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Sales Training vs. Sales Coaching for 2021

15 min readOctober 30, 2020

Sales coaching and sales training are both sales performance improvement methodologies that are here to stay. The benefits of both are obvious, but many teams question when to use one or the other. The truth is that for a sales organization to be truly successful, they must use both. But, it must be done properly. Here are the differences between sales coaching and sales training, as well as when and how to use them.

What is Sales Training?

Sales training is the centuries-old method of educating and equipping sales professionals with the particular skills and knowledge needed to perform and execute the duties of their position. There are specific types of sales training for specific types of sales roles. This includes sales development reps, sales account executives, sales managers, and even leaders like VP’s of Sales or CSOs.

Training subjects general subjects include pitches, cold calling, value propositions, objection handling, negotiations, and so on. There are also specialized training, especially internally on the use of new tools and technologies, selling strategies and techniques, or new products and services. These trainings are used to introduce new technologies or platforms, new selling strategies or new products as markets change so that teams and can always ensure their sales force is selling to its absolute best potential.

Training is necessary for an individual in any capacity at any level of a sales organization to understand the tactics, techniques, and technologies required to do their jobs, as well as to improve performance or introduce a new change efficiently and effectively. It ensures that reps can continue to execute the requirements of their jobs, regardless of the circumstances.

Why it is effective

For training to be effective, it must focus on a particular subject and seek to achieve the desired result that is directly related to that subject. Moreso, sales training must be aligned with the overall goals of an organization. The training must educate and equip salespeople as to why those goals are important, as well as how to achieve them. In short, sales training must directly align with the overall goals of the company and help the sales professionals being trained to accomplish those goals.

With the ever-developing and shifting nature of the sales landscape, especially now with the rapid introduction of technologies and outlooks (like Revenue Operations) sales training is absolutely imperative to maintain the effectiveness of a sales organization. Sales training ensures that sales reps can keep up with competition and utilize modern sales tactics in a manner that maintains the overall competitiveness of the entire company. If a company is not competent and competitive from a sales perspective then the likelihood of success is far lower.

What a Sales Trainer Does

A sales trainer delivers information about a specific subject to a sales organization. This subject can be anything from sales techniques to product specific knowledge. The key components of a sales trainer are that they usually address a number of people at a single time and that it is not an interactive experience. This means that most sales trainer interactions involve the sales trainer directly delivering the information to the audience, with little to no opportunity for feedback or input. Think about a lecture-like experience. Sales trainers are very effective in delivering specific knowledge at scale.

Sales trainers may not even be a part of the organization that they are speaking to. Many sales trainers are hired as a third party for their specific knowledge and experience.

What is Sales Coaching?

Sales coaching is a method of sales performance improvement that has gained a massive amount of traction, notoriety, and following in recent years. Sales coaching has been proven time and time again to significantly increase the performance of a sales team.

Rather than seeking to improve the sales performance of a group as a whole, it rather focuses on a singular individual at a time. By improving the performance of each piece, sales coaching achieves a massive increase in sales effectiveness in the entire group.

The cornerstone of a sales coaching program is a sales leader who acts as a coach to the salespeople. This coach focuses on their personal needs, individual skills and weakness, and career growth and aspirations to improve selling skills, methodologies, and tactics.

Why it is effective

The focus on individual goals and aspirations is pivotal in a sales coaching program, as it gives each rep a future to work towards. It directly ties their own personal development with the achievement of goals and aligns those personal goals with the company. This ensures that the performance not only benefits the rep but the organization as a whole. It is this alignment that makes sales coaching so potent from a performance improvement perspective.

An added benefit of sales coaching programs is that the growth and movement towards career goals that it provides to those involved within it leads to higher sales rep retention and elevation of skills. Sales rep turnover has always been a problem in sales. With average ramp times hovering around 3 months, and the average sales reps tenure at 12 months, it means that sales teams really only see about 9 months of true selling from a rep before they depart. Sales coaching alleviates this by incentivizing sales reps to stay for long periods of time while also improving their performance.

