Timur Hicyilmaz

Research consistently finds that sales coaching can have a large impact on how sellers perform. Not surprisingly, sellers consistently tell us that they want more coaching from their managers. And managers don’t necessarily have to spend a significant amount of time per seller to make a difference: we find that 3 to 5 hours per seller per month is sufficient enough time to make a difference with the individual sellers.

In practice, coaching interactions usually go well in the beginning. The initial activity of trying to understand where somebody is has its own momentum and both parties often have enough to learn from each other to keep the sessions fun and rewarding. At some point, however, once you’ve figured out where the gaps are, it becomes hard to remain engaged.

Realistically, while the diagnosis is fast, effective change is slow and that means the need of continually finding new ways of getting at the same thing. Luckily, behavioral science provides many tools for managers to use with their direct reports, especially in these coaching moments.

Behavioral science and the art of coaching conversations

Self Discrepancy

You’ve likely read that most people rate themselves as above average drivers. The same can happen professionally. If you’ve ever read any self-assessments, most of us believe that we’re pretty good at our jobs: we might not be stars but surely better than most. Believing in our basic competence is important to our self-image. The problem is that this can also get in the way of learning as we become too comfortable with our current skill set.

The obvious trick here is prove to somebody that they are in-fact average: the cold bath of self-discrepancy. But delivering bad news is hard. Bad news can also be easy to dismiss if it doesn’t come from a trusted source; the cognitive dissonance might be too large and you might end up reinforcing the status quo. Luckily, those same studies on driving confidence suggest a middle ground which is that individuals are more objective when they are also asked to describe why they think they are a good driver and then asked to identify how others might rate them on other aspects of driving that they did not include.

You can do the same in a sales situation:

Ask your seller why they think they’re performing well compared to others: they might be especially effective at forming long-term relationships, maybe log every client interaction, maybe their sales cycles are super short. You should believe them and acknowledge their reality.

You can use this to transition into other parts of selling that they might not have mentioned: how would others describe their ability to maintain pricing, find new contacts at an account? Hopefully, you will now hear a more realistic appraisal and you can both identify places where there is room for improvement.

Understand motivations

As you are trying to help somebody adopt new behaviors, you also want them to give them a reason for wanting to do something new, or harder yet, stop doing something that worked in the past. Here, it can help to think through what motivates an individual.

First, and this is especially relevant for selling, most people can be motivated externally. It’s why we have sales incentives. The catch, however, is that everything becomes a transaction: worst case and people only do things if there is an explicit reward for them. They will also stop being interested if there’s no reward.

As a manager, you can reinforce external motivation by selectively reminding people of the good things that happen when they meet their goals and by showing your appreciation when good things happen but research suggests that you will be more effective if you can help harness somebody’s internal motivation.

Based on self-determination theory, Daniel Pink, for example, suggests that people are motivated by wanting greater autonomy, that competence is intrinsically rewarding, and that they crave relatedness with other people. For a sales manager, this suggests a couple of different options:

  1. What are some things you can do to increase their sense of control over their job, especially for people who often find themselves at the customer’s whim? Crucially, autonomy doesn’t mean being left alone, instead it means making meaningful choices on a day-to-day basis.
  2. Reinforcing somebody’s sense of competence might be easier. What are some things that went well? Should others on the team hear about these things?
  3. Most people want to be part of something larger so it’s worth spending some time on how everything fits together – how are they contributing to the larger business? And what does the business enable that would otherwise not happen?

Different businesses are going to find some of these levers easier than others. In a highly technical environment, it will be a lot easier to reinforce somebody’s technical competence.

A mission-driven company will find it easier to make connections to the larger community while a growth business is going to find it easier to give people more choices in terms of where and how they develop business. The important part is to not simply rely on external drivers of motivation.

Timur Hicyilmaz

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.