Sales Coaching in a Virtual World

By Danielle McKinley, Director of Research, Gartner
A woman standing in front of a white board giving a presentation in front of a laptop.

Effective coaching is critical to sales rep performance and organizational success. However, many sales organizations struggle to improve managers’ coaching behaviors. Combine that with more digital customer buying behaviors and the virtual environment many sales reps face today, and it’s no wonder that only 23% of sales reps feel they are as effective selling virtually as they are live onsite with customers.

A recent Gartner survey of 1,122 sales reps shows that 58% report they have dedicated coaching sessions with their sales managers on effective virtual selling. So where is the disconnect between those coaching sessions and sales reps’ confidence in selling in a virtual environment?

Sales reps are not alone with their struggles in today’s virtual environment. Sales managers are faced with a variety of coaching challenges when it comes to keeping their teams sharp and motivated in a virtual setting. To start, it is a huge culture change for teams – accustomed to the dynamic environment of a sales floor and live meetings – to now be behind a screen all day. This requires sales managers to put greater focus on helping their teams shift their sales approach holistically.

The issue that many are struggling with today is a lack of familiarity and confidence with virtual selling. How can they develop their teams in an environment that is very different from that in which they sold? There might be challenges with technologies, different processes, or a lack of understanding in how digital transformations have impacted the buying process of their customers. For many managers, virtual selling is just as new for them as it is for their teams.

Similarly, in companies without a strong organizationally-driven coaching culture, managers have had to “go it alone” and coach based on their intuition and past (and potentially irrelevant) experience. In fact, 40% of sales reps report they work within a well-established coaching culture at their organization.

Lastly, the other challenge sales managers face when coaching in a virtual environment is access to and knowledge of technologies to support virtual coaching. Gartner research shows that only 39% of sales managers effectively use technology to coach their reps. As more sales organizations invest in sales training and coaching technologies, it will be critical to ensure they have the infrastructure in place to support and leverage the effective use of such technologies.

New Competencies To Coach For In A Virtual Environment

While additional competencies may emerge as sales organizations continue experimenting and learning, sales leaders need to work with enablement teams or external training organizations to train both sellers and managers on at least three skills that are required to succeed with virtual selling today.

Sales organizations first need to focus on what we call “virtual customer engagement.” This competency extends beyond just in-meeting interactions, and includes everything from prospecting to consensus building to handling complex negotiations in virtual channels. From there, leaders need to introduce, develop, and train on digital dexterity – the ambition and ability to use technology to achieve business outcomes. Finally, sales organizations need to focus on data literacy – the ability to read, write, and communicate data in context.

Leading Sales Coaching Initiative In 2021

Virtual will continue to be a big part of sales organizations’ customer engagement strategy for years to come, so sales leaders must acknowledge that this needs to be planned for appropriately. Have you done a customer understanding exercise recently? Do you know how your customers’ preferences have changed as to how they want to engage with your teams?

Sales leaders need to look at the trainings and tools currently in place. Do they specifically cover skills that are necessary for virtual selling? And are you enabling managers to effectively use technology to bring sales coaching truly into the 21st century?

For many sales organizations, it is past time to formalize the tools, processes, and trainings that teams will need for success during and after the pandemic. Sales leaders should start by assessing the current state of manager coaching and sellers’ experience with virtual selling to better understand where the gaps and opportunities exist. Leverage tools that allow you to adopt a data-driven approach to gauge areas of uncertainty around coaching and virtual selling. Using this data, sales organizations can then make more informed decisions regarding training initiatives and investments.

Danielle McKinley is director of research at Gartner.