It might be six years old now, but this Harvard Business Review (HBR) article still hits the bullseye today. Titled ‘The Dirty Secret of Effective Coaching’ it postulates that by deploying the best-quality sales coaching, you can improve performance up to 19% among the middle 60% of your core sales team.

david_kirk.jpgby Dr David Kirk, Chief Revenue Officer, CloudApps

Wow, a 19% performance improvement across 60% of your sales team, that’s got to make you sit up and pay attention, right? It goes on to suggest that even a moderate quality of sales coaching will deliver a 6-8% performance increase across 50% of the core team.

Either way you look at it, the top or bottom of that range are performance increases I would want for my sales team. That could be the difference between making or missing the overall target.

The article rightly makes the point that the ‘dirty secret’ is in fact who you coach and not how you coach. Research conducted by HBR covering thousands of reps, suggests that sales managers target the wrong reps most of the time. In fact, left to their own devices managers will often focus on the “tails” (the best and the worst performing reps on their team).

Often this is because of the misguided view that ‘the only way is up’ for the poor performers and the unrelenting desire in sales managers to bask in the reflected glory of the top performers!


5 tips for effective sales coaching


However, the research suggests that coaching has a minimal impact on both of these groups. Why? Because the top performers are by their nature, top performers and will find a way to win with or without your coaching. The bottom performers are there because they are probably a bad fit for the role they are in – something coaching will not fix.

The real payoff when it comes to coaching comes from the core performers, the middle 60% of your sales team. An effect that we like to call ‘moving the middle’! And it delivers staggering results. The 19% put forward by HBR doesn’t scratch the surface, SIG achieved a 50% sales performance improvement by adopting this approach.



Tip number 1. Focus your coaching time on moving your middle:

Let’s add a few more tips into the mix:


2. Coach in the moment:

Waiting until the weekly sales review to sit down with one of your reps and review their deals is not enough. During the intervening period, you can be sure that your rookie sales rep will make poor decisions. The consequences of which can often be hard to unpick and will undoubtedly consume valuable resources that could have been deployed to greater effect elsewhere.

This scenario can be avoided if coaching is delivered in real-time. The old sales ‘abc’ mantra for ‘always be closing’ should be replaced for sales leaders with ‘always be coaching’


3. Root your coaching in data:

Given we have decided that we would like to place our coaching effort on the middle ground performers in our team, should we just ignore the top performers altogether?  Of course not.

Take time to analyse the path taken by your top performers. Learn more about their winning habits. As a sales leader don’t be arrogant enough to think that you too cannot learn new tricks. Your top performers win for a reason – analyse what the reasons are and apply them to the coaching you deliver to the core performers.

Guess what, you will ‘move the middle’ that much faster if you do.


4. Think & behave like a sports coach:

Don’t fall into the trap that most sales leaders fast drop into. Effective sales coaching is not teaching.

Think of yourself more like a sports coach, not there to command the team, but to serve it. Strong sports coaches stand on the side-lines and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of each player. They analyse performance in the context of the opposition and tweak the strategy to suit.

This is what separates good sales managers from the excellent. The modern sales leader uses all of the data points they can gather to coach individual reps to greater heights.


5. Make coaching fun to engage with:

Don’t just reward your reps when a deal closes, it is often too late by that time for the reward to be effective. Break success down into smaller chunks. Coach your reps to achieve against the milestones that build a clean and healthy sales pipeline.

For example, if a rep books 10 new client meetings per week every week, then you can be sure they are looking after the front of their pipeline. Conversely, if they are making sure that every deal in their pipeline has a meaningful and future dated next step task – then you can be sure they are on top of managing deals through the pipeline.


Download our handy guide to 70 sales KPIs if you want to see more examples of solid sales KPIs.


The trick is to reinforce your coaching with rewards. If your metric is booking 10 new client meetings a week, then reward the rep when they achieve that target. The rewards do not need to be financial (or large) – peer recognition is often the best route.

As per Dan Pink’s analysis, there are some rather surprising truths about what actually motivates us.

So – our top 5 tips for effective sales coaching are:

  1. Focus your coaching time on moving your middle
  2. Coach in the moment
  3. Root your coaching in data
  4. Think & behave like a sports coach
  5. Make coaching fun to engage with


Want to learn more?

Try our eBook ‘How to Run Effective Sales Contests’



Keen to read more about sales coaching? Why not try our article: Sales Leaders Turn to New Sales Coaching Methods to Increase Sales

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