One of the more exciting opportunities of my job as a Challenger Advisor is “coaching the coaches”. That is, working directly with sales managers and leaders implementing Challenger as they put their teams through live training workshops and are charged with reinforcing and coaching new skills in the field.

One of my current clients is a global provider of recreational products, and over the last four months I’ve been running virtual workshops with their Country Managers and Sales Managers all over the world, including Belgium, Norway, Finland, Brazil, Russia and China.

Our sessions typically cover the usual management challenges – the evergreen “no time to coach” issue, the propensity for managers to focus meetings on performance management rather than coaching, better articulating team vision and communication, and so on.

However, February’s calls, the final set in our 4-month virtual workshop series, took on an entirely different tenor.

“Business as usual is no longer an option.”

The COVID-19 outbreak, while already in the news for weeks and months, finally reached a tipping point and turned into that “black swan” event nobody saw coming but quickly and massively disrupts operations and ensures that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option.

Last week I had a virtual coaching session with a sales manager in Shanghai.  We’ll call him Jack. He and his family had been confined to their apartment for 3 weeks, with no sign of the restriction being lifted. Food orders are phoned out and volunteers deliver the groceries to the door of the apartment block. However, in addition to this terrible personal situation, he is also struggling with massive business disruption.

Jack’s company sells through dealerships which are all temporarily closed, and his sales team, similarly confined to their homes, are losing interest quickly. So, it demands the question – with all of this going on – what’s the point of having a coaching call? Amazingly, by the time we were finished, he told me it was exactly what he needed.

First, he said that connecting with someone from the outside world and feeling some degree of normality, recharged his batteries.

Second, we’re all aware of the fact that many managers focus their 1-on-1 conversations with sellers on the numbers (we affectionately refer to these managers as “spreadsheet jockeys”) chasing updates on forecasts and close dates. So, at a time like this when end users have stopped buying, dealerships are closed, and there are no new numbers to discuss…what is there to talk about? 

Well, I’ve observed that the biggest mistake sales managers make about team performance improvement is to focus squarely on the numbers in 1-on-1 conversations – while overlooking or ignoring opportunities to drive behavior change through effective coaching conversations. So, Jack and I strategized ways for him to rally the team to be as productive as possible during this difficult time, and ultimately developed a plan for his team to hit the ground running when business returns to normal.

In times of uncertainty, sales managers take on an even more important leadership role with their teams: that of a coach who can drive new thinking and achieve unexpected breakthroughs.

Our plan focused on pushing his team to generate persuasive insights to engage dealerships during this difficult time. We discussed him taking lead on virtual workshops to devise a restart strategy, calling in wider support from other functions – marketing, operations, aftersales, etc. – and asking them to lean in as well.  We then moved on to thinking about the dealerships themselves, how can his team can help them with a relaunch strategy. We also spoke of reaching out to end users, ideas for reducing inventory, extending lines of credit, online training for new products, and more. Imagine what those dealerships will think of the supplier that develops a plan for them to save their businesses.

After just an hour, Jack had so many ideas and plans he could barely wait to get off the phone to start executing. I haven’t heard that kind of energy in a sales manager’s voice in some time and it reminded me why I love what we do here.  I am still amazed by the power and value of coaching on the Challenger behaviours – even in a virtual setting.

John Fowler

John Fowler

John’s career as a business leader, advisor and coach spans over 25 years working in Europe, USA, Middle East, Australia and Far East. John held senior positions at a number of high technology companies and is a specialist in sales workforce effectiveness in complex environments. He is a Challenger Authorized Advisor of the Challenger Selling Model ™, delivering salesforce effectiveness training for sales teams and sales leaders.