A sales management coaching tip from Lou Holtz

Some time ago I had an interesting conversation with Nancy Lieberman, the greatest female basketball player of all time, an Olympian, a pro player, the only woman to coach a men’s pro basketball team, and a Hall of Famer. Our conversation got around to coaching, a subject she knows a thing or two about, and I was fascinated by this story she shared from Lou Holtz, the former college and NFL coach and another superstar of motivation.

HoltzCoach Holtz positions this challenge.  “Say you have a big thick length of solid wood, about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long, and you place it over a couple of cinder blocks a foot or so off the floor.  You blindfold your player and challenge him to walk from one end to the other. He’d say, ‘That’s easy,’ and stroll right across. So his thoughts would be only about success.

But now suppose I tell him I’m going to raise the platform. I’ll put the wood between two buildings 50 stories high.  Now the player thinks, ‘Uh oh. I could fall.’  The challenge is exactly the same but the athlete’s confidence is now lower.”

Nancy adds, “So as a coach, you have to see that when goals are low, confidence is high, and when goals are high, confidence can start to slip away, even when the skills needed to succeed are exactly the same.  Your job as the coach is not just setting high goals. You also have to work on the player’s confidence, by keeping negative thoughts out of his head.”

Now back to you.  How well are you doing that as a coach?  Do you find fault, assign blame, point out the negatives, suggest what could go wrong? Or are you skilled at developing positive images of success in the minds of your team? When your sales team listens to you in meetings or one-on-one coaching sessions, do they walk out knowing exactly what to do, or are they more likely to be fearful of failure?

Let’s examine the business priorities.  You want to challenge your sales team with aggressive goals and you want them to be successful in achieving them, to make more money and profit for your company, your team and yourself.

But remember:  High challenges can cause low confidence.

In every coaching conversation with your sales team, work to build their confidence.

“I know you can do this.  You’ve done it before.”

“Focus on success.”

“Let’s talk about what you need to do to win.”

“I can’t wait to hear you tell me how you nailed this call.”

“How can I help you achieve your goals?”

Learn to think and feel the way your team does, in order to coach more effectively, just as you…

Think Like Your Customer


Fable Friday: Want great coaching? Play a round of golf at St. Andrews

If you’ve ever played golf using a caddy in the U.S., you know you’re going to get superb service.  The caddy will advise you on what club to use, tee up your ball, tell you the distance, and then praise your shot.  After all, the caddy wants a good tip.

But years ago I played all three courses at St. Andrews in Scotland, and the caddy experience is quite different.  The caddies will bet against their own player, crack jokes about the players throughout the round and are unconcerned whether they play well or not.  The golf was good at St. Andrews, but the caddies’ stories as we walked the famed courses were far greater.

On the first hole of the old course is the Swilcan Burn, a thin stream that cuts across the fairway, and because you cannot see it from the tee, it’s common to hit into it.  The caddy told me of an American golfer who swore that if he hit into it again he’d drown himself in it.  The caddy told him, “Na ya won’t.  Ya canna keep your head down that long.”

Later in the round I hit into one of those deep cylindrical bunkers and was fortunate to get out of it in one shot. Walking toward the green he told me another story of a golfer who climbed down into the bunker, looked at the steep walls all around him and asked, “Is it even possible to hit out of this thing?”  The caddy told him that he once saw Fred Couples do it easily.

So the guy takes a wedge and begins blasting away, and after 3 or 4 hacks at it he says, “I thought you said you saw Fred Couples hit it out of here,” to which the caddy replied, “Yah, but your na Fred Couples.”

fred-couplesI was reminded of the series of posts I wrote recently on the behaviors of effective coaches, one of which is that they all get to the teaching point quickly.  You can facilitate the solution with the salesperson, such as “What is your plan?”  “What do you intend to do about this?”  “What do you think the solution is?”  But when it comes to identifying the problem, get to the point quickly and directly. Don’t beat around the bush.

“You’re simply not calling enough.”

“You made no effort to find out what the customer’s problem was. All you did was present.”

“Customers aren’t impressed by a sales rep who has to read his own brochure to answer a question. You weren’t prepared.”

Do you think the other golfers in my foursome were offended by the directness of the caddies? You should have seen the huge tips they gave and heard them laugh as they related their own experiences at the bar.

