How to Coach ‘Know-it-All’ Sales Reps

11 minute read

What do Kodak and Western Union have in common?

These were two great American companies with long and successful histories, both founded in New York in the 19th Century, that quickly became household names. Two companies that were once at the cutting edge of technology: leaders in their fields, that seemed to know exactly what they were doing and couldn’t put a foot wrong.

Two companies that were completely knocked for six when the technologies they’d built their fortunes on – telegrams for Western Union, film photography for Kodak – were rendered obsolete, practically overnight.

But there’s where the comparisons end. Because these two great companies, companies that once seemed to know it all where their businesses were concerned, handled their crises in very different ways.

Telegrams started to die their death the moment long distance phone calls became affordable – and the advent of the internet polished them off completely. But you’ve still heard of Western Union. Why? Because they had the good sense and the humility to recognize that they’d need to start again and re-learn their business from scratch. Instead of trying desperately to keep the telegram business alive, they switched over to something that people still needed: money transfers. They listened to what the market was telling them, and they adapted.

Fast-forward to Kodak in 1975, the reigning leader in photography – when one of its engineers invented a digital camera. An invention which, as we now know, would totally revolutionize the photography market.

But did Kodak’s bosses stop and say, okay, what can we learn from this? How can we respond to the new challenges and opportunities this presents?

Nope. They told the engineer to bury the idea. By the time they got around to admitting they were wrong, it was too late: Canon and Nikon had already started to corner the market. In 2012, they filed for bankruptcy.

How could a company that understood its market so well get something so wrong?

Trouble is, most people aren’t good at having their worldview challenged. They don’t like being told they still have a lot to learn. They aren’t interested in staying ahead of the game, they’re interested in calling the shots, in projecting the idea that they know best, even when this is detrimental to their success.

And as a result, they stall. They don’t develop. They get stuck in their ways, and they never achieve their full potential.

Nowhere is this more true than in sales.

The sales world is full of inflated egos: fiercely competitive individuals that picture themselves as lone wolves. People who reject sales coaching, or any suggestion that they do things differently, as an affront to their capabilities. Who are totally convinced that they know best.

Why don’t these people just get fired? Well, for one very good reason. On the face of it, they are often pretty good at what they do. They’re big personalities and they have the confidence to identify opportunities, pursue leads, and win deals. They’re great at charming customers and they’re undeniably hungry for success. They’re arrogant and tricky to work with, but so long as they keep performing, their managers are often happy to get out of their way and leave them to it.

Sound familiar?

The thing is, people like this pose a grave danger to your business – for three reasons.

First, if you’re letting an employee like this dictate how you do business, you’re not tapping into their full potential. There is no one on the planet who doesn’t benefit from regularly reviewing the way they do things and identifying ways to improve.

Second, if you’re only out to serve yourself, to earn yourself as much commission as you can, for example, your goals aren’t necessarily aligned with the wider company’s strategy.

You don’t care whether you’re generating new leads or stealing them from others in your team. You don’t care whether that customer stays loyal to the company after you’ve made your sale. You don’t care about the long-term health of the pipeline or whether you’re closing the deals that your manager has forecasted. You only care about fattening your paycheck at the end of the month. And that means that, rather than being an asset to your sales manager, you’re actually a potential liability.

Third, for every star player in your organization who thinks they can get away with ignoring their manager and doing things their own way, there will be a dozen who lack their killer instinct. These people really do need your sales coaching in order to hit their targets and help you achieve your goals. But, when they see their colleagues doing well even as they undermine you and reject your advice, they’ll start to think, “hey, why should I listen? I’ll do things my own way too.” And then you’re really in trouble.

So what can a sales manager do to tackle a situation like this? How do you nurture sales talent in a way that best serves your long term goals? How do you guide them without clipping their wings?

The first step – and you might not like this, but it’s true – is to recognize that you, too, are always open to improvement. As Lucy Kellaway, one of the UK’s finest business journalists (and a great advocate of self-doubt), wrote in the Financial Times this week:

“According to the research, managers who fondly believe in their own exceptional qualities are among the worst performers. It is the ones who underestimate how good they are who turn out to be best at their jobs. And the more they under-rate themselves, they higher other people rate them, and the better they do.”

That certainly doesn’t mean you should sit around fretting that you’re in no position to tell others what to do. What it means is that you set an example to your team that you’re constantly looking for ways to grow and improve – and you expect them to do the same.