To truly understand the components and purpose of sales coaching, first break the term itself into its two elements: sales and coaching.

Most are familiar with the concept of a coach, as an individual who works to help improve the performance and capabilities of a group of individuals or an individual themselves. Coaching is defined as, “An interactive process to help individuals and organizations develop more rapidly and produce more satisfying results; improving others’ ability to set goals, take action, make better decisions and make full use of their natural strengths.”

The act of sales is defined as the “act of selling, or being sold to.” Therefore, combining these two terms gives us an interactive process to help salespeople improve and increase their performance. It is a focused approach to develop a sales team through one-on-one sessions with individual reps.

In sales coaching, a coach serves as a counselor and a guide. When choosing a sales coach, it is very important to find an empathetic person that seeks to understand other’s emotions, motivations, and can impartially assess strengths and weaknesses. This person should both inspire others and motivate them to achieve the things they want in their career and in life. A sales coach should be adaptable and understanding so that they can take a unique approach, perspective, and plan with each individual person that they are coaching. One-size-fits-all methods do not work in sales coaching.

A key differentiator of sales coaching is that it does not involve telling people what exactly to do. Coaches do not take a stance where they tell a rep exactly what, when, and how to do something unless it is completely warranted. Sales coaches help their reps find their own way to success. They provide guidance, consultation, and support rather than specific tasks and actions.

Telling people what to do is not coaching. People don’t like to be told what to do, but rather, prefer to be enabled and helped. They want to be involved. As the old maxim goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember but involve me and I learn.” Coaching subscribes to this adage, involving employees to improve their job performances. It emphasizes the development of individuals and improving their performances gradually, which is a more practical approach than telling people what to do, which will be met with resistance.

As an example, look at the coach of a professional sports team. They are responsible for the development of individual players, strategic playmaking, and leading their team to a win. Good coaches don’t tell their team to go out and score more touchdowns, nor do they simply command their players to stop the other team from running around the bases. Good
coaches know the end goal, and how to guide their team to achieve those goals. They develop strategies for the team as a whole but ensure individual players receive one-on-one attention.

The coaches create game plans for each position and work with players to improve their skills. As another example: picture a sales team like an orchestra. Depending on the type, the group can be composed of a few to over one hundred musicians. Much like how a sales team may be divided by territory, region, or industry expertise, an orchestra is comprised of sections grouped by instrument. Regardless of what instrument a musician plays, every member is expected to learn the music individually and ensure their instrument is tuned before rehearsals or performances. However, when it comes time to rehearse with the entire orchestra, the conductor has the responsibility to help shape the ensemble’s sound. They make sure every aspect of the group is cohesive and properly executes the interpretation of the piece. Much like a sales coach, the conductor critically listens to each section (and sometimes individual) to create a beautiful symphony. Ultimately, the primary goal of sales coaching is to improve sales team performance. This requires that individual reps get the proper attention, focus, and guidance to improve their skills which translates into a positive contribution to the team. To accomplish this, the “Sales Coach” must guide their team through an ongoing process that educates, trains, motivates, and reinforces the team.

This is why sales coaching is so important for the future. With the changing of generations involved in the workforce and improved methods of meeting performance improvement needs, the outlook and methods of sales coaching are more conducive to the current and future environment. Sales coaches seek to employ their sales reps and improve their weaknesses. Whereas training simply cannot address individual needs in such a manner. Sales coaches also strategically place salespeople within the organization – on certain territories, customer segments, business types, and so on – so that they can properly utilize their strengths for both the individual’s and the entire company’s success.

One of the key aspects of sales coaching is the individualized, one-on-one attention that each rep receives. Obviously, this can be quite difficult to accomplish at scale and especially with a large sales team. To give each individual dedicated one-on-one attention, a sales coach must understand the deals they are currently working on, their current performance level, and progress being made towards goals. Sales coaching is an art as much as it is a science, so sales coaches need to understand performance metrics and data, as well as intrinsic factors.

