Sales Coaching: Make Them Work for It

You never know where coaching opportunities may be found

One of the best stories I’ve heard about coaching is, strangely enough, a war story. In December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, the German army had smashed a huge hole in the Allied lines. To save the situation, elements of Patton’s Third Army made a rapid left turn and were working their way north to save the situation. The few roads that existed were icy and packed with tanks, trucks and marching men, and the going was slow. At one point, a young battalion commander named Creighton Abrams (yes, the one they later named a tank after) came upon a massive traffic jam caused by a tank that had slid into a ditch, and its inexperienced driver could not get it out.

Abrams jumped into the driver’s seat , jockeyed the gears to rock the tank back and forth and then at the right moment gunned the engine and the tank flew out of the ditch back on to the road. At that point, he asked the driver, “Now do you see how it’s done?” When the driver replied yes, Abrams backed the tank back into the ditch and said, “Good. Now you do it.” And promptly left.

If you’re a sales manager, you should keep this story in mind whenever you are tempted to rescue a sale for one of your reps. Naturally, under the press of making your number you want to do all you can, but you have to be careful to do it in such a way that you don’t sacrifice the long view for a short-term win. If Abrams, in the middle of one of the most important tasks in the biggest war in history, could still concern himself with whether his subordinates learned a valuable lesson, so can you.

It’s not easy. Like most sales managers, you probably got promoted into the position after being successful in sales. One of the qualities that made you successful is a problem-solving orientation. The customer has a problem, you try to solve it; the customer gives you an objection, you try to overcome it. When your sales rep gets into a jam, you solve it. The result is a win, but at what cost?

They’ll have the illusion of learning. Have you ever had someone show you how to do something that looks easy, and then struggled later when you tried to do it yourself? As an article in this week’s New York Times Science section suggests, people who are given answers overestimate the degree to which they have learned the material. Those who have to work to learn something new will have less confidence that they know it but will perform better on tests. It’s like being given the answer key before a test—you quickly forget that it was the answer key, not you, that was the deciding factor.

They can become dependent on you. After a few times of realizing that it is not as easy as they thought, they’ll either start working harder or they will take the easy way out. Which do you think is more likely?

How do you make them work for it?

Use another technique that made you successful in selling: asking questions. Be Socratic—ask questions so that they can work out the solution for themselves. You may need to guide them a little, but it’s important for them to analyze their own situation and tell you the answers. There are several benefits to this:

  • When you give someone an answer, it’s easy for them to say, “I knew that.” When you ask them questions, you get a clear idea of how much they already know and how they perceive the situation.
  • When it comes from their lips, they believe it and they own it.
  • Sometimes they might actually come up with a better solution than you would have had, and you learn something from the exchange.

If you’re a parent, you know how tough it can be to let your kids make their own mistakes, because that’s the only way they will learn. Parents and sales managers who always rescue their charges from the consequences of their mistakes raise dependent kids and salespeople, who don’t learn to think for themselves. Is it any wonder that your days are filled with too much work that others should be doing?

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