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    Coaching Through Questions: 3 Questions Sales Managers Should Be Asking Their Reps

    by Sarah Wirth / June 20, 2016

    Photo by Hattie Kingsley Photography

    As sales leaders, we constantly talk to our reps about the importance of asking questions.  That’s because we know that when our reps take the time to ask questions, listen and understand customers’ needs, sales conversations flow better and are more effective.   Indeed, effectively asking and following up on needs analysis questions is the most important step in executing the sales process. So, why don’t we take our own advice when coaching our reps?

    Think of how a sales manager usually approaches a coaching conversation with a sales rep.  Typically, the manager will sit down with the rep and start talking at them.

    • They will tell the rep what they did well.
    • They will tell the rep what they did poorly.
    • They will tell the rep specific ways they can improve. 

    All told, the manager will usually spend about 80% of the time talking. 

    While the sales manager has good intentions to help their reps improve with this coaching, they are going about it the wrong way.  Rather than focusing on talking and telling, sales manages can do their best coaching when they are focused on asking questions and listening.

    To illustrate why this is so, consider the reasons why we encourage our reps to ask questions of customers. 

    1. First of all, it is hard for reps to recommend the right products or services to customers when they don’t understand their needs and goals.  Along this same line, it is also difficult for sales managers to coach a rep in a sales call when they don’t understand what the rep was trying to accomplish; therefore, when coaching a rep, the first question should be: “What were you trying to accomplish in this situation?” 
    2. After they’ve identified the customers’ goals, we then encourage our reps to understand what customers are currently doing to try to accomplish their goals. Likewise, we need to understand what our sales reps are doing to accomplish their goals in a sales call, specifically what strategies are working for them and which ones aren’t.  Accordingly, when coaching a rep, the second question should be: “What do you think went well and what could have gone better?”
    3. Once they understand the customers’ needs and challenges, we want our reps’ final questions to help lead our customers to identify the right solution. Similarly, it is important that our coaching questions to reps help lead them to strategies to help them grow. When they discover the solutions on their own, reps are much more receptive to taking a different tact in the future. This is why, when coaching a rep, a final question should be: “What would you do differently the next time?”

    In using questions, it is always important to listen and then follow-up to clarify your understanding, explore the reasoning in your reps’ thought process, or to help lead them to the right conclusion. Don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate with some of your questions if it helps challenge their thinking in a way that helps them grow. Also, make sure your questions are open-ended, not just yes or no questions where you are simply looking for their agreement.  The idea with questions is to get them thinking and coming to their own conclusions, not just agreeing with you.

    Take a look at this Open-Ended Questions Exercise for more best practices.

    Overall, we can learn from our own advice regarding the positive impact that questions can have. The same way that customers are more open to buying when our questions have led them to their own conclusions about their needs, our reps are also more open to coaching when our questions lead them to their own conclusions about how they can develop. When we tell people what to do and how to do it, they can become defensive. Questions, on the other hand, invite them to think, consider and explore new directions. Ultimately, when we coach with questions, our reps remain more open and receptive to new ideas. And an open mind is essential to really learning and growing.


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    Sarah Wirth

    Sarah Wirth

    Sarah Wirth is the president of Ecsell Institute and has over 20 years of experience in employee assessment, leadership development, sales executive coaching, and customer service. She has presented to executives from across the globe with organizations such as Mercedes Benz, Estee Lauder, Ritz Carlton, Cheesecake Factory and many more.