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Effective B2B Sales Coaching Via Situational Fluency

Effective B2B Sales Coaching Via Situational Fluency

December 1, 2023
7 min read

In the B2B selling world there is near universal appreciation for the value of sales coaching. Research indicates significant impact on forecasted deal win rates, revenue growth and other selling metrics. Research from The Sales Management Association show sales people believe it’s the most important, least supported sales resource.

We are among many who believe how you sell is a primary way to create value for prospective buyers, and to differentiate from competitors.

Training programs provide the initial vehicles to “prepare sales for the fray” as one of my colleagues says. Training methods include information transfer, modeling best practices, and sales practice with feedback. Training prepares sales reps to execute.

Sales coaching, as discussed here, is focused on coaching sales execution. It addresses how well reps are actually doing in the arena, under pressure, when it counts.

What Are We Coaching For?

The top level objective of sales coaching is clear. We’re coaching sales performance to drive better results. But what does this really mean?

To make sales coaching effective, managers or coaches must know the specific performance elements that require coaching. They must experience how reps actually perform, in the arena, in conversations with customers and prospects.

Sales coaches listen for rep knowledge and understanding, skills and techniques, and specific sales behaviors.

Important coaching behaviors on our checklist include how sales reps:

  • Open a call
  • Set the agenda, “set up the listening“
  • Establish rapport and relatedness that opens trust
  • Review prior conversations, activity and information that provides background or context for the current meeting
  • Use questions effectively to guide conversations
  • Listen — listen actively, and without “stepping on” speakers (my personal challenge)
  • Manage meeting time and flow
  • Respond to buyer questions, objections and competitor traps effectively
  • Deliver key points, stories and presentations effectively
  • Uncover all information that is appropriate or required for each conversation
  • Validate key information and understanding
  • Gain commitment to actions, ground rules and next steps
  • Execute new sales competencies, such as:
    • Use social media
    • Use content to sell
    • Educate and facilitate consensus of buying teams (CEB, Challenger Customer)

This is often referred to as situational competency, or situational fluency. Focus is on how reps actually perform in the heat of battle.

Training and role-playing is for sales preparation and practice. Coaching is for in-game adjustments.

So What’s the Problem?

Under pressure, newly learned or infrequently used behaviors often break down. “Regression to the norm” is the common expression.

But three factors really inhibit self-correction and set up the need for sales coaching as a regular practice.

We Don’t Listen Well

Sharon Drew Morgen sets this issue up well:

“We hear the words, of course, but we often end up interpreting them well outside the intent of the Speaker. I spent 3 years researching and writing on this topic for a book, and came away in awe of the magnitude of this issue and how deeply our unconscious choices prejudice our conversations.

As an experienced marketer and seller, I’m painfully aware of how sellers often listen only to ‘recognize a need’, or coaches listen for a problem they’ve had success resolving before, or managers listen for a difficulty they know how to regulate.

By listening for something specific, we end up taking away a myth as meaning.

With mis-characterized and potentially inaccurate data (compounded over the length of the conversation), we then have no accurate data with which to base follow-on decisions, not to mention that everyone potentially walks away from the conversation with mistaken beliefs, feelings, and expectations.

And then we blame the Other for any failure. Sadly, because our brains don’t tell us they have misunderstood or biased what was meant (we actually believe we’ve ‘heard’ accurately), we’re rarely aware that we have missed the meaning or the possibility, until it’s too late.”

It might be worse. Sales trainer Mike Bosworth says, “Many salespeople only have two modes: talking and waiting to talk.”

We Don’t Remember Accurately

In addition to this point also addressed above, research indicates 52% of a commercial conversation is forgotten in an hour, and 90% within a week. This is why coaching has always been considered best done immediately following the call.

We Aren’t Self-Aware

A Harvard Business Review article, How to Crack the Self-Awareness Paradigm provides advice to business leaders that’s also applicable for sales people.

“Your own (self-evalutation) questions can only go so far — you cannot be aware of things you don’t know. Comparing one’s own perceptions to what others observe can provide striking bits of insight. For example, you may think you communicate, delegate, supervise, and recognize others well, but until you receive others’ opinions on these things, you cannot truly know.”

I’ve always liked the explanation, “sales people are just in time, opportunity specific learners.” Salespeople benefit from the context and focus that situational coaching provides.

Apprenticeship and coaching have a long and rich history. Sports teams are a good model. In most team sports, coaching is an integral part of execution.  It’s delivered in real-time, or during Monday game-tape review sessions.

Why Aren’t Salespeople Coached?

A number of real challenges get in the way of regular and effective sales coaching:

  • Lack of desire — by some managers and reps
  • Lack of coaching expertise and knowledge
  • Logistics — time, the ability to get into meetings, coordinating timing between manager and reps
  • Methodology — to make the experience effective and efficient for all participants, a repeatable and consistent practice across the sales organization
  • Scale — this is a killer.

When manager-to-rep ratios were 1:7 and selling was local, sales coaching was relatively easy. Managers didn’t face the significant scale challenges of 1:10-15 ratios, with sales reps situated remotely, and selling nationally/globally.

During a conversation with Marc Miller, author of two excellent sales books (Selling is Dead, and A Seat at the Table), and founder/CEO of SpearFysh, I was surprise to learn what is probably the most important reason sales people aren’t effectively coached.

Sales managers and their reps lack the inputs necessary to coach. They lack data.

Think about it. If the manager wasn’t in or on the call, if they didn’t experience the sales performance in action, how could they know what and how to coach?

Without an ability to “replay the sales conversation” the way sports teams do with their game tapes, everyone is relying on cryptic notes or faulty memory.

This makes sense. But I never distinguished the idea. I just assumed the manager had to be in the call to begin with.

