When I joined ZS Associates 13 years ago, we had around 400 people. Now we’re almost 10 times that size. We’ve changed a lot over the years. I joined as a generalist, a role that is increasingly rare as our people have become more specialized. This specialization has been one of the secrets to our competitive success as it’s helped us improve both efficiency and quality.
Which brings me to sales management. There are three primary roles of a sales manager—to manage their business, their customers and their salespeople. Three different roles that may require very different skill sets. Arguably, the most important of these is people management. A Harvard Business Review article stated that coaching could improve performance of the middle 60% of sales performers by 19%—a 12% total impact on the topline if opportunities are distributed evenly.
But managers often get promoted based on their selling skills, not their coaching skills. And selling organizations remain structurally bound to the first-line manager for a critical role, even though managers differ greatly in capability, interest and bandwidth. There is often no one else to coach. A recent study by the Sales Management Association noted:
[D]espite coaching’s acknowledged importance by managers, the most significant obstacles to coaching are manager-related. Managers do not make time to coach, lack the requisite coaching skills, are inadequately trained, and are not held accountable for coaching activity.
Organizations have generally looked at a narrow set of solutions: Build tools, do some training, add some incentives for coaching. These aren’t bad, but they leave the core problem—the reliance upon a single individual—untouched. Break that dependence and the solutions look entirely different.
Several leading organizations already run sales simulations as part of their sales training. New hires do role-plays, get recorded and then listen to feedback as they watch what they’ve done. This coaching and feedback is not provided by the individual’s manager. It’s provided by a specialist—often a sales trainer.
The rapid dissemination of mobile devices to the field and the ability to record audio/video have changed the game. No longer does a manager need to be present to coach. A remote specialist could easily participate in or review a role-play or call recording. These same tools can drive a cadence to regularize practice and feedback, a cadence that is lacking in many organizations.
Coaching is hard. We’ve long assumed that it’s part of the manager’s job, and it probably always will be at some level. But inserting some specialists can help drive faster development of our sales teams.