Although there’s wide acknowledgement of sales coaching's importance, excuses for a lack of coaching – such as time constraints or the absence of a formal coaching strategy – are just as common across businesses.
It’s a challenge that has plagued sales teams for years and continues to do so today. More than 25% of first-line sales managers (FSMs) spend just 30-60 minutes per week coaching, according to CSO Insights. On top of that, almost 20% of companies offer zero training for their sales managers.
The classic remedy is running management through a coaching skills training program, in the hopes that they’ll suddenly becomes standout sales coaches. But all too often, the training doesn’t stick, and the managers quickly revert to being “super reps” instead of “super coaches.”
So how can organizations realize the long-term benefits of an effective sales coach? Rather than try (and often fail) to mold managers into coaches, sales enablement leaders should consider investing in an embedded sales coaching role – and hiring a dedicated, enthusiastic coach to fill it.
[Learn more about the importance of investing in sales coaching, and the core capabilities provided by sales readiness tools, in this SiriusDecisions Technology Perspective.]
What Is an Embedded Sales Coach?
It’s a sales enablement professional whose sole responsibility is ensuring the readiness of the field force through sales coaching. Unlike a front-line sales manager, who is responsible for reporting pipeline and forecast numbers, handling internal processes and co-selling with reps, the embedded coach is purely focused on helping reps develop the skills needed to have meaningful buyer conversations.
Day-to-day duties of the role include one-on-one coaching sessions, role play sessions, critical feedback provision and deal collaboration. Brainshark Sales Enablement Manager Beverlie Heyman – our embedded sales coach – describes her position as that of an influencer, whose job is to help reps improve their approach to selling without controlling how they engage buyers.
“I’m not always going to be with them. I want [the rep] to have the ability to understand the scenario and be able to handle it on their next solo adventure,” Heyman says.
Heyman’s typical day involves a mix of role-play sessions with reps, reviewing relevant sales content to determine if and what learning reinforcement they need, and listening in on calls with prospects. She also participates in sales huddles and meets with sales managers individually to discuss rep learning progress and customer opportunities.
“Often, I’m meeting with reps and sitting in on customer calls,” says Heyman. “Along with skills coaching, I’m working with reps on specific deals. They want to strategically discuss next steps and role play different scenarios to get a better feel for how the conversation will play out.”
In contrast to outside sales coaching consultants, which might be viewed more as a short-term fix instead of a long-term solution, embedded coaches are driven by the same strategic corporate goals as the rest of the company, and their compensation is tied to the sales team’s success.
As in-house fixtures, embedded coaches can also develop a deep understanding of the business, its customers and each sales rep’s strengths and weaknesses over time. Ideally, they’re committed for the long haul, which allows them to develop tight relationships with the field force. Third-party sales coaches, on the other hand, may have more difficulty establishing themselves as a trusted advisor.
Anatomy of a Sales Coaching Session
Training is no substitute for continuous coaching. For sales reps to develop the skills needed to stay conversation-ready, key concepts and practices need to be reinforced on a recurring basis.
With more tenured reps, Heyman will periodically discuss specific deals and potential next steps. When working with less experienced reps, particularly those going through the sales organization's onboarding program, she'll meet with them frequently – typically in a group setting – to answer questions, lead role play sessions and conduct other coaching exercises.
Key aspects of Heyman's coaching sessions include:
- An informal approach: It's important for sales reps to become comfortable with receiving regular feedback and guidance. Heyman will enter every coaching session with an agenda, but also give reps a chance to discuss what’s happening on their calls and where they might be hitting roadblocks.
- Building bonds: Ideally, the sales coach can create an environment that’s less about criticism or formal assessment, and more about asking questions and sharpening specific skills. Establishing a strong sense of trust with reps is key in this respect, says Heyman.
- Be specific: A typical coaching session might incorporate a round robin-style question-and-answer session, where Heyman has each rep focus on a narrow aspect of the sales process. (Example: What are three questions you could ask of a sales leader whose company just acquired or merged with another firm?).
- Realistic sales scenarios: More often than not, she’ll conduct a role play exercise that prompts sales reps to engage in a mock buyer conversation with a given set of criteria. (Example: The prospect is a small IT infrastructure company that plans to double the size of its sales organization by the end of the year.)
- Asking the right questions: The role play can conclude with follow-up questions – What could you have done differently? What’s another question you might have asked that prospect? – or with advice specifically geared toward the reps' performance (Example: Did you ask the prospect how he’s going to double the size of the organization?).
- The right feedback: Heyman is careful to keep her feedback concise, and tailors her coaching message to individual personality and learning style. “I could mention 4 or 5 areas of improvement, but that would be overwhelming. If we make baby steps over time, we’ll get to the right place. Patience is key,” Heyman says. “It’s being able to recognize how feedback should be presented and shared, so that it will resonate with the reps receiving it.”
Ultimately, the goal is to ensure the reps can add value to every sales interaction, instead of simply guessing whether they're ready to engage buyers in the field.
“You want to be able to see how people think on their feet,” Heyman says. “Do they have the ability to pivot, to sound confident and to be considered a trusted advisor? They have to be believable and credible. Can you articulate the questions and manage the conversation?”
The Value of Embedded Sales Coaches
For as often as sales coaching deficiency is discussed, the benefits of effective coaching have never been clearer. CSO Insights reports that companies with dynamic coaching programs achieve 28% higher win rates and 10% greater quota attainment. What’s more, the research firm found that 94.8% of sales reps meet quota when coaching exceeds expectations, which is 10% higher than when coaching programs need improvement.
By working closely with each rep, whether it’s via role play or listening to them speak with an actual customer, embedded coaches can pinpoint key trends that are invaluable to a sales enablement team. The insights they capture from sales conversations can then be factored into the enablement team’s overall strategy.
Heyman, for instance, would be in a position to notice whether reps across multiple teams were struggling to handle a particular buyer objection, or whether multiple reps were having trouble connecting with prospects in a specific market. Knowing that, the sales enablement team can elect to create additional sales training content or conduct coaching sessions around those roadblocks.
Using our own sales readiness platform, Heyman incorporates those insights into sales content using Brainshark’s content authoring capabilities – thereby enabling reps to learn from their peers’ challenges. What’s more, she uses our award-winning video coaching solution to further assess sales team readiness via formal coaching activities, where reps might record themselves delivering a sales pitch or handling an objection and submit it for evaluation.
The relative success of the embedded sales coach is dependent upon several other factors, such as the organization’s hiring, onboarding and sales training strategies, as well as the reps themselves. Heyman cannot do any of our reps’ jobs for them. But in an age where businesses simply cannot afford to let underprepared reps “practice” on buyers, her position is vital to ensuring that the field force really is ready to make the most of every sales interaction.
“I have a vested interest [in coaching],” she says. “When you’re a first-line manager, oftentimes you think to yourself, ‘This call isn’t going well, so I’m going to navigate the call.’ What I really try to do is take that step back and teach the reps to fish.”