In general, people appreciate being told the truth without sugar coating. It may sting a bit at first, but it’s important to get the performance issue out on the table in clear, concise language.  Show your player you’re thinking about him, just as you…


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Fable Friday: How to beat a grandmaster?  Change the rules of chess

1972 was the year that everyone was talking about chess, as the U.S. grandmaster Bobby Fischer unseated the USSR world champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland and claimed the number one title for himself.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedThe United States Chess Federation was located near my home in NY at the time and soon after the championships were over, our chess club was visited by Bent Larsen, the famous Danish grandmaster who at the time was ranked 4th in the world.  Larsen was staying as a houseguest of the USCF Director and to pass the time he decided to do a local tour of the area and play in a number of simultaneous matches. I was privileged to play against him in one of the early ones.

The story of how he slowly crushed me to death like an anaconda is not very interesting, but I do recall one amusing incident from that match.  A friend of mine, Dave Baker, had just returned from an Army tour of duty in the Far East and he had with him a chess set he had bought there.  The pieces, unlike the traditional Staunton set that is mandatory in all serious matches, were instead replicas of ancient warriors, with the knights looking like Samurais with huge swords, and all the other pieces difficult to identify.

I sat a few chairs away from Dave and watched as Larsen took in the set at his first move. “What are these?” he exclaimed.  Dave showed him each of the pieces as Larsen studied them in their home position.  But once the game began and pieces were all over the board, Larsen became more confused. “What is this piece here?  Is this a bishop?” I should point out that the strategy in a simultaneous for the grandmaster is that he moves very quickly, so he can get around the room faster, thus giving all his opponents less time to think. Dave was driving him crazy.

I wish I could say that Dave’s strategy of changing the rules on the grandmaster by playing with these exotic pieces was entirely effective.  Truth is, Larsen destroyed him. But it did slow the grandmaster down and gave us all a bit of extra time.  That was a fun evening.

The point here is that when you are in sales, and you don’t have a strong competitive advantage, give serious thought to changing the rules of the game.

Let’s say you’re a commercial banker serving the middle market.  The customary ground rules aren’t complex.  Customers will often borrow from institutions that give them the best rate and collateral terms, unless there is a very strong relationship in place. And because banking is a highly regulated industry there isn’t much differentiation in the offers available to you.

So why don’t you just change the rules?  Tell every prospect, “Of course we lend money, but we’re not solely in the lending business.  We offer our customers a sophisticated and technologically superior package of services that help you manage all your cash, from Treasury and Information services to investments, in addition to loans.  This gives you a 360 control position of all your financial needs, and saves you time, money and risk.  Why not let us explore all these areas?” And now you bring other departments from the prospect company into play, build additional relationships and influence the types of offers in the proposal.

And now you have effectively repositioned yourself as a provider of business solutions, rather than a temporary lender of funds.  And when your competitor shows up with his loan proposal, your customer will look at it and ask, “What is this?”

Think Like Your Customer!

Situational leadership?  Why not situational coaching!

How does the coach know when it’s a good idea to throw a chair across the basketball court, as Bobby Knight once did, or to sit down with an athlete to discuss and agree on areas to improve?

The effective coach must decide when to say, “You’re not getting the job done. Here’s what I want you to do and if you don’t you’re out of here,” or to use a more Socratic approach as in, “I have some concerns about your recent performance. Let’s talk it through and see what we need to do to get you on the right track again.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedSeems pretty obvious that specific situations call for unique approaches.  How do you know which one to take?  Hersey and Blanchard wrote some time ago about the notion of “situational leadership” in which the manager of an organization must adjust his style to fit the development level of the followers he is trying to influence. The same is true of the coach, but the coach must take into consideration not only the development level of the performer, but also the performer’s level of desire to improve.

Let’s look at two examples:

I was once married to a woman who was a very good golfer, single digit handicap.  She loved the game, played and practiced every chance she could and regularly took lessons to improve.  She was working with the pro at a course that often hosts the U.S. Open, a gifted teacher and coach, and he couldn’t seem to get her to adopt an athletic stance.  “Quit sticking your butt out when you address the ball.  Stand more upright with the weight on the balls of your feet,” he would remind her. And she would do it right for a bit, then go back to her old stance.

