The Missing Ingredient for Sales Coaching

There is a generally high desire for sales coaching in B2B selling. Most managers and reps know it’s important. Done well, coaching can make a significant difference to rep and manager performance and success. Financially, everyone has a lot at stake. But sales coaching is seldom done. Consistently. Or well. Why is that? What’s missing?

To be successful sales people need:

  • Knowledge and information (including sales strategy and process),
  • Skills and techniques,
  • Conversations and messages

These inputs enable sale people to know What to do, What to say, How to say it. 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. All three success factor areas should be addressed.

Why Coach?

This question evokes obvious answers. But it also uncovers important coaching requirements. Effective coaching has a significant impact on:

  • Performance —  to meet corporate new customer acquisition and organic revenue growth objectives
  • Efficiency — to lower selling costs
  • Strategy — sales strategy, sales process and customer experience
  • Sales Engagement — account strategy, conversations, sales actions

This is necessary because, 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 a coach to coaches, sellers, and managers, 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.” Sales people 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 Sales People 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.

Missing Ingredient For Sales Coaching

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 sales people 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 sales people 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.


SpearFysh won’t make you or your sales managers good sales coaches. This requires skills, methodology, temperament, time, experience and other factors.

Without data, sales coaching won’t work.

With data, you can hire anyone, anywhere in the world, to perform your sales coaching.