Coach, Don’t Tell: How to Become a Stand-Out Sales Coach and Lead Your Team to Peak Performance

Imagine telling a 3-year-old, who just ripped a toy out of their friend’s hand, to apologize for what they did. 

“Go say you’re sorry and give the toy back,” we might order.

But instead of following our instructions, they drop to the floor crying, refuse to apologize, cling to the toy for dear life, and scream “mine, mine, mine!” until their friend also dissolves into tears. 

We’re left frustrated and wondering: Am I doing this right?

After all, our intention isn’t just for the child to walk up to their friend, say they’re sorry, hand the toy back, and gleefully skip off to find something else to play with. 

It’s bigger than that; it’s to help them learn how to become a kind human. 

Yet dictating how to be kind doesn’t tend to inspire empathy, true feelings of remorse, nor self-initiated ideas of how to react next time in a similar situation.

Your sales reps probably don’t kick and scream (though, let’s be honest, sometimes we all do) when you tell them how to do their jobs, but it also doesn’t exactly yield high engagement, improved performance, nor repeatable results, right?

So, how do you inspire intrinsic motivation, help your reps develop their skills, and build a high-performing team along the way? Be a coach rather than a dictator.

Sales coaching is an always-on practice by sales managers that focuses on partnering with individual reps to support their development and help guide them toward their full potential.

Businesses that have built a culture of coaching report they bring in more revenue than their competitors. Yet, most sales reps say they’re getting less than one hour of coaching per week

So, with nothing to lose and a high-performing team to gain, let’s explore what goes into sales coaching, potential pitfalls to watch out for, and some tips on how to be an effective sales coach.

The elements of sales coaching

Sales coaching is full of nuances. 

After all, each member of your team is an individual with their own strengths, challenges, and motivations. A one-size-fits-all approach just won’t cut it.

That said, these elements are foundational requirements of any best-in-class sales coaching program:

  • Thorough assessments of strengths and development areas: In order to coach someone, you first need to fully understand where they excel as well as the areas in which they have some work to do to reach the next level in their performance. Skip an assessment, and you’ll just be betting on what the best coaching approach is for each of your reps.
  • Giving (and receiving) feedback: Let’s face it: Delivering feedback is hard. And receiving it isn’t much easier. But it’s table stakes for any rep (and their coach) to gain increased self-awareness, learn how to course correct when needed, and fast-track self-improvement. Research shows that employees who get daily feedback from their managers are three times more likely to be engaged in their work than those who don’t. 
  • Skills development: Helping reps further develop existing skills –– and gain new ones –– doesn’t just strengthen your team and business; it supports your reps’ career advancement. And great coaches aren’t only interested in their bottom line. They’re genuinely committed to helping the people around them grow and succeed.
  • Inspiration and motivation: As humans, an emotional connection is key for us to feel invested in just about anything –– work included. In fact, invested, motivated employees produce a 50% increase in sales and are 38% more productive. So don’t underestimate the value of focusing on tactics aimed at inspiring and motivating your team.
  • Strengthening working relationships: From dealing with conflict to developing new ways of working with colleagues to raising their own visibility, a rep tackles endless responsibilities related to their working relationships –– and, in turn, they’re presented with constant opportunities to shape those relationships for the better. Helping them successfully wade through these waters –– in ways that are authentic to them –– is a big part of being a great sales coach. Plus, if you create an environment that allows your team members to feel connected to one another, they’ll be more likely to collaborate, support one another, and problem-solve together. 
  • Improving individual and team performance: One of the core reasons to prioritize coaching is to harness its proven positive impact on sales performance. Research shows that high-quality coaching boosts sales performance by 8%. As such, it’s a non-negotiable part of all successful coaching programs.

Effective sales coaching goes well beyond 30 minutes of feedback during an annual review. It requires a robust, carefully crafted plan, and every sales manager’s commitment to developing an ever-present coaching mindset, practicing associated actions, and respecting the individuality of their team members.

If you’ve incorporated all the above core elements into your sales coaching matrix, you’re building a solid foundation. But there are a few things that can derail even the best-laid coaching plans. 

Common sales coaching pitfalls

You don’t become a best-in-class sales coach overnight. Like almost anything, it takes ongoing practice and dedication –– and there will be a few forces working against you along the way. 

