HBR: The Dirty Secret of Effective Sales Coaching

Below is a blog post by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. How does coaching work in your sales organization?

The Dirty Secret of Effective Sales Coaching

Most sales and service organization have invested more time and effort in the past five years in improving managers’ coaching of reps than they did in the previous 50. This makes perfect sense: research by the Sales Executive Council shows that no other productivity investment comes close to coaching in improving reps’ performance.

But not all reps who get coached, even by good coaches, do better. In fact, our research shows that coaching is almost worthless when it targets the wrong reps. And our work suggests that management targets the wrong reps all the time.

Left to their own devices, sales managers often skew their coaching efforts dramatically toward the “tails” — the very best and the very worst reps on their team. They engage with poor reps because they feel they must in order to meet territory goals, and they work with their best reps because, well, it’s fun. Few managers can resist the lure of reliving their glory days by passing along their wisdom to the one or two reps who remind them most of their younger selves. To combat managers’ tendency to coach just laggards and leaders, companies implement elaborate systems to allocate coaching equally across the sales force. They imagine that “all boats will rise” as a result.

Unfortunately, our data show that both managers’ coaching tendencies, and companies’ response, are misguided. In research involving thousands of reps, we found that coaching — even world-class coaching — has a marginal impact on either the weakest or the strongest performers in the sales organization. You’d think that coaching the lowest performers would pay off because they have nowhere to go but up. Actually, that’s often not true, particularly for the bottom 10%. These reps, we’ve found, are less likely to be underperformers who can improve, and more likely to be a bad fit for the role altogether. That’s not a really something coaching can fix. It’s likely a different kind of conversation altogether (often involving HR).

Likewise, star-performing reps show virtually no performance improvement due to coaching either. While our research shows that there are some important retention benefits from coaching your high performers, it would be nice to think that great coaching (especially from former high-performers) makes your stars just a little more stellar. But that’s just not the case.

Our conclusion? The real payoff from good coaching lies among the middle 60% — your core performers. For this group, the best-quality coaching can improve performance up to 19%.* In fact, even moderate improvement in coaching quality — simply from below to above average — can mean a six to eight percent increase in performance across 50% of your sales force. Often as not, that makes the difference between hitting or missing goals.

At the end of the day, who your managers coach is just as important as how they coach. The data clearly suggest that organizations should do away with coaching democratically and instead shift the majority of their coaching focus away from low and star performers and towards the core.

This may be a hard pill to swallow. Despite the evidence, we find that this recommendation doesn’t sit well with all sales leaders or sales managers. Sales leaders argue that coaching should be delivered in an egalitarian fashion and balk at the notion of targeting coaching by performance level. Managers are quick to point to their own success turning around low performers through intensive one-on-one coaching. Several years after we first unveiled it, this finding continues to be a white-hot topic of debates among sales leaders.

How does coaching work in your sales organization? Is it democratic, targeted, or just non-existent?

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