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Bonus Focus - Sales Coaching in the Cloud


By Joy Van Skiver

You may have the best cloud-based technology for creating sales coaching reports. But if the content is weak, the results are weak.

In a survey of field coaching reports (FCRs) from pharmaceutical companies, only 21 percent provided the strong direction that makes a difference in someone’s performance. There was little or no direction in 79 percent. So, why do we call them coaching reports?

When reps aren’t performing up to speed, often the problem is not lack of effort or incompetence: They simply don’t know what they need to do. That’s where coaching comes in.

Why Strong FCRs are Important

On the surface, your sales team’s FCRs probably look like they have sufficient information. Managers have filled in the fields with words and sentences and have included references to the day’s calls. But, most managers need to ask three questions:

  1. Is my direction as strong as it could be?
  2. Have I missed opportunities to stress what I said face-to-face?
  3. Do my reps act on the advice I offer?

When managers beef up their feedback and direction for reps, the business outcomes are significant:

  • No surprises at performance review time! The last thing any manager wants to hear is this far-too-common complaint: “But you didn’t tell me that, and you didn’t explain how I could meet that expectation.”
  • More time to focus on strategy and the bigger picture.
  • Because reps “get it” the first time, there’s less need to repeat the same coaching over and over.
  • Better performance yields increased sales. Well-coached reps improve.
Getting the Most out of FCRs

Despite the very clear name of "coaching report," there’s a huge misconception about the purpose of FCRs. They’re not status reports, and they’re not performance reviews.

Too many coaching reports focus on account details more than a rep’s behavior; that’s not coaching. Too many coaching reports sound like performance reviews where there’s almost no direction. FCRs definitely address performance, but it’s in the context of coaching. The coaching a manager provides is based on a rep’s performance. Here’s what coaching reports should do:

  • Reinforce face-to-face coaching. Research has proven that people are more likely to remember what they hear when they also see it in print. Yes, that’s fine in theory, you say, but reps don’t bother reading the reports. Why not? They don’t see any value in them! That needs to change.
  • Ensure that reps get the message. Sometimes reps feel overwhelmed or they may be tired at the end of the day. If they’re not completely focused on what the manager is saying in person, FCRs fill the gaps.
  • Make writing performance reviews easier. FCRs can provide valuable information when it’s time to remember someone’s behavior throughout the year.

As pharma sales forces shrink, it makes good business sense to stretch what we get out of a process that’s already in place.

Specific Direction

A strong coaching report always gives specific direction. Without realizing it, however, managers fill FCRs with vague observations and directions like this: "Nice job! As we discussed, however, your planning needs to be improved."

Reps reading that kind of feedback are not likely to ask their manager, "What did I do that was a nice job?" They probably won’t ask what they can do to improve their planning. Instead, they’ll simply disregard the comments, and the manager will have missed an opportunity to reinforce what was said during the curbside coaching.

It’s quite possible the rep doesn’t improve the planning, doesn’t reach sales goals and the manager ends up repeating the same direction on the next field visit.

The long-range impact of vague comments may be more serious. When the rep questions a rating and recommendation at performance review time and says, "But I did improve my planning," where’s the proof that the rep followed or didn’t follow the manager’s recommendation?

Position of Strength

Strong coaching reports zero in on substance and direction: “Your probing questions on all your calls today resulted in a lot of information you can use to close on these accounts. To keep focused on what matters for each customer, plan ahead now for your next call. Create a specific agenda to refer to before each call to help you control the sales process.”

When reps read specific comments like that, they know exactly what they did right and exactly what they can do to improve.

Managers who like to use “nice job” in their FCRs need to check the sentence immediately after it to make sure they’ve explained what they mean by “nice job.” Or, they can choose to replace “nice job” with something specific. A logical sentence starts with “You” or “Your.”

Action Words

In the vague example above, what does a manager mean by “your planning needs to be improved?”

Managers who tend to write statements like that in their FCRs need to replace them with direction that can’t possibly be misunderstood. In the specific example above, it only took two sentences to make the direction meaningful.

Starting sentences with action words is the most obvious way to give direction. (“Create a specific agenda to refer to before each call to help you control the sales process.”) Note in the “Create” sentence that the manager followed the direction with a reason why. That’s a very effective way to motivate a rep. In this situation, the rep wants to control the sales process because that’s a likely precursor to closing the sale.

Here’s a case where a manager used a trite expression that a rep may not question, but the rep might not have the slightest idea what to do: “I sensed that you were taking too soft an approach with Dr. T. While you may have to be somewhat careful in how you approach him, you may be handling him too much with kid gloves.”

What exactly does the manager mean by “handling him too much with kid gloves?”

If the manager clarifies that vague generality, the rep is more likely to make a change in behavior: “During most of your call with Dr. T, you were listening, not asking questions. While listening certainly helps to build relationships, remember that the right questions also show your customer you’re interested. Next time, before your call with him or others who have a similar personality, prepare three specific questions to ask very directly.”

New Opportunity

It’s time to put more coaching in coaching reports!

Since managers have to complete an FCR for every field visit, why not encourage them to give their reports more value? Why not direct reps to actually use the reports?

Now that coaching reports are easily accessible in the cloud, it’s a perfect opportunity to change old ways of merely filing the report and not referring to it again. Managers should encourage reps to:

  • Start every Monday morning by taking 5 minutes to read through the comments on the last FCR.
  • Re-read the last FCR the day before the next field visit.
  • Give a brief recap of the last FCR at the beginning of the next field visit.

Strong FCRs can take center stage in ongoing coaching! And when they do, everybody’s a winner.

Joy Van Skiver, president and founder of The Writing Exchange, works with sales managers to maximize the impact of coaching reports and coaching emails. She’s the author of The Email Companion as well as three other books and one CD-ROM. Joy can be reached at


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