Don’t swallow that Oreo cookie coaching idea

Last month I ran a sales management workshop for a client in Seattle, and I gave the group a few easy coaching scenarios to discuss and practice, which included an assortment of performance deficiencies. For example, one problem focused on the employee simply not having enough experience with a new skill, another with an unmotivated employee and so on.

But as the groups prepared to role play their coaching scenarios I listened to one of the managers make an astute observation.

“I think the best way to handle this one is just to get right to the point and tell the guy what he needs to do better. Why insult his intelligence by beating around the bush and telling him how great he is?  Once you do that you have to figure out a way to finesse in the corrective part, and it all sounds so phony.”

1331043005_OreoThe others agreed and one added, “I remember when we used to work for (name). When you went in to talk with him about something you did wrong, he was so afraid to mention it that you’d walk out feeling like you were doing great!”

I was proud of their conclusion, as we had just finished discussing what behaviors the great coaches engage in, one of them being that they get to the teaching point quickly.

This poor coaching approach of trying to soften up the employee has often been labeled the “Oreo Method” in which you begin the conversation by telling the employee something positive about his performance, e.g., “Bill, you’ve been doing this job for eight years and of course you are one of my most experienced and valued employees.  Here are just a few of the areas in which you have distinguished yourself as being one of the tops in the field…”

Then you squeeze in a vague comment or two about an area you would like to see improved.  Get in and out of that fast and don’t dwell on any corrective ideas!

Then finish up with some words of confidence.  “I know that with your loyalty and commitment, you’ll continue to provide the best possible service to all our customers!”

This disingenuous approach has been touted by HR people for as long as I can remember, and it’s bad. I sure hope you aren’t an Oreo coach!

Great coaches believe in their people and that confident belief must force them to always provide honest, direct feedback to help them improve.  Don’t disrespect your team with vague comments about performance, hoping they’ll “get the message.” Make them trust you as an honest leader.

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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…

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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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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.

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Last week’s coaching quiz answers—did you get them all?

Last week I gave you a short quiz to help you analyze performance problems by determining if the deficiency was a Know issue (K), a Do issue (D), or a Feel issue (F).  Let’s look at it again along with the answers.

  • One of your sales reps has worked for you for three years. She has recently attended a training program in making referrals in which she performed very well.  Now back in the office, she has not made a single referral to any customer after four weeks.  This is clearly a Feel issue, or F.  You have evidence that she can do the work, but she isn’t doing it, so there is some attitudinal obstacle.  Maybe she’s afraid to ask questions or make recommendations.  How will you find out what’s in the way?  When you coach her, simply ask!
  • The company has introduced a brand new product, which is fairly complex. You held one brief sales meeting to go over the highlights of the product but none of the staff is very familiar with it.  You overheard one of your sales staff give a customer an incorrect explanation of how the product works.   This is a Know issue, or K. The product is complex, you haven’t taught it adequately and the team doesn’t yet understand it fully.  There are lots of remedies here:  training, sales meeting product reviews, designating an expert in the office to teach the others, learning tools, such as quick “cheat sheets” and other interventions.
  • Your new customer service rep has been on the job for only six She is trying to use a Customer Needs Assessment form but is having some difficulty listening to the customer, recording information on the form and then asking the next question.  It sounds very awkward to you as you listen to her customer conversations.  This is simply a Do issue, or D.  She’ll get better at it with practice, just as all of us do the more we work with an unfamiliar activity.  Here’s an example. Ask someone to remove his jacket, and then put it back on this time putting the other arm in first.  Most of us put the same arm in first.  People have a hard time with it!
  • You have conducted several sales meetings in which you have stressed the importance of taking time to understand the customer’s needs before mentioning products or discussing features and benefits. Nevertheless, one of your sales reps launches straight into a presentation of all the company’s products and features the second the customer says, “I would like to speak to someone about opening a new”  I tried to trick you here. You don’t have enough information to answer this question. It could be that the rep doesn’t know what questions to ask, is unskilled at framing questions or hates to ask questions at all.  You must have a conversation and find out what’s in the way before you begin any remedial intervention.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedNotice that with Know and Do, the solutions are pretty straightforward, but with Feel they are often complex.  In selling we know the power of the feelings issue, as it’s the biggest driver in sales.  Same goes for coaching. You must understand how feelings can interfere with job performance and then understand how feelings can influence the coaching conversation.

We’ll continue this discussion next week with more ideas on performance analysis and coaching best practices, following the same principle in coaching an employee as selling to a customer.   In other words…

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Diagnose before coaching—A quick quiz for you

Today I’ll give you a short quiz to see how well you remembered last week’s lesson on the importance of diagnosing the performance deficiency before you coach.  In this way you’ll see what can go wrong if you don’t diagnose, or do so incorrectly.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedWe’ll use K, D, F, for Know, Do, Feel.  In each of the scenarios that follow, answer K, D, or F to indicate if the performance issue is caused by information the employee does not KNOW, a skill the employee cannot DO, or an attitudinal issue, how the employee FEELS about the work.

  • One of your sales reps has worked for you for three years. She has recently attended a training program in making referrals in which she performed very well.  Now back in the office, she has not made a single referral to any customer after four weeks. _______
  • The company has introduced a brand new product, which is fairly complex. You held one brief sales meeting to go over the highlights of the product but none of the staff is very familiar with it.  You overheard one of your sales staff give a customer an incorrect explanation of how the product works.  ________
  • Your new customer service rep has been on the job for only six weeks.  She is trying to use a Customer Needs Assessment form but is having some difficulty listening to the customer, recording information on the form and then asking the next question.  It sounds very awkward to you as you listen to her customer conversations.  ________
  • You have conducted several sales meetings in which you have stressed the importance of taking time to understand the customer’s needs before mentioning products or discussing features and benefits. Nevertheless, one of your sales reps launches straight into a presentation of all the company’s products and features the second the customer says, “I would like to speak to someone about opening a new”  _______

Did you get them all right? I’ll give you the correct answers next week right here. But for now, try to predict what can go wrong if you mis-diagnose, and then try to coach.  A poor diagnosis usually leads to a poor intervention.

