The Coaching Effect Blog

The Coaching Effect Blog

    Sales Coaching in the Field: Customer Visit "Ride Alongs"

    by Bill Eckstrom / February 12, 2010

    Guest Blog by Ken Eiken, Advisory Council Member of the EcSell Institute. Photo by Hattie Kingsley Photography.

    One of my favorite activities as a sales leader (second only to writing commission checks) is visiting customers with members of my team. Getting out in the field is an excellent time to build relationships with your employees, help them improve their skills AND get valuable "face to face" time with customers.

    Too often, we get trapped in the office and all of the activities that come with it - meetings, report writing, etc. So getting out on the road is ALWAYS a welcome event!  Today, I want to present some thoughts on how to use Customer Visit "Ride Alongs" as a coaching tool you can use with your team members.  As usual, I welcome your thoughts and best practices! 

    Setting up the visits 

    When setting up customer visits with your sales people, reinforce with them that they need to schedule these visits as they normally would even if you weren't traveling with them.  There will always be the temptation on your staff's part to introduce you to only their best customers.  Don't let this happen!  Explain to your team member that you want to see: 
    • Existing customers - you want to visit satisfied customers as well as those that need some attention. 
    • Prospective customers - you want to visit those that are early in the sales process and those that are almost closed. 
    • NOTE: When scheduling these visits, make sure to have enough time between visits to adequately debrief.  As a rule of them, I set aside 30 minutes for the debrief.  You can do this while traveling to the next customer, but optimally, you will be able to stop and discuss over a coffee or a meal...

    Before the Visit

    Your sales person should prepared for the visit EXACTLY the way they normally do.  The only exception is to be prepared to explain why you (their sales manager) is visiting with them.  I always tell customers that I am there to meet face-to-face with customers and bring their feedback back to headquarters.  This is a legitimate reason AND may help establishing rapport with the client/prospect.

    During the Visit


    Support your team member by...

    • Listening to the customer, picking up cues that may mean more opportunity
    • Observing your employee in action, finding some opportunities for improvement to discuss during the debrief
    • Validating that they are important to your team and worthy of your investment of time

    Support the customer by...

    • Giving them insight into upcoming improvements in products / services of which the sales person may not yet be aware
    • Learning more about their business, potentially brainstorming new applications of your products to meet their needs

    Support your organization back at home by...

    • Bringing back "authentic" customer feedback to the organization
    • Using your positional authority to solve a customer problem BEFORE they find alternative providers

    After the visit

    Now is when your coaching begins!  When I flew fighters in the Air Force, we would debrief approximately 1 hour for every 15 minutes of training in the air.  I'm not suggesting that a 4 to 1 debriefing time ratio is required, but I use this example to demonstrate the importance of a structured debrief.  Additionally, people learn best immediately following the activity, thus, it is important to debrief right after you leave the customer site, not later in the evening during Happy Hour!  Here is my checklist for the sales visit debrief:

    Preparation - did your sales rep know...

    • the background of this customer / prospect?
    • where they were in the sales process? 
    • what needed to happen to move them to the next stage of the process? 
    • the effectiveness of the visit agenda moving the process forward? 
    • "hip pocket" high-impact questions that they needed to ask? 
    • what curveballs to expect?  what to do when the customer threw ones they didn't expect? 
    • after the meeting, was it a successful visit?

    Conducting the call - did your sales rep...

    • meet the objectives they established prior to the call? 
    • learn any new information? 
    • discover any new opportunities during the visit? 
    • ask the right, "high impact" questions? 
    • follow up those questions with "next level", probing questions? 
    • know if they had a meeting with the decisions makers? 
    • if not, did they learn from the meeting who the real decision makers are? and get sponsorship to meet them? 
    • build the relationship with the customer? 
    • identify how to improve their rapport with this customer?

    Preparation for the next call - will your sales rep...
    • take learnings from the previous visit and apply them to the next visit?

    I cannot over emphasize the importance of coaching your team IN THE FIELD.  Take advantage of the opportunity to build the relationship with your employees and help them improve their skills.  Your sales people will appreciate it!    

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    Bill Eckstrom

    Bill Eckstrom

    William Eckstrom is the CEO and Founder of the Ecsell Institute. Bill has spent his entire career in the sales management and leadership arena. In 2008, he founded Ecsell Institute to fill a void he witnessed and personally experienced in the sales leadership profession. He's went on to present a viral TEDx Talk and co-authored the best-selling book, "The Coaching Effect."