One afternoon she came home and told me about her lesson.  After she had taken her stance, the pro walked behind her and delivered a swift kick to her butt.  “I’m not going to tell you again, tuck your butt in.”  After that, she always addressed the ball perfectly.

The lesson worked simply because her desire to improve was stronger than her embarrassment on having her butt kicked.

Now let’s compare this scenario to the one from my newsletter last week, which you can review here.

The coach could have screamed and yelled, pointed out all the mistakes the sales rep made and let him know exactly what she expected to do next time. But if you recall, she simply asked the rep for his own review of the call and what he felt he would need to do differently, allowing him to self-discover the improvement path and commit to it, because the ideas were his.

Remember that your team members are always committed to their ideas, not yours. So while the golfer is so deeply committed to improving her game that she will endure a kick in the butt to play better, your employees on the job are likely to have a different set of goals and values.  Even a metaphorical kick in the butt may lead to a call from your HR department, if not an employee retention issue over time.

So the lesson is this. Carefully evaluate the desire to perform and improve for each of your employees on a situational basis and coach accordingly. Some need a careful dialog; some need a kick in the butt.  Do you know which is which among your team?

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Want to be a better coach? Do what the great ones do, Part II

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedLast week we discussed some of the best practices that great coaches do, leaving off with gaining the employee’s commitment to improve.  Today we’ll finish up that discussion with a few more.

Mutually discuss solutions. 

Great coaches recognize that they are not the only ones with good ideas, and they make a point to seek the employee’s input.

“What do you think is the best way to ask a customer about what’s important to him?”


Get agreement on an improvement plan on the spot. 

The coach knows that the key to ensuring that the session has meaning is to agree on a plan for the new behavior.

 “Okay, how about this?  Beginning first thing tomorrow, why not get some appointments with high-potential customers and tell them you and I will sit down with them.  Then I can have another chance to observe you doing these new techniques…”

Use frequent, informal positive reinforcement immediately following desired behavior. 

If the coaching discussion is worth conducting, it is worth following up.  Since coaching is a feedback mechanism, it’s important to let employees know when they are performing as desired in order to reinforce the behavior.

 “Jeff, I’ve been listening to the way you use those open probes with confidence.  You have a real professional approach now and people trust you.”

Maintain confidence in the employee’s abilities over time. 

This is different from expressing confidence in the employee.  Without a sustained commitment to the employee, expressions of confidence have little meaning.  The great coach shows that he or she is willing to let employees test their skills through empowerment and trust.

 “Paula, you’ve done so well with upscale customers, I’d like you to start making some calls on business customers as well.  I’ll give you some basics in the kinds of questions to use and then…”

Next post

So far in this series on coaching, we’ve discussed performance analysis, which helps us to know when coaching is the right remedy, and last week and today we’ve looked at a few effective coaching behaviors. Next week we’ll discuss the style differences in approach by effective coaches.

When is it right to facilitate the discussion in a gentle way and allow self-discovery by the performer?  When is it right to kick the performer in the seat of the pants? (And yes, I have a story about that.)  What is meant by “situational leadership”?

My monthly newsletter comes out next Tuesday, so there will be no blog post, but we’ll resume the coaching discussion in two weeks.

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How to be a better coach? Do what the best coaches do!

Effective coaches use many techniques and approaches to improve performance. Today we’ll look at some of the best practices and examples.  Compare your own coaching practices with those you see below.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 Cropped


The coach is committed to improving the performance of team members but must always be careful to keep them on the team and committed.  The most effective coaches have winning tendencies that you should strive to emulate.

In general great coaches…

Gain agreement that the desired performance is important.

Before any discussion takes place as to the method of improvement, the coach makes sure the team member understands that the right behavior is critical to a positive result.

“Mary, I want to be sure you understand how important it is to the company that all meetings with customers follow our Service Standards.  We have invested a lot in it.”

Gain agreement that the desired behavior is not taking place.

The employee may believe that the behavior is important but may not understand that it is not taking place.

“Jeff, when we talked about this last week, you stated that you were going to incorporate some strong questions into your needs assessments.  I didn’t hear any at all.”

Get to the teaching point quickly.

Good coaches analyze the performance problem to see the exact behavior that should be addressed.  They know whether the issue is related to knowledge, skill or feeling, and they get to that area in the discussion, so the employee knows exactly what needs to be addressed.

