Sales and Sales Management Blog

November 22, 2010

The Bullshitization of Sales Coaching

Sales coaching is one of the key elements in turning knowing what to do into the actual behavior, the effective conversion of the knowledge into action.  The importance of sales coaching has come to the forefront in recent years thanks to a great extent to people such as my friend Keith Rosen.

Unfortunately, along with the rise of the recognition of the importance sales coaching and the accompanying increase in companies and individual sellers hiring professional coaches, comes the rise of those who want to make “easy” money off of those companies and sellers seeking coaching.  Today there are a growing number of “sales coaches” who have never been in sales or if they have, they have minimal experience.  There are also a number of websites offering “coaching” courses that claim that if you take their course, you too can enter the multi-billion dollar sales coaching industry and make a six figure income in just three to six months.

Selling is a complex activity.  To become a great salesperson means you have to acquire very specific skills; you have to develop a number of characteristics such as self-discipline, focus, curiosity, and a desire to solve problems; you have to have thick skin; you have to be able to overcome adversity.  Selling requires knowledge, skill, character, attitude, and action.  Becoming a top seller isn’t a journey of self-discovery; it is a journey of being taught, of being encouraged, of being corrected, of being pushed, pulled, prodded, and praised.

My friend Dave Brock is in the middle of publishing a great bog series on coaching.  I encourage you to start with his first post and read them all.  My intent here isn’t to duplicate Dave’s work.  Instead of talking in specifics about what sales coaching is and how to coach, I want to contrast what sales coaching in general is vs. what sales coaching isn’t, about the increasing numbers who are turning sales coaching into bullshit–the bullshitization of sales coaching.

I’ve been talking to Keith, Dave, and Jonathan Farrington a good deal recently about sales coaching and where it stands today.  And although we all have the same understanding and view of sales coaching, we each bring our own experiences to the table.  One common experience is noticing the explosion of unqualified “sales coaches” and the equally damaging coaching training courses that promise big money even for the most unqualified who complete their course.

I think Keith said it very well: “There’s the person who has been told and even trained by some of these coaching programs that, ‘You don’t need the answers or the experience to be a good coach.’ This is why you have a large population of unqualified people who think they can coach or simply change their title to ‘Coach.’ Conversely, there’s the coach who realizes you can’t take someone where you haven’t been before. This illustrates the importance of the coach to have not only the experience but is a walking and living model and example of what is possible for their clients to achieve.

Sales coaching is not a Zen self-discovery experience.  Many coaches have been taught, as Keith points out, that they don’t have to know, all they have to do is ask until the client discovers their own personal answer.  Ask the right questions and sooner or later the seller will discover their own unique answer. 

The model of sales coach as Zen Master simply doesn’t work.  Again, I’ll defer to Keith’s description:

“Unfortunately, due to the lack of experience and subject matter of many coaches, they can only speak to the self actualization type of questions and because they’ve never sold before, or managed a team before, or sold successfully or sold in that person’s similar type of selling environment, they don’t even know the right type of questions to even ask. This sometimes leads to ‘killing the client/person with coaching’ as in, continually asking questions until they arrive at the solution themselves. However, sometimes as the coach, you need to provide the answer. Then, it’s the coach’s job to uncover the gap to determine what the right solution is rather than continually asking more questions. For example, if you have a salesperson who never cold called before, coaching isn’t the initial approach. This person needs to be trained in the core competencies and best practices first, in order to develop a baseline before you can refine their performance through coaching.”

The model I think most appropriate for sales coaching comes from sports coaching.  Think Mike Ditka.  For those old enough to remember Ditka as a coach, he didn’t take any crap off anyone.  Yet he was admired and respected by his players.  And he was an extremely effective coach.  Why? 

First, he cared about his player’s success.  Coaching wasn’t a paycheck, it was a passion.  Ditka’s success was tied to his player’s success.  He wanted them to succeed as much as he wanted to succeed himself.  For him to be successful his players had to be successful.  He had skin in the game.

Second, he cared enough to help them become fully prepared to face and conquer the challenges they were to face.  Can you image Ditka standing on the practice field helping a linebacker work through the process of self-actualization to discover for himself the proper techniques to shuck a blocker?  Of course not.  He knew when to guide and when to teach; when to ask discovery questions and when to tell. 

