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ATD Blog

What is Coaching, Anyway?


Tue May 29 2012


We were recently presenting at the ASTD 2012 International Conference and Exposition, and someone from the audience asked a simple but consequential question. She said: “You know, we constantly tell our sales managers that we want them to coach their reps, but I’m not sure that the managers know what that means. In your opinion, exactly what is ‘coaching?’”

Her question was actually quite insightful. There is no textbook definition for coaching, and there’s certainly no informal consensus as to what the term means. We all know that coaching is distinct from training, and most would accept that it involves personalized, one-on-one instruction. That’s about where the agreement ends. Well, because she asked, we’ll take this opportunity to share our view of the term “coaching.” Our perspective is that it’s all a matter of...ahem...perspective. Let’s examine what coaching means to three different stakeholders in the organization—the VP of sales, the frontline manager, and the sales rep.


Most vice presidents of sales we work with say that they expect their frontline managers to be coaching their sellers. If we press them for more detail on this expectation, they respond with some variation of, “I expect my managers to proactively work with their reps to improve the reps’ performance.” Implied in this statement is, of course, is the belief that if all managers do this, the sales force’s overall productivity will rise. To senior leaders, the official definition of coaching isn’t really important. They want improved performance, and whatever managers can do to help their reps achieve this will suffice as ‘coaching.’ So coaching efforts could be extremely varied when viewed from this perspective, but we’ll concede that it’s directionally accurate.

The lack of a strict definition for coaching leads to an interesting phenomenon between managers and reps that could probably be comical if it weren’t tragic. If you ask sales managers how much time they spend coaching and compare that to the amount of time their reps perceive they are being coached, there is never any alignment. Managers always think they are doing much more coaching than their reps feel they are receiving. Why would that be?

Our observation is that many sales managers believe they are ‘coaching’ almost any time they’re with a rep. They think this is particularly true if that interaction takes place one-on-one. Driving around with a rep, grilling him about his relationship with the next customer you’re going to visit? Yep, that’s coaching. Meeting with a rep weekly to interrogate her about the accuracy of her pipeline and forecast? Check. Eating lunch with a rep, just to stay in touch? Sure thing, coaching it is.

The problem is, managers believe they are coaching during many interactions that actually create very little value for the rep. And just as the customer is the ultimate judge of whether a rep is a good seller, the rep is the ultimate judge of whether a manager is a good coach. As coaching goes, the rep is the manager’s customer. And customer satisfaction with this relationship is frequently low.

Neil Rackham once told me that a good consultative sales call changes the way the prospect perceives their problem. The seller shows the buyer that they are proceeding down a path that could have negative consequences, and the buyer is grateful. That’s kind of what good coaching does, too. Reps perceive that coaching is taking place when something changes in the way they think about an issue. Or maybe the way they perceive their role. Or maybe the way they should behave in certain situations. Good coaching leads salespeople to change their thinking or behavior because they have been shown a better way. There is insight created, not just information exchanged.


So in reality, the VP, manager, and seller are all correct. Coaching does take place when managers spend one-on-one time with their reps. And when they bring the rep to conclusions or revelations that she wouldn’t have reached on her own. And when that coaching leads to increased performance for the sales force as a whole. Good coaching happens when all three perspectives unite.

So we can haggle over the particulars of which tactics constitute ‘coaching,’ but its objectives are pretty clear. It’s only a coaching interaction if it changes the way the seller thinks and it leads to new behaviors that improve sales performance. Even without an official definition of coaching, it’s the kind of thing that you’ll know when you see it. Or at least your rep will.

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