The Distribution Blog

How to Be the Coach Your Distribution Sales Team Needs

June 27, 2023

Table of Contents

Every great sports team is built on the same foundation: great coaching. But this hasn’t always been the case for great sales teams. Sales coaching has traditionally been a luxury—an interesting and usually helpful tactic, but not necessary for success.

Times are changing, though. As veteran sales reps retire in large numbers, distributors are hiring younger reps, who are greener and have different job expectations than their predecessors. Compensation and territory are no longer the main sticking points. Instead, the next generation of sales reps demand investment in their professional development. And if their employers aren’t willing to invest, they’ll leave and work for someone who is.

In 2011, just as millennials were first entering the professional workforce, Harvard Business Review found that targeted, focused coaching can improve sales success upwards of 19%. Even a moderate improvement in coaching can lead to improved performance, and high-performing sales teams typically have their managers spend 25% to 40% of their time on sales coaching.

There is a close tie between the company’s performance and coaching. In a study conducted by Indian River Consulting Group and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, they found that the highest predictor of growth for distributors was a monthly discussion between the sales manager and sales rep. According to Indian River’s Mike Marks, even short, focused sessions each month make a difference.

Here’s what you need to know to improve coaching in your company.

The coaching you’re doing now probably isn’t good enough

Plenty of sales managers think they’re already good coaches, but their subordinates often think otherwise. Scott Edinger of HBR once found that a Fortune 500 sales management team scored their coaching at around the 80th percentile – but their direct reports said that they were receiving almost no coaching at all, and scored the coaching they received at the 38th percentile.

According to Mike Kunkle writing for Distribution Strategy Group, this “coaching perception gap” is common among distributors, too.

Fifty-four percent of distribution sales managers say they provide an optimal amount of coaching, while only 37% of their reps agree. And while 93% of sales managers believe they’re delivering high-quality coaching sessions, only 68% of reps share that belief.

So it’s nothing personal when we say this: Despite their best efforts, your sales manager is probably not as good a coach as you wished they were. And if “coaching” consists of telling reps what to do or stop doing or what they need to do differently, they’re definitely not as good a coach as you think you are!

Good sales coaching is a formal developmental process rooted in identifying performance gaps and building a plan to address them. This means to be a good sales coach, you need to have one thing above all else: visibility.

Why visibility matters for sales coaching

Sales visibility isn’t an end goal, and it’s not a micromanagement tool, either. When you have sales visibility, it allows you to improve business processes and communication between management and team reps. Without sufficient insights into your team’s performance, you can’t set viable sales goals, and you can’t reliably develop an effective coaching strategy. It’s like trying to escape a dark cave without a flashlight: You might get there eventually, but you’re relying entirely on luck.

In the past, sales teams didn’t have access to the visibility tools they have now, and managers often used what little they did know about their team’s performance to pressure them into working harder and longer hours. Sales reps don’t generally respond well to such tactics.

Sales visibility should instead foster a culture of trust and collaboration. It should enable your reps to work less, not more; smarter, not harder. By striking the right balance, managers will see better sales numbers and more growth.  

Here are just a few reasons why having the right visibility tools is key:

Data-driven insights

It’s not enough to simply know who’s selling and who’s not. With AI-powered tools for distribution sales managers, you can identify specific opportunities for improvement and provide targeted coaching to help reps seize those opportunities.

Does a rep need help with cross-selling? After all, gone are the days when a distributor just sells one product line — for example, plumbing. They probably also sell HVACR products, as well.

A distributor sales rep — especially one in the early years of her career — can’t know about the thousands or even millions of SKUs you offer. Even a veteran won’t know everything. As a result, over time, distributor sales reps tend to focus on a core set of products with their customers and leave a lot of money on the table when their customers are buying cleaning supplies or safety gear from another supplier.

The right tools can give you the answer and support that effort — and a chance to establish best practices that you can replicate across your organization.

Real-time feedback

If you only provide feedback once a quarter or when performance has already slipped to an unacceptable level, you’re providing it far too late. Modern sales enablement tools allow you to give feedback on sales calls, demos, and presentations in real-time, which helps reps refine their approach and build their skills without getting discouraged.

Collaboration and communication

“Secrets to success” are useless if they’re kept secret. Reps need to learn from each other and their managers. Historically, distributors have not put systems in place to enable knowledge sharing, which has resulted in lost knowledge when a sales rep walks out the door. What’s more, the sales process has necessarily become more collaborative. The most successful distributors are not only leveraging multiple sales channels, such as ecommerce and inside sales. They’re building teams that include technical specialists for highly consultative calls and sales administrators to manage the lower-value (but still important) tasks. That’s why visibility is necessary to build a culture of continuous improvement and foster camaraderie. It allows the sales manager to shift resources as needed so that sales reps can spend time on what’s going to drive the most success.

Accountability and transparency

If your sales reps are applying the same tactics to their work today that they did pre-2020, chances are their effectiveness is waning. Customers want fewer in-person visits, and they want more self-service for orders they don’t need consulting on. In other words, they don’t want to be pulled off the plant floor for a social visit or to just place a hand-scratched reorder for gloves. Coaching your reps through this transition and helping them focus their energies on activities that will drive real ROI requires tools and processes that can help them meet and be accountable for today’s expectations.

Aligning that with your business goals (clearly communicated), your targeted coaching efforts will feel more relevant and effective.

How to unlock better visibility

We’ve worked with several distributors who lacked visibility into what their reps were doing. They wanted to incentivize outside sales reps and generate new business, but they couldn’t, because they had no real insight into team activities and no real process for supporting them in real time. They needed tools that removed the fog around what’s actually happening in the field.

With the right tools, sales managers can see rep performance metrics and real-time leaderboards, all while better understanding what their top reps are doing to grow faster. This visibility leads to better coaching – and success – for you and your team.

It’s Time to Coach for Success

This is no time to sit on the sidelines. By gaining better visibility into your sales activities, you have the stats required to coach your sales team to success – and give your greener sales reps the professional development they seek.

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