Ditka wasn’t interested in self-discovery; he was interested in instilling in his players the proper attitude, skills, and knowledge that would allow them to reach their goals.  He understood that football isn’t about becoming; it’s about being—being the best you can be.  It is about having and using the skills that lead to great performance. He had a very specific purpose—help his players become the best football players they could be.  If in the meantime, they had an enlightening self discovery, all the better—but not necessary. 

Third, he demanded performance.  Frankly, Ditka didn’t care if the player learned anything new about himself or had a feel good discovery; he cared that the player performed–and whether we like it or not, that’s the exact same demand that is put on every salesperson.  Every one of us is judged on our performance, not whether we have warm/fuzzy feelings about our work or whether we discovered anything new about ourselves that day.

A sales coach, like Ditka, must hold their client accountable and must demand performance.  Warm fuzzies are all well and good but they are meaningless in the sales world.  That’s not to say that a sales coach doesn’t know when to guide through questions or when to give praise and even warm fuzzy feelings.  She does.  But for her, those are far from the only tools at her disposal.  In Dave’s words, “The coach should set high standards and expectations, teach, motivate, challenge, correct, praise, correct, discipline, chastise, ask, tell, coerce, cajole, shame, and sometimes beat the crap out of the person being coached.”  Sounds a lot like Mike Ditka.

Fourth, he had been where they wanted to go.  Ditka knew how to help his players get to the top because he had been there himself.  He knew what it took.  He had paid the price.  He had invested the time and effort and sacrifice to be successful.  He didn’t ask his players to do anything he hadn’t done himself.  He had the experience and credentials to demonstrate that he knew what he was talking about.  He knew the game not just because he had studied it or read about someone else’s experience and learned a bit of lingo, he knew the game because he had invested his life in it.  He lived it.  He had real street cred.

There’s a great deal of bullshit in the sales coaching market today.  Everybody thinks they can be a sales coach because after all, it’s easy, right?  Print up some business cards; learn a bit of sales related jargon–metrics, win/win, customer centric, value added, consultative selling, pipeline, and such; write out a few “discovery” questions you can ask clients; and you’re in business.

If you’re thinking about acquiring a sales coach for your team—or for yourself—take a close look at your options.  Be careful.  The more visibility sales coaching gets, the more bullshitization will take place.  Yes, that former telemarketer who has taken a coaching course and printed a business card may be a whole lot cheaper than that known sales expert, but what you save in a coaching fee now, you’ll have to spend later to get real coaching. 

You need a coach, not a warm, fuzzy experience that leads nowhere.  You need someone who can get you where you want to go, not someone who has read a book or two and learned how to ask a couple of “deep” questions.  You need a Mike Ditka, not the latest pseudo Zen Master.



  1. Great post Paul! Coaching sales people is one of the highest leverage activities of sales managers. Unfortunately, I think misguided political correctiness has created a really distorted view of what coaching is and how to be effective in coaching. Thanks for this really thoughtful post. I hope it stimulates a great discussion. Regards, Dave

    Comment by Dave Brock — November 22, 2010 @ 10:16 am | Reply

  2. Now that is telling it like it is – well said Paul. Coaching in sales, or any field, is replete with those who have self proclaimed insights and expertise. As in any endeavor the finest leaders and performers rarely promote themselves over the experience. No one has the ‘right’ answers and we all have experience of one sort or another. Much like I would hesitate to take advice about running a business from someone who has not run a business, listen to someones opinion on war from someone who hasn’t been to war, marriage from a divorcee, or raising a child from someone who hasn’t succeeded in that joyous endeavor, I give short shrift to self proclaimed “experts”. I might listen, but would hesitate to take sales advice from someone who has not had very credible, verifiable and documented (numeric) success at closing in the trenches. Theory is fine for nice philosophical conversation – but give me someone who has performed and earned respect in any endeavor and my attention and likelihood of following that insight goes off the chart.

    Comment by Dan Collins — November 22, 2010 @ 10:27 am | Reply

  3. Hi Paul

    Wonderfully put. Totally agree with what you’re saying.

