Why You Can’t “Manage” Sales – And What You Should Do Instead



Many organizations unwittingly suffer from a bad habit that greatly diminishes sales performance:  sales managers who spend too much of their time trying to manage a sales rep’s outcomes.  You may ask, “Well, isn’t that a sales manager’s job?”

The answer is “no.”  A rep’s outcomes are impossible to manage.  It’s like a football coach trying to manage the score; he can’t do it.  He has no control over the score.  All he can do is manage what plays are called on the field and who plays in the game.  The score will be determined by how well his team plays.

Just like a coach cannot manage the outcome of a football game, but can only manage the input that delivers the outcome, you cannot manage or determine what your reps’ final sales results are.  You can only influence the things they do to accomplish the results. That is done through training and coaching.  Training is teaching the necessary skills, and coaching is assessing the skills, helping the rep see where they need to change, and instilling the desire to change.

The problem with most sales meetings

When I sit in on a client’s sales meetings, I generally see sales managers start off their one-on-one time with a rep in reviewing historical performance.  This review does nothing to improve the rep’s future performance, yet they spend 60-90% percent of their time together mired in this fruitless activity.

The last part of the meeting is spent telling the rep to keep working hard, put more effort into the game, prospect better, make more sales calls, and go close more sales.  The sales manager spends his “coaching” time telling the rep to increase activity or improve their attitude.

There are two problems with this approach:
  1. If a sales rep is doing it wrong, then doing more of it won’t improve the results.
  1. Telling the sales rep what to do is less empowering and motivating than a discussion in which you allow the rep to discover for himself what he needs to do.  A good coaching session involves asking questions to help your rep discover where and how they need to improve.  Thus the rep owns the answer instead of just being told what to do.

Take golf as an example.  If I have a bad slice, more practice won’t improve my swing.  I need coaching on how to swing correctly and regular feedback from a qualified golf coach.  Any coach may point out what I am doing wrong, but the best coach will ask me if I want to learn how to improve my swing before he starts telling me how to do it.  The coach must get my buy-in for improvement before I will enthusiastically work at improving it.

Here is a formula I learned from Axiom Sales Force Development:

Sales Activity x Proficiency = Sales Results

The only way to improve a sales rep’s performance is by focusing on the input, the amount of activity and the proficiency – how good they are at selling.

Unfortunately, most sales managers are great at identifying performance gaps, but are not proficient enough in sales methodology to identify why there is a gap and in what skills the rep needs to become more proficient.  Not only are they unequipped to instruct or coach, but they do not hold the rep accountable to learn those skills.

To be effective, sales managers must know your selling system, be a master at identifying where the rep may be failing, and then be able to effectively ask questions to help the rep own his own professional growth.  It may sound daunting, but this type of management actually involves less work and results in higher sales performance.

The real gap in sales training

Many organizations spend a great deal of money on training front-line sales reps to improve results, and many have discovered that this is not the most effective use of their training dollars.  Top-performing sales organizations are finding the best bang for their training dollar is in teaching their sales managers how to coach.

According to Sales Leadership Forums, a sales think tank, 63% of organizations think their managers should spend 30% to 40% of their time coaching reps, but most (61%) spend less than 20% of their time coaching reps – about a 70% gap from where they should be.  The 70% gap is there because managers don’t know how to coach or what topics they should be coaching.

According to Ron Cox, CEO of Tailwind Consulting, most sales training is 25% effective at best.  What is missing from the kinds of training that delivers such lack-luster results is the coaching component; the follow-up and continuous feedback.  Ron reports that senior leaders who focused on developing others through coaching had a 27% performance improvement over their peers.

Furthermore, only 25% of the ROI from training comes from the training experience itself. According to Dr. Brent Peterson, a full 75% of the ROI comes from what is done before and after the actual training experience.  Preparing and following up by coaching is critical to getting ROI out of training.

Learning how to coach

Here are two books that I consider must-reads for anyone who wants to effectively lead and coach a sales force:

  • Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions by Keith Rosen. I recommend you both read it and listen to the audio version.  This book demonstrates that coaching is not telling a rep how to improve.  It teaches the manager how to use diagnostic questions to help the rep discover their own need for improvement, then how to direct them toward improvement.

There is an old saying that says, “Those who can’t do, teach,” and it is true about many things.  “Managing” sales isn’t one of them!

If you are a manager who desires to be great and to develop greatness in others, you must learn to be an expert in the sales process yourself and learn how to be an effective coach.  Then you’ll be equipped to evaluate your sales reps on the input that delivers the end results you want to see.

Want to know more about how to implement coaching?

Contact me, and I’ll be glad to connect you with companies who have implemented coaching to hear their stories.


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