Home builders: Are you coaching your sales teams?

Rick Heaston encourages you to re-examine your coaching skills.
By Rick Heaston, R.A. Heaston and Co. | October 23, 2008

Steve Jamison is a writer. Most people haven't heard of him, but they all know the person he writes for and about. His writing partner is John Wooden, arguably the best basketball coach that ever lived. He had 10 national championships – seven in a row – and 88 consecutive victories, 38 straight tournament playoff wins and four perfect seasons.

Having worked with Wooden on so many books and projects, Jamison laments on the question he always seams to be asked: What's his secret?

The answer Jamison gives is simple: “Coach Wooden taught good habits.” And if you've read any of Wooden's books you'd have to agree. He kept things simple. But above all else, John Wooden, first and foremost, always remained a coach.

Reading his latest book, “Wooden On Leadership,” got me thinking, how does the business world fare in terms of coaching? And more specifically, how do sales managers fare in terms of coaching skills?

Sales coaching is a lost skill. Between meetings, customer troubleshooting, paperwork and myriad other logistical duties, managers don't have time to coach. And beyond that, they don't know how. Coaching has never been that important, especially in light of previous market conditions.

Today, sales coaching is the industry's most important job. With it, you provide yourself an excellent competitive advantage. And without it, you're doomed.

Incremental sales boils down to associate performance. With all things being equal, sales performance wins every time.

Improving Performance

If today's market is all about sales performance, we need to define what that means. In its most specific terms, performance is going beyond what is expected. The key to doing that is understanding how you want associates to perform.

You have to start by asking yourself a couple of quick questions. First of all, what does performance mean? What metrics do you use to evaluate it? What are the methods you use to improve it? And maybe most of all, are your methods proactive or reactive?

How many times have you judged sales performance based on results? You know what I mean: number of sales, cancellations, return guests and those types of things. How did you judge success and failure?

Performance needs to be judged on sales associates' potential, not on their results. After all, why did you hire them in the first place? Was it because of what they did, or what you thought they could do, or a combination of both?

If I had to guess, I'd guess you hired your associates based on what you thought they could do. If you've hired right, a sales associate is like an acorn. The DNA is there. All you have to do is make sure that they're fertilized, watered and cared for. And as a manager this means you must set sales associate expectations by defining what performance behaviors you want. That's coaching.

The Carrot and the Stick

Coaching has been a buzzword in business circles for some time now. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, it hasn't caught on in the home building industry. Matter of fact, we seem to be going backward instead of forward. It seems that we're more interested in training than making the training work.

Coaching is the one and only thing that makes sales training work so that performance and results follow. John Whitmore, author of “Coaching for Performance,” has a simple definition for coaching: “Coaching is the skill of unlocking a person's potential in order to maximize their performance.” Can a manager become a coach? The answer is yes, but it requires change. Traditionally a manager holds the key to an associate's paycheck. While this is good, it's also bad because this built-in tradition promotes a “carrot and the stick” management style, telling instead of listening.

The habit of telling someone what to do is hard to break. Telling, as Whitmore says, promotes the feeling of control. And when that happens, you eliminate feedback, and that ends up creating “in-person behaviors” that are different than “out-of-sight” behaviors.

There has to be an open feedback loop if a manager wants to become a coach.

Coaching for Performance

How many times have you implemented a training program and experienced lackluster results?

Results end up being good or bad depending on your follow-up coaching. Your approach can either be directive or supportive. Directive coaching is about telling an associate what to do. Supportive coaching is about helping someone find their own answers.

Supportive coaching requires questions. It's like selling. To validate decisions, today's customers need to discover their own solutions, and a so do associates. When either come up with their own answers, they're answers they remember. And because they're their own answers, they're an answer they stick with. So what's the key? Questions.

According to Ferdinand Fournies, author of “Coaching for Improved Work Performance,” coaching boils down to a few specific techniques that require consultative questions that allow you and your associate to mutually agree on:

  • The current behavior isn't working.
  • The alternative solutions or techniques are available.
  • The action or behavior will solve the problem.
  • Follow-up is needed to measure results.

Your only other responsibility at this point is to reinforce any achievement as it occurs. This completes the coaching loop and encourages further development and improvement. That leads to our last coaching rule:

It's easy to tell an associate to work harder, but without defining how that looks, neither manager nor associate will recognize improved performance.

Keep It Simple

John Wooden always kept it simple, and you should too. Coaching doesn't need to be a long, tedious and complex affair. Matter of fact, you might even make it easier by following Wooden's patented formula:

  • Tell them what you want them to do.
  • Show them how to do it.
  • And ask them to show you how to do it.

Remember, the key to success today is not just training but making your training work. And as Wooden reminds us, “Only you know if you succeed.”

Rick Heaston is president of R.A. Heaston and Co., a sales-training and marketing firm. You can reach him at rick@touchpointselling.com.


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