 “Let me show you a couple of ways you could have asked that question without sounding too intrusive.”

Deal effectively with excuses. 

The coach gets the employee to focus on how the behavior will be improved and knows that excuses only get in the way.

“I know it gets busy on Fridays and when you see a long line of customers waiting, the temptation is to hurry everybody along.  Let’s work on ways we can make the interactions more meaningful to customers while we have them there so they remember us positively.”

Describe the consequences of performance problems. 

Great coaches have a clear vision of the way things ought to be; they can also visualize what will happen when things aren’t working.  They help the employee visualize this contrast to assist the commitment to change.

“How do you think customers view us when they ask us a question about our checking accounts and we have to refer to our own brochures?”

Express confidence in the employee. 

The coach, through body language or the spoken word, convinces the employee that necessary improvements are well within the employee’s capabilities and communicates a “can-do” attitude throughout the conversation.

 “Jeff, the way you get along with customers, I know you can use this probing method to your advantage.  You’ll have them eating out of your hand.”

Gain the employee’s commitment and willingness to change. 

The coach knows that the employee has to want to engage in the improved behavior, and seeks feedback during the discussion to assess feelings.

 “How do you see these ideas working on a regular basis?  How do you feel customers will respond if you do this?  How does that sound?”

Note the positive tone of each of the spoken examples in italics. Do your coaching conversations sound like this?  If not, work on them.  Remember, employees rarely quit companies. They quit managers. Next week I’ll wrap up this discussion with a few more examples of how to be a more effective coach.

Think Like Your Customer

Fable Friday: The gymnast, the horse and a coaching tip

My October newsletter had a higher than usual open rate and many shares so I guess readers found it useful.  If you aren’t a subscriber, you can find it here.  You recall that in the email to the sales team member, the sales manager incorporated five activities that were necessary to make the upcoming joint sales call effective.

  • Let the sales guy lead the call.  Don’t take over and hog it. Provide a learning opportunity for your rep.
  • Set an expectation for pre-call preparation. State that you will be looking for something of value the rep provided. The key question will be, “What did the prospect learn from you that he didn’t know before you walked in the door?”
  • Insist on a clear set of objectives or outcomes from the call, most important being agreement to the next call. “Introducing ourselves and building rapport” is insufficient.
  • Shape the call as one of learning and prospect engagement. Get the prospect talking. We’re not here to make a presentation and talk about ourselves. Have the rep send you the questions he plans to ask.
  • Make sure the rep sends out a strong agenda before the call to differentiate himself as a professional and set expectations for a meaningful conversation.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedOne of the challenges to effective coaching is that it often takes place after some activity or result, when things didn’t go well. Then the coach finds himself criticizing in such a way that both the coach and the performer don’t feel so good after the session.  I’m sure it’s happened to you. Here’s a story that includes an easy tip to help you become a better coach.

A study* on the way coaches provided formative (corrective) feedback, and reinforcing (positive) feedback on gymnasts performing on the horse, shows us how people respond to different types of feedback.

In the vault exercise, the gymnast sprints toward the horse, lands on a springboard, pushes off forcefully, grips the horse briefly and continues the exercise with flips, turns and other movements, then lands on both feet.

In the study, two coaches take turns greeting each gymnast after the exercise. One coach provides reinforcing and formative feedback, for example “That was good, but next time push off harder and go higher.”  The other coach provides only reinforcing feedback:  “That was good!”  But at that performer’s next turn the second coach calls out, “This time try to push off harder and go higher.” This may seem like a slight difference, but according to the study, the second coach was both more effective and was perceived to be more effective by the gymnasts.  The second coach separates formative and reinforcing feedback, placing the formative instruction just before the exercise.

So here’s your tip.  Next time you coach one of your sales team, do it before the call, just as our sales manager did in the newsletter:  “On this call I want to see you focus on getting as much information as possible and getting the prospect engaged.  Put together some great questions and let’s go over them.”  This will be far better than saying after the call, “I didn’t think you got as much information as you could have. What questions should you have asked?” Using the “coach before” approach puts a positive vision of success in the mind of your salesperson.  Using the “coach after” runs the risk of assessing blame.

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*Tosti, D.T. “Formative Feedback” NSPI Journal, 1978