26 October 2016: “It was a bit like telling them I had found God,” said Neil Gallagher.
“I sat down with my sales team and told them I had been on this coaching course and that in future there would be a new way of working, and a different approach in the way I interacted with them. Everyone was nodding their heads with apprehension.”
The benefits of moving from old-style, ‘sheep dip’ sales training to coaching – benefits that are seen in turnover, motivation, staff retention and other key business metrics – are well documented. Precisely how you convince experienced sales people who have not come across work-based coaching before to go along with it is less clear cut.
In an innovative seminar for the Association of Professional Sales, a team of Talent Managers and newly qualified coaches from Level 3 communications gave insights into what to expect when you try to introduce new ideas to a group of established sales people.
Lance Mortimer, who designed and runs the Level Best talent management programme and developed Gallagher as a coach, warned that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome will be that most sales people will have the wrong idea about coaching.
They will expect it to feel like a sports field, with the coach – usually their line manager – barking orders. In fact, the experience should be the opposite.
The coach/manager encourages the employee to define their own goals and work out their best solution. The job of the coach is to help the subject change the way they think, said Mortimer.
Gallagher, sales manager of Level 3’s financial division with 18 years of management experience, was able to convince all six of his tight-knit team to trust him from the start.
By comparison John Bezant, starting out in his first management role, did not get buy-in from everyone at first. He did not panic but worked with the willing, who spread the word. Within months, those who had resisted at the start had come on board.
Mortimer said that one of the key pieces of advice he gave to new coaches was not to expect to do it in five minutes.
Coaching is person-centred and collaborative, so creating the right environment is essential, he advised.
Gallagher described how he made success more likely by carefully setting up the coaching relationship. He recommended choosing a quiet meeting room away from the usual workspace, fixing a regular weekly time, agreeing terms of engagement, and taking time with setting a goal for the coaching – as the subject often changed completely – before considering options and approaches.
He made and shared notes straight after the session, to make the next session more effective, he said.
Mortimer said coaching was a vital third skill for leaders, different from both managing and mentoring.
Because it was unfamiliar, support from senior management was crucial.
Both Gallagher and Bezant came new to the technique, and both are now converts.
Bezant said he wished he had been coached himself. The technique got cut-through when other approaches failed, he said.
“It is not like managing – but it makes you a better manager,” he told the seminar of APS members.
Gallagher described the experience as transformative for his team, who had improved beyond his expectations, but also for himself, at work and in his personal life. “I was always rather the macho man, so I suppose my friends in the pub would say that it has changed me. I am better at listening and at taking other people’s ideas seriously,” he said.
Mortimer acknowledged, however, that no matter how effective coaching was, it may not answer everything. Sometimes the person being coached, due to lack of technical knowledge, may not manage to find an answer to their problem, no matter how skilfully the coach questions, challenges, or summarises the issues for them.
“Then as long as it is signalled and agreed, it’s OK to move into mentoring mode, and suggest something for them to try,” he said.
“Equally, a good coach has to recognise when a coachee is unwilling to be coached. If they do not want it, do not force it. If they are only going to do what they did yesterday, they do not need a coach today.”
The Association of Professional Sales provides development, standards and leadership to the profession.