Don’t let these common sales coaching roadblocks knock you off course in your pursuit of excellence:

  • A lack of accountability: There often aren’t a lot of checks and balances when it comes to making sure strong sales coaching is part of the fabric of an organization. In fact, just 42% of reps say the sales managers in their businesses are held accountable for being effective coaches. Remote work has added extra layers of complexity both in terms of selling and coaching. For example, the virtual environment tends to do away with informal run-ins, putting the onus even more on sales managers to initiate check-ins and other interactions. Even if your organization already has a sales coaching infrastructure in place, it’s still up to you to hold yourself accountable for the sake of your team.
  • Not prioritizing a culture of coaching: You know how it is: A million other things always tend to creep into your day and take precedence. Coaching is a long-game; the results are worth it, but they might not be immediately evident. Fight to balance that long-game against all the quick wins and daily fires trying their hardest to eat up your time. And if sales coaching isn’t being prioritized across your sales team, put together a business case for your sales leaders to consider.
  • Not putting in the hard work: As Lao Tzu once said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Coaching is undoubtedly labor-intensive and sometimes it might seem easier to just tell your reps what to do with a deal. But if you’re willing to put your all into coaching instead of being prescriptive, you’ll empower your reps and ultimately equip them with everything they need to create their own success long-term.

While you work on guiding your reps toward improved performance, it’s also crucial to practice what you preach. Sometimes a sales manager’s best efforts can fall short if they don’t understand how to coach and aren’t open to improving their techniques. 

Continue your own sales coaching education: Don’t be afraid to ask your team for feedback and partner with your manager to proactively seek out training opportunities.

In the meantime, get a headstart with these six sales coaching tips embraced by the most effective managers in the industry. 

6 best practices adopted by today’s top sales coaches

Ultimately, you become an expert sales coach by racking up hands-on experience.

But you can start going beyond the basics –– and steepen your learning curve –– with these proven sales coaching tips.

1. Hold yourself accountable.

Set up your own culture of accountability within your team –– even if it’s not fully built out across your organization. 

Show your reps that you’re dedicated to understanding them as individuals and furthering their development. Don’t hesitate to deliver feedback when a coachable moment arises, and make sure to establish standing, dedicated one-on-one time with each rep, as well as time together as a team. 

Beyond that, model the behavior you’re espousing to your team; seek to generate mutual trust and respect. Plus, help your reps understand what coaching is all about so they can eventually step into a sales coach role for their own teams down the line.

2. Ask high-quality questions.

Everyone approaches challenges in their own way and comes up with different possible solutions.

Don’t ask leading questions so reps approach deals the same way you did in their role. 

Instead, be a collaborative partner to your reps. Ask open-ended questions that help you understand the situation and that help them lean on their individual strengths and critical thinking skills to solve problems. 

This will require you to relinquish some control, but you’re sure to unlock increased creativity and innovation among your reps. 

3. Start small –– then scale up.

Trying to focus on too many improvements at once is a recipe for disaster; it will overwhelm both you and your team. 

Zero in on one area at a time, go hard at it until you see progress, then build on that momentum by folding in another focus area –– and so on. 

4. Tap into your past experiences.

As the leader of a team –– and someone who has presumably been through many of the same ringers your reps are going through –– your direct reports will naturally look to you for advice and guidance. 

They want to relate to you on a human level –– to know they’re being supported and mentored by someone who’s been in their shoes. 

Lean into that desire by highlighting your own personal stories. And don’t just share your wins; it’s often our failures –– and how we bounced back from them –– that stick with others and inspire them to face their own challenges head on.

5. Develop documented action plans.

Team up with each of your reps to collaborate on their individualized action plan. Then, document that plan and keep it accessible so you can both revisit it regularly. 

Use that documented plan to outline a mutual understanding of what it looks like to make progress on a certain skill or agreed area of development –– and to record ways in which reps can turbocharge their superpowers.

6. Measure success and analyze it regularly.

Collaborate with your reps to define lofty but achievable success metrics and build them into each person’s action plan. Agree on how often you’ll measure and analyze progress to determine adjustments and next steps. 

Data is an important tool that can provide an objective perspective on where a rep is improving, areas that need attention, and how you’re performing as their coach.

Bonus tip: Use technology to make effective sales coaching easier.

Sales coaching isn’t just about business results; it’s about people and investing in their success –– at your organization and beyond.

It can be all-consuming work. After all, authentic, meaningful, and productive coach-rep relationships take time to build, changing human behavior is challenging, and inspiring people to be self-motivated is no small feat. 

The right tech setup can make it all a little easier. Yet, just 39% of sales reps say their managers are successfully using technology to support their sales coaching efforts.

A revenue workspace like Scratchpad can simplify manager-rep collaboration, help managers document progress, and flag coaching opportunities. Schedule a session with a Scratchpad team member to learn more.