    I think in some ways the world’s going crazy. Everybody’s leaping on the next get rich quick scheme they think they can market on the intermet and become millionaires overnight.

    I’ve been following a thread on a LinkedIn group about cold calling. The number of so-called experts spouting arrant self-promoting bullshit is amazing. “Just do this and you’ll have a million new prospects tomorrow…” The sad thing is, there are plenty of people who believe it.

    If only life were so easy!


    Sales Success and More

    Comment by Mike — November 22, 2010 @ 3:58 pm | Reply

  4. Your post Paul is not only right on, but needs to be at the beginning of any discussions. The other thing I have noticed is companies offering sales coaching certification or business coaching, etc. to people who in many cases lack sales experience, people experience and knowledge experience. These firms have an academia mentality that certification immediately translates into doing. There is not substitute for proven experience.

    I do believe there is some self discovery provided it is guided and reinforced with hard data such as those from proven assessments. What I have observed is most people including those in sales do not know their talents and thus work harder not smarter. By having the new knowledge of their talents, they can they set goals and leverage those talents to even a greater degree. Remember, even a doctor will run tests first before any diagnosis. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Leanne Hoagland-Smith — November 24, 2010 @ 7:20 am | Reply

  5. You are so right. It took me twenty years to become an expert sales coach, now you can do it, and get a Diploma on line, after 4 hours. Measuring a Sales Coach is easy, “do I improve after every coaching session?”
    think the attached article is both funny and true about current trendy coaching.

    Comment by Brian MacIver — November 24, 2010 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  6. Paul,

    Your thoughts are right on! Sales is the most difficult job in an organization and the real pros are a rare breed. It is amazing to see all of these management blogs that are written by people with no real experience. Many are just spewing some philosophy they read in a book. Maybe someone should start a coaching program for them and call it “Pretenders Anonymous”. They are going to need all of the help they can get pretty soon. Great coaching is about Leadership… you can’t fake it and you can’t get it out of a book!

    John Halter

    Comment by John Halter — November 27, 2010 @ 2:35 am | Reply

  7. You’re totally on the point! It’s almost so easy to “fake it” in the world wide web. Any self-proclaimed “coach” can get a website up and running with big bold letters asking those deep zen master like questions. The thing is, some actually respond to it. In the end what they take from the experience is a lesson below par from what they could have learned from a real coach.

    Fastforward Training and Development

    Comment by Noel — November 29, 2010 @ 1:18 am | Reply

  8. Loved the article supplied by Brian. How many times does the arrogance of those in charge because their belief in the process supercedes the results? These behaviors are all about them and not about the potential customer.

    Possibly this is why I believe:
    1.You only need 5 basic questions from which to understand the potential buyer
    2.You as the salesperson are in a far better position when you become the “buying partner.”

    Comment by Leanne Hoagland-Smith — November 29, 2010 @ 9:15 am | Reply

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments and insights.

    The only regret I have about this article is that I received several emails from folks who have a completely different point of view and who wouldn’t post their thoughts here but instead preferred to give me their opinions-in no uncertain terms–privately. Not surprisingly, they were folks who probably felt my words struck a little too close to home. I think the discussion would have been much more lively had they made their views public–although I can certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to.

    Anyway, I think it critical that those engaged in real sales coaching, and as Dan points out, coaching in any field–must do a better job of getting the word out about what coaching is and what it isn’t, as well as what expectations are realistic. As Noel says, the web has made it so easy to market and promote that anyone can now be a self-proclaimed expert–and as Mike points out, there will always be those who fall for it.

    Comment by Paul McCord — December 3, 2010 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  10. […] He is as smart and thoughtful as they come, and sometimes provocative. For selfish reasons, this is one of my recent favorites. I recommend you add his blog to your RSS […]

    Pingback by The Annual Top Sales Awards (Part Two) — December 17, 2010 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

  11. […] He is as smart and thoughtful as they come, and sometimes provocative. For selfish reasons, this is one of my recent favorites. I recommend you add his blog to your RSS […]

    Comment by Sharron Clemons — December 21, 2010 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

  12. Paul, this one hell of a post and anything I add would detract.

    Comment by Gary S. Hart — January 17, 2011 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

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