Sales coaching is an interesting topic, if for no other reason than that everyone thinks it’s a great idea. Sales leaders expect their managers to do it, sales managers like to do it, and salespeople want to receive it. So it was no surprise that, when we surveyed 213 companies that collectively employ 25,000 sales managers, sales coaching and training was rated the most important skill to develop in the sales management ranks. What did surprise us, however, was the finding that sales coaching was not the management skill that had the greatest impact on sales performance. In fact, it wasn’t even close.

The Perception of Sales Coaching

The study we conducted with the Sales Management Association sought to understand the current state of training for the sales manager population. One of the first things we asked the sales leaders and enablement professionals in the study was to rank 17 different sales management competencies based on importance. The competencies included things like sales coaching, business acumen, assessing rep performance, leadership, pipeline management, customer knowledge, forecasting, and more.

As I mentioned above, the competency of sales coaching was rated the highest, with an average 5.8 rating on a seven-point scale. (The lowest was business acumen, with a score of 4.3.) This high value on sales coaching makes intuitive sense, because coaching has long been a focus of sales training investment, and it’s generally known to be a high-impact activity in boosting sales performance. However, we also correlated each company’s effectiveness at training those 17 competencies with the actual achievement of the company’s sales goals. In other words, which type of sales management training actually moved the revenue needle when it was done well?

The Reality of Sales Coaching

When judged by its impact on performance, business acumen was the big winner. Yes, the competency that was rated least important by the survey’s respondents was shown to have the biggest impact on company performance. Assessing rep performance finished second in its impact, followed by pipeline management and forecasting. And where was sales coaching? All the way down at number 10.

What our research unambiguously shows is that there are other competencies that have been relatively neglected from a training and development perspective that (when done right) have a greater impact in differentiating the best from the rest. These are competencies that are very practical and are used every single day as sales managers go about the job of running the business, assessing rep performance, and managing sales pipelines. In fact, these are the activities that displace coaching on a day-to-day basis. Pipelines have to be managed and forecasts submitted. Seriously, they have to. If there’s any time left after the pipeline reviews and forecasting sessions, then sales managers will squeeze in some coaching. But that’s just the reality of sales management in the CRM-enabled 21st century.

So what should we take away from this research? That sales coaching and training is unimportant and training managers to do it is a waste of time? Of course not. We still believe firmly in sales coaching, and we would never tell our clients to neglect it. What we can take from the study is that sales coaching is not as big a differentiator today as some other management competencies. When sales managers find time to coach, they generally know how. But are they confident determining which reps should receive that coaching? Or do they need more help learning how to manage their pipelines or create a forecast? When it comes to these activities, they haven’t been sufficiently trained, so they do them poorly. Companies that proactively invest in preparing their managers to master these key tasks — well, they rightfully reap the rewards.

In sum, when it comes to investing in our sales managers, we need to shift our priorities to focus on the competencies that are the differentiators in performance right now. Once upon a time, sales coaching might have been a key differentiator, but now it isn’t. It appears that the hot sales management skills today relate to “running the business,” which is what our sales managers are being told to do. So that’s where our training effort should be pointed going forward — until something more important comes along.

What did surprise us, however, was the finding that sales coaching was not the management skill that had the greatest impact on sales performance. In fact, it wasn’t even close.”

Jason Jordan | Partner, Vantage Point Performance
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