existing strategy can be refined.

Step 6. Refining your Strategy
In every strategic opportunity there are events happening that possibly could change your course of action. Some of these events could be based upon How, What, or When we are selling into any given account. Similar to Newton’s third law that states: Every action has equal reaction in the opposite direction.” This tells us that after every client interaction there will most likely be a new set of action steps. As sales managers we need to remember that this often will require refining the strategy. Assuming your sales rep will come up with the correct refined strategy on their own is often a dangerous assumption. Factors like a new influencer, new competitors, or new strategic direction of the company are major enough factors that a new look at the existing strategy may be warranted.

To be effective at refining a strategy requires sales managers to know what questions to ask. Top performing sales managers know that asking questions which merely assess the what the rep knows or doesn’t know, is not helpful to formulate new strategic ideas. It’s imperative that we go back to asking those strategic coaching questions that force our sales reps back on their heels and cause them to think about the situation differently. Refining your strategy to be sure you’re always moving the sales opportunity forward is necessary.

Successful strategic sales coaching requires consistency and accountability. If you elect to adopt a consistent strategic opportunity planning process, you must hold your team accountable for following that process. For example, when reviewing the pipeline process, look at the milestones within each pipeline stage and ask yourself what coaching questions you should ask to challenge your reps’ thinking about them. The more your reps are held accountable for targeting the right accounts and developing a smart preliminary strategy, the more likely it is your strategy meetings will be productive. And if you are consistent in your style of questioning – challenging your reps’ thinking, helping them think creatively – your reps will come better prepared to your opportunity strategy planning sessions.