Sales dashboards that monitor individual and overall performance are incredibly useful for coaching at scale, as well as conversation analytics platforms that can monitor and alert coaches in real-time if their attention is needed with a particular rep.

Sales coaching sessions should occur on a consistent, regular, and recurring basis. However, these sessions should not be focused purely on data. As previously mentioned, sales coaching is also intangible, as there can be motivational and emotional factors involved in a sales rep’s performance that should also be addressed. For example, if a rep is struggling to make enough calls to drive outbound leads, the prescription to just make more calls is not enough. Examine the reps’ daily workflow, and address where time can be found to make more calls, also help the rep perform better to capitalize on the calls that he or she is able to make.

This supportive and involved environment provides many benefits. It promotes each sales rep’s own personal development and attaches its positive outcomes to the organizations for mutually beneficial gains. It also decreases the time it takes for reps to learn new tasks since everything is individualized to their particular learning style. Sales coaching also increases rep retainment, as they are happier and more supported in their positions. Finally, it increases the ROI on rep hires, as the high attention environment and individualized performance improvements turn B and C players into top reps.

What a sales coach does

In Keith Rosen’s book, Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions, he states, “Management is dead. Sales managers can’t just become sales coaching by changing their titles without changing their skill set. The coaching model is based on the belief that the question is also the answer and that the coach is responsible for finding the answers themselves and developing their own problem-solving skills. Coaching uses a process of inquiry so that people can access their own energy or inner strength to reach their own level of awareness. Tapping into a person’s previously unused strengths and talents advance personal growth and learning, which challenges people to discover their personal best. Coaching is collaborative as well as interactive.”

In short, sales coaches are not sales trainers and vise versa. Sales coaches require a completely different skillset than sales coaches. A sales coach works to individually better every single person that they work with. They do this not by telling them what to do, but by leading that person on a journey to figure out what works best for them. A sales coach then finds how to best place this person with the organization to put them in a position that is mutually beneficial for both that person and the organization.

Sales Training vs Sales Coaching

Sales coaching differs from typical sales training as it focuses on individual improvement from both a personal and professional level. Where a typical sales training program typically instructs reps on a sales process, sales coaches work one-on-one with reps on a regular basis to improve that salesperson’s particular capabilities

Sales coaching is not just sales training. While they may seem similar, the two are actually extremely different. The best way to understand the difference is to think about the role of a trainer versus the role of a coach. A trainer is someone who shows you how to perform specific tasks that result in a certain outcome. In the same way, sales training is a framework in which someone is taught sales tactics and techniques to successfully sell a product or service. Entire sales teams can train together, making it an efficient method to transfer knowledge but not necessarily an effective way to transfer skills. While sales training can take place either during the onboarding phase or even regularly scheduled throughout the year, it often lacks the essential feedback loop and behavior reinforcement between sales management and their reps that are required post-training.

On the other hand, a coach is someone who is always available. They help the team to refine their skills, develop weaknesses into strengths, and improve past the fundamental training. A sales coach supports the ongoing development of a rep alongside training. They create a true partnership with the individuals that make up their team and welcome a two-way conversation. Coaching requires constant interaction and feedback between managers and reps were listening, communication and development become paramount on an individual level.

The role of a coach vs. the role of a trainer

One of the best ways to understand the differences between sales coaching and training is to think about the role of a coach vs the role of a trainer. A trainer is someone who shows you the way to do something. They train you on how to complete an objective in the correct manner. A coach, on the other hand, is someone who shows you how to refine your skills. They help you improve past the basics.

For example, think about your favorite sport to play. You probably had someone show you the fundamentals at some point, like how to score and where to run. They trained you in how the game was played. But you also likely had someone who showed you how to develop your game, like how to throw a perfect spiral or run complex plays. They coached you to improve your game and get better.

Trainers are often the people who help reps learn at the beginning, while sales coaches are the ones who work with reps throughout their careers to help them get better.

