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The Rise of the Business Coach


The greatness of a coach, whether sports or in business, is that they can take you farther than you can otherwise take yourself.



I’m fascinated by the way business people marvel about their sports equivalents, and likewise how many former athletes go on to do great things in business. There seems to be an immutable bond that draws one to the other continuously.

Central to this mutual admiration is the concept and practice of coaching. Heck, the literal word “coach” might have stated in athletics, but is just as common in today’s business. Both are about shaping change and improving behavior. The business coach could be a supervisor, line manager, sales manager, or an external advanced coach who can help guide people to the next level. 

Given the raw nature of athletic competition, it’s natural to see the value of a good coach. As you look at the role of coaches in high school sports, college and professional, there’s an increased level of coaching skill and value as the performance level goes up. But stop for a moment and think about business in that same context—the landscape in business sales is certainly at the professional level as well. More and more businesses are finding it tougher to make the revenue and profit numbers year over year. Hence, sales professionals are now looking for that boost that only the advanced sales coach can provide.

Like the best athletic coaches, business coaches drive performance improvement using these four approaches.

1. Game Planning (Strategic Coaching)

The best football coaches spend over 40 hours preparing for a game that lasts about two hours. They dissect the competitor’s tendencies down to the finest detail while formulating their plan of attack. The sales coach follows suit by helping to develop a sales plan that gives salespeople the best chance for success. Strategic coaching helps to answer questions such as which prospects and customers need to be called on, and when? What selling strategy will likely work the best, and contingency planning for things like, how to respond to a competitor’s sales tactics within a defined market space.

2. Designing the Practice Plan (Developing the Salesperson)

In my view, this is probably the most important coaching component in business because it’s the one that is most often left out. Although most fans that show up at sporting events never see exactly what goes into the preparation for the game, trust me, it’s a huge determinant of success. The skilled athletic coach has the ability to prescribe and “drill” the specific movements and actions the athlete must perform well in order to effectively execute the game plan.

Coaches must also know the strengths and weaknesses of their team members in order to isolate the right things for them to improve. Part of the secret sauce of a great coach is breaking down these skills into smaller “chunks” which can then be drilled to perfection. For example, a basketball coach that wants the team to rebound better, designs high repetition drills around the few critical aspects of rebounding that are most important to performance. The drills are then practiced until “muscle memory” develops.

So how can sales coaches help their teams improve? Obviously, in business, there is no practice culture—most professionals put in 40 hours a week, working, not practicing, right? Actually, that’s not right. If you equate the actual sales call as the game or contest, that leaves more time for coaching than we realize. One way to design a sales development plan is to create a daily, weekly plan for improving a particular selling behavior. For example, if a salesperson needs to ask better qualifying questions, the coach might identify specific accounts where the salesperson will use the questions, then set up a time to practice one-on-one, before and after the sales calls.

3. Game Management (Performance Coaching)

While coaches spend most of their time preparing, the best ones are also excellent in managing the game on game day. Coaching performance requires a blend of preparation as well as intuitive decision making. Sales coaches don’t have the same advantage as sports of capturing every sales call on video for later review and analysis. But they do make joint sales calls and have one-on-one discussions about customer interactions. These are the optimal coachable moments where coaches can make a meaningful impact on behaviors. For instance, before and after a joint sales call, the coach can identify a specific behavior for the salesperson to focus on—then after the call, discuss how they performed. This type of reflective learning can be a powerful, systematic way of building “mental muscle memory.”

Another advanced coaching tactic is to create “signals” that allow the coach to communicate with the salesperson while in front of the buyer without alerting the buyer. We’ve all seen the old kick under the table when the manager tries to get the salesperson’s attention, usually to stop doing something that may be unhelpful to the sale. But America’s pastime offers some brilliant insights for sales coaches on how to teach during the sales call. If you follow baseball at all, or have ever been to a ballgame, you know that baseball coaches are experts at discreet communication.

Using signals on sales calls is not only more effective and easier on the shin bone, they help to create awareness of behavior in real time, an essential element of skill improvement. You only need a few signals to make a big difference on sales calls but if you use them, make sure that the team is keenly aware of each signal and what their reaction should be.

4. Coaching the Veteran Superstar (Coaching the Advanced Seller)

Let’s not kid ourselves, sometimes the problem isn’t the “coach’s ability,” it’s often the “coachability” of the salesperson.” Today’s sales forces are more advanced, much more experienced and skilled compared to sales forces prior to the 2008 recession.

Since it takes two to tango, the key is to get team members to commit to coaching and allow themselves to be critiqued and challenged for the sake of getting better. Of course, this is especially challenging with top producers or former sales managers, many of which who have more experience than the sales coach. If this is the case, you have to become as good at coaching as the salesperson is at selling. Moreover, in keeping with the sports comparisons, no matter how great the athlete, there’s always a coach helping them to improve. So if your top producer or advanced salesperson thinks he’s better in selling than LeBron is in basketball, or Mickelson is in golf, maybe they can fly solo, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’s not about “needing" coaching as a dependency, it’s about leveraging the power of teamwork in order to achieve more than is possible through individual heroic efforts.