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Coaching the Coach: Key to Enabling the Sales Manager

Monday, May 16, 2016

“Training plus coaching led to an increase of 88 percent in productivity, versus 23 percent from training alone.”

—Centre for Management and Organizational Effectiveness

Organizations looking to improve their sales pipeline and close more deals often focus on ways to better equip and train their sales reps. This is a natural, commonsense approach and is certainly part of an effective sales performance intervention. I’ve often quipped, however, that if I had a dollar to spend on a sales improvement initiative, I’d spend 75 cents on the sales managers. That’s hyperbole, to make a point, but there’s some real truth behind that statement.

The only way I’ve ever seen an organization truly capitalize on a sales training investment and achieve a significant ROI through better sales outcomes, is to build and implement what I call “an effective learning system.” Without going into great detail, see the graphic below and consider how often your sales managers need to be engaged for such a system to produce real results in the field.



Engaging the Sales Manager

Consider the following facts about frontline sales managers:

  • They are a great source of training content (typically they were top sales producers).
  • They must buy-in to the training content you’ll teach reps.
  • They should attend training to learn what their reps will learn—as deeply as the reps.
  • They should also attend training with their reps to provide coaching support.
  • They must review the performance support materials you develop, to help the reps and assist with rep skill transfer.
  • They should attend coaching training to prepare them to coach their reps to mastery, as effectively as possible.
  • They must respond appropriately to analytics and reports about learning metrics and sales performance.
  • They should manage rep expectations, behaviors and results (performance management).
  • They need to drive behavior change with reps on the front lines to improve sales results. 

That’s a lot of engagement, right? The truth is that change (especially with incumbent reps) rarely happens on the front lines of a sales organization without consistent sales manager involvement until the change is cemented. Unfortunately, sales managers are often consumed with reviewing and reporting on numbers to senior leadership, involved in opportunity management or selling personally, unclear about the priority and expectations for coaching, and over-burdened with non-coaching tasks. The result: They are left with little time to focus on training reinforcement and sales coaching—during and after the onboarding process, as well as for other training initiatives. 

So the challenge becomes how do organizations help their managers become better coaches and coach more frequently? There are multiple answers to this question, including removing cultural obstacles to coaching and freeing up the time through disciplined prioritization. But the solution we’ll focus on here is the power of “coaching the coach.”

Coaching the Sales Coach

Managers are people too, and they work inside complex, busy organizations with conflicting priorities just like reps. What’s more, managers are just as unlikely to change their own behaviors and become more effective without the same type of support. Yet, we often overlook this factor and expect managers to “just do it” after training. 


Therefore, it is equally important—if not more so—to develop purposeful plans for knowledge sustainment, skills transfer, and coaching to mastery for your sales managers (aka the coaches). In other words, it’s time to coach the sales coach.  Here are some ideas you might find helpful as you consider how to do this in your organization. 

  • Communicate expectations: Set clear expectations and goals, and provide managers with the ability to focus on meeting them. 
  • Replicate the best: Study top-producing managers in order to help others replicate what they are doing differently to drive better results.
  • Free manager time: Coaching is a high-priority activity and gets results. Provide managers with time to review team and individual results to look for behavior patterns and performance gaps, to effectively coach toward closing the gaps.
  • Foster coaching excellence: Select a coaching model that is proven effective. Look for one that is behavioral-based (for developmental coaching), with an approach to engage the reps in the analysis of their results, activities, and methods (behaviors), as well as the co-creation of the best solution and an action plan to implement it.
  • Leverage technology: There are virtual coaching products and other sales management e-tools and apps that can support coaching, increase manager efficiency, and improve their coaching effectiveness. This should be part of your overall sales enablement and sales manager enablement strategy.  
  • Go up a level: Provide training and performance support for the managers’ manager to help him or her coach the frontline sales managers on implementing what they’ve been taught, especially how to reinforce, sustain, transfer, and coach their reps more effectively.
  • Manage expectations: In addition to building expectations into the management by objectives (MBOs) and performance plans for frontline sales managers, build the “coaching the coach” expectation into the senior leadership roles—with performance management elements and MBOs.
  • Gain leadership support: Have senior leaders’ buy-in (top-down support) for all of this and develop measures and reports, so leaders can inspect what they expect.  
  • Outsource for more support: Provide expert help for sales managers from the outside (sometimes more realistic). Look for people who can work with the managers over a period of time (weekly or biweekly for at least one quarter or longer). 

Bottom line: Behavior change is a process, not an event. Consider executive coaching for the senior leaders and for those who coach frontline sales managers, as well. If you aren’t already coaching your sales coaches or considering how to provide additional support for sales managers, I hope this post has provided you with food for thought—and some ideas to get started. As always, I’d enjoy hearing your feedback in the Comments section. 

Additional Resources

Effective Learning System

Top Producer Analysis

Sales Manager Enablement

About the Author

Mike Kunkle is a respected sales transformation architect and internationally-recognized sales training and sales enablement expert.

Mike has spent 35 years in the sales profession and 25 years as a corporate leader or consultant, helping companies drive dramatic revenue growth through best-in-class training strategies and his proven-effective sales transformation methodologies. At one company, as a result of six projects, he and his team were credited with enabling an accretive $398MM in revenue, year-over-year. At another, within 9 months, newly-hired sales reps with 120 days on the job were outperforming incumbent reps with 5 years with the company. Mike is the founder of Transforming Sales Results, LLC, and today, works as the Vice President of Sales Enablement Services for SPARXiQ (formerly SPA & SPASIGMA), where he advises clients, writes, speaks at conferences, develops and leads webinars, designs sales training courses, delivers workshops, and designs sales enablement systems that get results.

You can connect with Mike on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter at @Mike_Kunkle.

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