It means that you find top ways to use technology to interrogate the data available to you and draw out insights that teach you about the health of your business, the direction you’re headed in, the success of your strategy. You don’t blindly cling to tired old ways of doing things because “you’re the expert”, but rather, you make it clear that you’re open to new ideas, that you let the facts and data-driven insights do the talking, and you expect your team to show the same level of humility, too.

Next, make it absolutely clear that coaching is an integral part of your business. There are no exceptions: everyone must be open to exploring ways to improve.

If regular coaching hasn’t been on the agenda before, or if your team members associate “coaching” with “getting a telling-off”, be patient: cultural shifts don’t happen overnight, and employees might well start off defensive, resistant or distrustful.

More likely than not, you’ll hear tired old excuses like “I don’t have enough leads!” or “That’s not how we did things in my old job!” or even, “I don’t see what the problem is, I’m doing fine.” Typically, there’s not much point in arguing too much over outbursts like these; take their points on board, if they’re valid, but explain that you’re trying things a new way, based on data-driven insights and trends. Make it abundantly clear that you’re not criticizing them, you’re acting on your own learnings and insights to improve your strategy and boost results, and you need them onside to make it a success.

A useful model for addressing resistance is the “CODE” response, which stands for: Consider alternative solutions, Overcome resistance, Direct, and Employ other management actions. Let’s break that down a moment:

Considering Alternative Solutions. Try to consider the issue from the salesperson’s perspective. Do they have a point? Can you work with them to accommodate their concerns? If they have a slightly different approach that works well for them and doesn’t conflict with what you’re trying to achieve, is there any sense in micromanaging? Your team will trust you far more if they see that you listen to them and carefully consider how to proceed, rather than simply saying “this is the way we do things here.”

Overcoming Resistance. A good way to avoid hostility is to ask the salesperson to start the conversation by telling you what’s happening from their perspective. Establishing a collaborative dimension to your coaching helps to make that person feel emotionally invested in the outcome, and far more likely to comply with your suggestions. Just make sure that you avoid getting sidetracked and stay focused on the issue at hand by saying things like “You make a good point about X and I’m happy to look into that for you, but first let’s see if we can work out a solution to Y.”

DIRECTing. If you’re still having trouble, it might be time to take things up a notch. That doesn’t mean getting heavy handed and it doesn’t mean that you stop explaining the rationale behind your guidance, but it does mean taking a slightly more structured approach to your coaching interventions.

First, describe the problematic behavior you’re observing, as precisely as you can, and identify why this can cause problems. Reinforce the behavior you actually want from them and explain why this is better in the long run. Finally, check they understand what’s expected of them and talk about the next steps they’ll take to improve.

Employing Other Management Options. If you’re still not seeing results, there’s probably an underlying reason why. Sit down with them and try to coax it out. Are they lacking motivation? Are they unhappy in their role? Is there something in the team dynamic that’s really getting to them? See if you can figure it out and tackle the issue at its root. Of course, there’s always the possibility that this person is just plain uncoachable, which brings us to…

Finally, no matter how well they perform, if you have someone on your team who is genuinely uncoachable, they will be bad for business. Allowing an anti-learning culture to foster (or fester) in your organization will drag down your whole team and damage your performance in the long run.

As sales coach, Dave Brock puts it:

“The uncoachable have made a decision to stop learning, growing, improving. As a result, they get left behind–even the top performer. As customers change, as our company/organizations change, as competition changes, we need to constantly be seeking to learn, change, improve, adapt. Coaching is a critical part of that process.

“Ultimately, with the uncoachable, we are faced with a decision: It’s not “if,” but “when” we need to move them out of the business. Since the uncoachable are ultimately left behind, they become low performers. Since they refuse to be coached, there is no way their performance will improve. They can become a drain on management time and on the organization’s effectiveness.”

In other words: of course you want to do everything in your power to engage employees and to convince them of the value of coaching. But if you come across someone who just won’t listen to feedback or suggestions for improvement, who is actively hostile or passive aggressive towards your attempts to coach them, who isolates themselves in the organization and is dismissive of other’s ideas and contributions, or who slips back into bad habits no matter how many times you demonstrate to them why this damages their performance… be prepared to let them go.

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is this: you don’t have all the answers, and neither does anyone on your team. The sales landscape is shifting all the time, and you must be flexible enough to shift with it.

That means asking smart questions. It means using technology to deliver real-time, actionable insights. It means following the evidence and being open to change, rather than sticking doggedly to the way you’ve done things in the past.

Most of all, it means being humble enough to say: I’m still learning. And expecting your team, no matter how well they perform, to be willing to say that, too.

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