Recording Sales Conversations

A colleague of mine was working with a mega software company and their sales training vendor. One of the principles they were working on was the importance of salespeople listening more than talking. The software sales reps had agreed on the goal of listening 80% of the time in the call.

The training vendor sent their people along to record sales calls with hundreds of the sales reps. They were capturing data for an assessment of actual behavior.

The recordings were transcribed and the text was dumped into a big spreadsheet. Text was color coded red for salespeople talking, black for customers. In the simplest and most dramatic use of this data, the conversation text was compressed to image size. What percent of the image do you think was black?

For 15 years at our company, I required most of our sales calls to be recorded. Customer permission was almost always granted. We used simple recorders. At first analog and then digital.

We didn’t think of it as coaching per se. We found the recordings removed in-call note-taking pressure. It allowed us to have natural conversations. Recording also made it easier to write our customer summary letters. For major accounts it did provide source insights for account strategy planning.

The only constraint was the linear nature of recorded audio. Even when we went digital, it was frustrating to skim the audio to find pertinent sections.

We’ve long encouraged clients to record sales calls. But remembering and working even a simple recorder was a hassle. The difficulty extracting the audio, and the time required to listen were enough impediments to make it impractical. Virtually no one does it.

Surprising Discoveries

Several surprises hit us as we started using the application.

We mentioned the scale challenge of coaching. This is a bigger deal than it appears. If a manager has 10 reps, and each rep conducts 10 to 30 customer calls a month. That’s a scale problem!

But it’s actually worse. We learned you can’t know which calls will provide the best coaching opportunities ahead of time. You can only know after they occur. I think of the number of joint calls I’ve been on that were canceled, shortened, or simply didn’t provide good coaching fodder.

This approach creates an inventory of all sales calls. A simple criteria checklist will identify which calls are good candidates for a sales coaching session. It might be triggered by a mature or major account review process. With this approach, you conduct the coaching at a time conducive to both coach and rep. But now, you have the data to work with.

Self-coaching is now possible, and it’s an extremely valuable capability. Just like sports players reviewing game tape, professionals often know what they did poorly — when they see or hear it!

An inventory of recorded sales calls is a corporate asset. Audio is quickly and easily edited to extract examples of good and poor practices. This fuels your onboarding and training programs. Sales reps learn by modeling. Comparing how an “A” player handles a particular conversation helps other reps learn and hear how they can improve.

This inventory of transcribed customer conversations enables data analytics. Data sets shared with the product and marketing organizations can be mined for customer insights, ideas, language, “voice of customer” stories and many other possibilities.

Sales Coaching Tools And Technologies

Two technology categories that enable sales coaching have been available for decades. Modern technology, bandwidth and delivery systems make the experience much richer today.

Just-in-time learning, guided selling, and performance support systems deliver situationally relevant text, video or content recommendations.

Video training applications are becoming especially popular and functionally rich.

These applications are excellent for training and getting reps to practice telling their story, presentation or key point explanations. Reps experience feedback both by viewing video role plays and receiving feedback from sales managers or coaches based on those recordings.

Companies in this space include Brainshark, CommercialTribe and HireVue, among others.

These systems support coaching based on simulated performance rather than on evaluation of actual performance and situational fluency.

There is certainly a great need to get key stories, presentations, objection handling, technical explanations and other important “messages” delivered effectively. But message delivery is just one aspect of professional selling that benefits from coaching.

Companies are also trying desperately to shift sales rep behavior away from traditional, product-feature-benefit pitches. They are looking to instill value generating conversations based on dialogue, questioning and active listening.

This is a significant area where sales coaching is required.

Three Levels Of Coaching

Once you have coaching data, your coaching possibilities open.

Sales reps can self-coach. This is similar to professional athletes reviewing game tapes. This actually increases coaching moments, as reps can review every important conversation. Manager/coaches must be more selective.

Peer coaching becomes possible. I’ve long favored the principle, “we teach best what we most need to learn.” By making everyone a coach, greater learning opportunities open up. You can begin to create a culture of coaching. Reps can compare their conversations with those of the best reps, for each type of conversation.

Professional third party coaches are an important option. You may not be able to change the reality in your organization of time availability for managers to coach. Not all managers have the skills, temperament, and freedom from organizational pressures to provide effective coaching. Third party coaches are a great option.

Sales coaching based on actual performance is the best way to coach. Selecting the best coaches is important as well. Recording sales conversations removes the need for coaches to experience meetings in order to coach. Time-shifting the coaching meeting opens all kinds of sales effectiveness possibilities.

2 thoughts on “Effective B2B Sales Coaching Via Situational Fluency

  1. Mike Kunkle

    Jim,

    Great post! So on target. There are so many good people supporting these efforts now.

    Thanks, btw, for the mention of Brainshark. Our Brainshark for Coaching platform is really taking off, as part of our total Train | Coach |Engage solution set, to support both effective learning systems and effective selling systems.

    In a small world moment, I also worked for Ed, who runs SpearFysh (years ago, at PlanSoft), and my buddy Steve Richard is running a similar “game film” review company, over at ExecVision.io.

    Such an exciting time in the space, to see more and more tools emerging to support sales coaching. I often joke that if I had a dollar to spend on training and enablement, I’d spend 75 cents on sales managers, and we’re starting to see more focus here, where it’s deserved and can have such a great impact.

    Stay the course.

  2. Michael Harris

    Great post Jim. I feel customers today are drowning in information so they want a wise salesperson to guide them through the buying process and I believe that requires situational fluency- where salespeople add customer knowledge to product knowledge and gain what I call sales wisdom. One set of tools I really like that you mention is Video Role Play. I think it can really help managers coach their salespeople to better articulate value. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-video-role-play-can-help-salespeople-articulate-value-harris

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