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“Coaching? We’re already doing that!” Part One: Analyzing the performance deficiency

Some years ago I did consulting work for a guy named Jack, who managed the northern NJ area of a top ten bank. One day he and I got talking about coaching and he said, “You know what my managers think coaching is? It’s telling people what they did wrong.”

I never forgot that, mostly because I see that same approach so often, which makes me skeptical when a client says, “Coaching? We’re doing that. The managers take a training program on how to coach and then coach each of their team at least weekly.”

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedWhen I wrote last week that I was going to explore concepts like coaching and leadership, I intended to break these down into discrete behaviors so that when someone says “coaching” we can all agree on what effective coaching is.

So today we’ll begin with the first step: analyzing the causes of the performance deficiency. Let’s look at an example we’ve all seen.

You manage a sales rep who isn’t performing as expected. You tell him, “You’re not making enough calls, and of the ones you do make, I’m not seeing much in the way of sales results. I know you can do better, so let’s sit down and talk about it. What’s going on?”

Before the salesperson speaks, the coach’s intent is to explore the three areas of the brain that influence the salesperson’s behavior.

Know: The salesperson has to know a few things to sell effectively. Product knowledge, the sales process of the company, what questions are best to ask, the background of the prospect and several others. This knowledge component falls under what is called the cognitive domain in instructional design. Maybe the salesperson is new. Maybe he hasn’t studied the products. There could be a lot he doesn’t know.

Do: The salesperson has to execute a number of skills, and in this case they are mostly communication skills, e.g., open-ended probes, listening, summarizing, trial closes, dealing with resistance and the like. Perhaps he’s new or hasn’t been trained, or he doesn’t practice what he’s going to do on a call. This is the psychomotor domain of the brain.

Feel: The salesperson’s feelings about the job are a huge influence on performance. Did you ever have a salesperson work for you who was afraid to pick up the phone? I see it all the time. Maybe he just doesn’t like people, or he gets nervous in formal settings. In instructional design we refer to these as affective issues, so we have know, do, feel equating to cognitive, psychomotor and affective.

For the coach to be effective at helping the salesperson, he first has to analyze the reasons for the substandard performance, and you can see there are many, and quite often they are in some combination, e.g., he needs to make more calls so he gets experience (do) but he’s shy around people so he won’t do it (feel).

Sometimes I get an older person in my sales training program, who hates being there after 35 years of experience on the job. He isn’t selling effectively any more. I learn that he has the skill because I see his performance in the class, but the “feel” component is the big obstacle. He’s tired; he’s not running through walls any more. He prefers to sit at his desk rather than go out and call. So they send him to training, which just frustrates him more. See the idea?

In the next post I’ll ask you to solve some K, D, F problems to see how well you analyze before you coach.

By the way, what did you think of the sales manager’s comments at the beginning of the sit-down with the salesperson? What was the best thing he said? What should he have not done?

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Fable Friday:  Aflac and how to coach performance

In a New York Times interview, Daniel Amos, CEO of Aflac, said that when he used to discuss annual goals with his sales team, he never mentioned how much product he wanted sold.  Instead, he positioned the conversation around the incentive to be earned, like this:  “I want you to make $80,000 in incentives this year.”  As Amos pointed out, “No one ever says ‘Oh, I don’t want to make that much money.’”

This approach is consistent with some of the best practices you saw last week in our quiz on how to coach Fred, the reluctant caller. I mixed up some best practices with some less effective remarks, so there was no one scenario that was perfect, but here are some of the things that worked.

Focus on the positive

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedTry to lead with a discussion of strengths, and keep the conversation at all times positive:  “two areas that have impressed me are your close ratio and that you consistently make goal year over year.”  Avoid starting the conversation as if you’re going to give your team member a scolding.  Here was a poor start:

“Fred, last year you made an average of 12 on-site calls per month, while the rest of the team averaged 18.  And although you just made goal for the year, I’d like to see you do better than that.”

And while we’re thinking positively, get the performer to talk about what he CAN do.  Don’t focus on obstacles, as in this comment:  “What’s getting in the way of your making more calls?” It will get you into a maze of excuses and take his eye off the ball.

Offering thanks and congratulations on successes is a good way to keep the conversation positive. Here was a great intro:  “Fred, before we talk about your plans for next year, let me first congratulate you on last year’s performance, once again meeting your sales quota.  Thank you for your contribution. It makes me feel better to know I have a talented performer like you on my team, someone I can count on.”

Use benefit statements: what’s in it for YOU

You can use many different benefit statements, but the most powerful are the ones that focus on what success means to the individual.  Here’s a good one:

“A breakthrough year not only ensures you’ll surpass your goals, but it would also enhance your professional reputation within the team. You’d be a rock star.  But more importantly, a greater call production combined with your sales skill is guaranteed to put more money in your pocket and I’d love to write you a fat bonus check.”  Sounds like Daniel Amos, doesn’t it?

Your feedback

Jeff Horton and James Carr, two very strong sales managers in the financial services area, made the same excellent suggestion to me about this case, and that was to give Fred a bigger “stretch goal.”  Instead of asking him to make 20 calls, which would be simple to do, why not suggest 30?

In general I agree with them, but keep in mind that if you do this you have to be a very good coach, staying on top of Fred’s call numbers each month so that he stays motivated and doesn’t fall behind and get discouraged.  Thanks Jeff and James.

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