Another key difference between sales training and sales coaching is the emphasis on two-way communication and individuality. Training is about explaining the general concept behind something in a standardized way. It’s essentially telling someone the way something is done without need for their input. Because individual feedback isn’t required for most training, it has a kind of one-size-fits all mentality. This also means multiple people can be trained effectively at the same time, making it an efficient means of relaying information to your reps.

Sales Coaching works almost the exact opposite way, requiring a huge amount of feedback from managers and reps alike. Sales coaching is about listening to your reps, building a relationship with them, and determining how they can best improve their skills on an individual level. Effective coaching occurs one-on-one, with both parties dialoguing on a regular basis. While this means groups of reps can’t be coached at the same time, the individual attention is integral for increasing rep productivity.

Sales coaching doesn’t so much come after-sales training, as it should be implemented from the start. Steadily using coaching tactics from onboarding forward is beneficial for any rep, but you’ll often find the highest ROI for sales coaching comes from performers right in the middle. Typically, your best performers won’t need as much coaching, and your worst performers are dealing with more serious issues that training might help. Remember that coaching is about building relationships over time, and doesn’t have a point where it should ever completely stop.

Effective sales managers empower their reps by giving them the insight and tools they need for continued development. Sales training is a great first step and can help educate reps, but an increasing reliance of sales coaching is needed to ultimately ensure your rep’s growth and optimization.

When to use sales training

A trainer is someone who shows you how to perform specific tasks that result in a certain outcome. Sales training is perfect to use when you need to educate a large group in a specific task in a short about of time. Training is about explaining the general concept behind something in a standardized way. It’s essentially telling someone the way something is done without need for their input. Because individual feedback isn’t required for most training, it has a kind of one-size-fits all mentality. This also means multiple people can be trained effectively at the same time, making it an efficient means of relaying information to your reps.

When to use sales coaching

Sales coaching can improve every aspect of your team’s performance. CSO Insights found that on average, 57.1% of salespeople make quota and the overall revenue plan attainment is 82.7%. That means 43% of reps fail to meet the quota. However, in the same study, they found that a dynamic sales coaching process helps close this gap by 10% and improves win rates by 28%. Another CSO study found that reps with formal coaching attain revenue goals 18% more than those without. It’s no surprise that reps who receive regular coaching increase their likelihood of hitting and even exceeding their quota. Of course, if you only analyze quota attainment you don’t get the whole picture. To understand how reps move leads through their pipeline, you must measure productivity. Productivity considers how effectively a rep’s activities create revenue from their pipeline. The CSO study found that reps who are effectively coached are four times more productive than those who are not. Sales coaching is especially beneficial to increasing the performance of “middle of the pack” players. These reps tend to make up the majority of a sales team and are a great starting point for sales coaching. They have the highest propensity (and likelihood) to improve their performance. Research by the Sales Executive Council shows that coaching “middle performers” has the highest payoff with the best-quality coaching improving performance up to 19%.

Why sales teams need a mix of both

It’s important for reps to have various degrees of training and coaching during their careers, but knowing when to implement each should be front of mind for sales managers. Although training is an important part of initial onboarding, training tactics can also be effective for letting your reps know about new product updates or changes in sales strategy. Training tactics can be particularly effective at keeping your sales team on the same page, and making sure reps are focusing in the right direction.

While training and coaching are fundamentally different, both are important components to achieving optimal sales performance. In fact, sales training is a critical part of the entire sales coaching process. Training is great when you onboard new hires and need to educate reps about your product, processes, or tools. Certainly, new reps need to know the benefits of your product, how to use your sales stack, and how to log their activities and monitor their performance. Yet, even with the proper training, reps can easily forget what they’ve learned if it’s not implemented in their day-to-day. Despite companies spending thousands of dollars per rep each year on sales training, totaling to $20 billion, The Rain Group found that 85 to 90 percent of training fails within 120 days after its delivery. Effective sales managers empower their reps by giving them the insight and tools they need for continued development. Sales training is a great first step and can help educate reps, but an increasing reliance on sales coaching is needed to ultimately ensure your teams growth and optimization.