4 Differences Between Sales Coaching and Feedback

Jeff Hoffman
Jeff Hoffman




Many sales managers think the purpose of sales coaching is to correct negative behaviors through giving real time performance feedback. This attitude results in a lot of comments phrased in the following manner:

“I think you’re doing a great job, but [insert negative observation here] … ”

The manager feels good after they deliver their feedback, since they think they’ve done their part to help their direct report be more successful.

There’s only one problem. Nine times out of 10, the rep heads back to their desk and does what they’ve always done. Their behavior hasn’t been altered at all.

The one thing that does change? Now the rep has the nagging thought, “my manager thinks I’m doing a bad job” in the back of their heads.

This obviously isn’t the desired outcome of coaching, and it points to a problem with treating feedback and coaching as one and the same. In my opinion, feedback and coaching are very different. Here are four specific areas where they diverge.

1) Feedback is about the manager; coaching is about the rep.

As illustrated above, giving feedback makes managers feel good, but receiving feedback makes reps feel anything but. The purpose of feedback is for managers to communicate their analysis of a rep’s job performance. So if a rep responds to feedback it’s because they want a better analysis from their manager -- not because they actually want to change.

But coaching is not about managers at all -- it’s squarely focused on the rep and what they’d like to achieve. Coaching should address reps’ strengths and activities independently of the manager’s analysis. Therefore, if a rep responds to coaching, the desire to change comes from within. They seek a better self-analysis, and this is obviously a much more powerful motivator.    

2) Feedback is about what you’re doing wrong; coaching is about what you’re doing right.

When a manager starts a sentence with, “You’re doing a great job, but …” the rep automatically knows that what’s coming after the “but” is not going to be positive. Feedback is most often delivered about behaviors or activities that managers would like reps to drop or adjust. When positioned this way, the manager must end the discussion with a remedy -- but it’s up to the rep whether they’ll actually do it or not. And if they don’t agree with it, you can be sure they’re not going to do it.

On the other hand, coaching isn’t about what the rep is doing wrong -- it’s about what the rep is doing right. The true purpose of coaching is for managers to come up with creative ways for reps to use their strengths in other situations or contexts for their and the organization’s benefit.

For example, if a rep is particularly good at building rapport with stakeholders from procurement departments, a manager might suggest during a coaching session that the rep should ask their contacts for procurement department referrals at other companies. Keep in mind that coaching might still result in a behavior change -- but by amplifying a strength, not diminishing a weakness.

3) Feedback is off the cuff; coaching is intentional.

A manager can give feedback to any of their direct reports any time they’d like. You don’t have to schedule time to give feedback, since an opportunity to deliver it can pop up at any time. Don’t like what a rep is wearing to a customer’s office? No need to book a meeting about it -- simply suggest they wear khakis instead of jeans next time. Feedback delivered.

But coaching is much more deliberate and collaborative than this, because it requires a willing participant. And considering that coaching involves more thought and preparation on both ends, managers shouldn’t just coach anybody, but only those who want to and agree to be coached. I often encourage managers to make it a formal question: “Would you like to be coached by me?” This communicates to reps that coaching is a special event -- not something to be taken lightly.

This also has implications for when coaching can be delivered. While a manager can give feedback on the way to the elevator, they can’t coach a rep anytime, anywhere. Instead, managers should allot time on their calendars for coaching and use it for that purpose alone.

4) Feedback isn’t personal; coaching is.

Just because a rep does something a manager doesn’t like or agree with doesn’t mean they’re a bad rep. Again, feedback is all about the manager’s perception -- it’s not personal to the rep.

With this in mind, I suggest that managers deliver feedback with statements starting with “I.” For example, instead of saying, “You shouldn’t wear jeans to a customer’s office,” or “Wearing jeans is against the rules,” simply say, “I like khakis, and I don’t like jeans.” After asking them if they understand the feedback, thank them for allowing you to give your opinion and don’t bring it up again unless they do.

Coaching is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Since it’s about the reps strengths and goals, it’s incredibly personal. Therefore, I suggest using “you” statements, and framing all coaching activities to keep the focus on the rep.

Coaching and feedback aren’t the same, and so they shouldn’t be tackled in the same conversation. Above all, I advise sales managers to separate the two tasks in practice and in their own and their reps’ minds. If a rep brings up a weakness during a coaching session, I tell them we can address that another time, but right now we’re talking about strengths.

Since feedback is generally negative and coaching is positive, isolating the two will help reps get the maximum benefit from each. Mixing the two is a recipe for confused reps -- don’t do it.

Want to get more information on the best coaching techniques? Register for my upcoming Your SalesMBA™ Half Day Coaching Workshop in Boston on 2/23 here

Topics: Sales Coaching

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