The Best Coaching Question Ever

Become a better sales coach and sales manager today.

Using this one strategy can mean the difference between developing a mediocre team of dependent, transactional order-takers or a team of accountable, top performing champions. It’s all how you choose to communicate – in less than one minute. If you have time to give answers then you have time to coach.

Excerpt from Keith’s award-winning book, SALES LEADERSHIP.

“I get it, Keith. I see how important coaching is to my organization, my sales team, and for me to grow as a leader. But c’mon, let’s be honest. Sometimes you simply don’t have time to coach. To move business forward as a manager, quite often, people are waiting on you and you have to act fast.

Sometimes, you’re in a pressure situation where something has to get done; a deal needs to be closed, a customer issue needs to be resolved, a decision needs to be made, and you just have to be directive with your team and tell them what they have to do. Right?”

Not exactly.

“Coaching Takes Too Long”

It saddens me to think how many senior leaders and frontline sales managers fall into this toxic, limiting thinking that breeds mediocrity, not innovation. This very belief is also the reason why these leaders aren’t growing, why their sales aren’t increasing, why market share is dwindling and why their people aren’t performing to their peak potential.

    • “But coaching takes longer.”
    • “But sometimes you need to tell people what to do.”
    • “But sometimes you have to give people the answer.”
    • “But how can you expect me to consistently coach all of my direct reports when I’m getting pulled in twenty different directions, fires needs to be extinguished, customers need to be serviced, and deals need to be closed!”
    • “But I already know best!”
    • “But what if it’s more of a ‘management’ conversation than a ‘coaching’ conversation. (Do yourself a favor. Don’t over-engineer this. There’s no difference. Leading, managing or coaching? They are all synonymous. That’s why every conversation is a coaching conversation because coaching is simply a language.)

And the one that managers all seem to fall victim to:

  • “But what if they say they don’t know and need an answer?”

For the most part, managers have successfully over-engineered coaching, just like they have done with many other things. It’s a paradox. Your strength is also your weakness. Many of the leaders I work with are so smart, that their intelligence and experience can actually hinder their ability to coach. “It can’t be that simple,” they think.

What if it was? Now again, I’m not saying it will always be simple, nor am I suggesting that this strategy I’m about to share with you will replace the need to go through a formal sales leadership coach training program delivered by a Master Certified Coach.

Coaching vs. Telling

Here’s something to consider. What if the majority of the conversations you have when you’re in problem solving, directive mode; where you feel compelled to provide an answer because you believe time is of the essence, can be transformed into meaningful, engaging coaching conversations that take just as long as telling someone what to do?

And here’s a crazy thought. What if the coaching conversation can actually take less time than telling someone what to do?

Intrigued? Then consider this.

If you have time to provide someone an answer, then you have time to coach.

The reality is, some coaching conversations can be facilitated using just one simple question. That’s right. Just one question can empower someone to come up with their own ideas and solutions.

And as we’ve learned, what you create, you own. And if you own it, you’re more apt to act on it. That’s why the greatest leaders don’t struggle with building personal accountability within their team. They allow their team to do the work.

Let’s set the stage. One of your salespeople approaches you with a timely, pressing issue.

“Boss, I really need your help on closing this deal. As you know, I’ve been working this deal for the last year and have it in my forecast for this quarter. Unfortunately, now the customer is pushing back and all of a sudden they’re looking for a better discount. Something’s going on in procurement and I’m not sure what to do. I know you have a relationship with the CFO, so can you please call the CFO and help me out here, or just tell me what I need to do?”

Of course, I’m sure you, as a sales manager, have never been in a situation like this before. (I trust my sarcasm is translating.)

Here is your defining moment that, depending upon your messaging and how you communicate, will either create a new possibly, or well, something less desirable. Here are the two basic options you have at this very moment.

Saleshog Day

Option One: You can call the CFO, tell your salesperson what to do or worse, you can do the work for them, believing that doing so will save you time, be more efficient and allow you to move on to the next task on your plate.

The result? Failure. If you’ve seen the movie, Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, then you know what I’m referring to here. It’s the story of a guy who wakes up every day, repeating the same day exactly the same way. He finds himself trapped in a time warp, doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right.

What’s my point here? Well, if you’ve ever felt like you’re reliving the same day over and over again, here’s your chance to get it right. Have you ever had a repetitive or redundant conversation with someone? What does that tell you? Either they’re not listening to you, not understanding you, or you didn’t get to the root cause of the issue. And the reason why they may not be listening to you is because you may be telling them something that they already know.

Redundancy turns off listening.

Once someone feels they’re being talked at or not getting what they want or need, they stop listening. To compound this, if you’re not asking questions, then you’re assuming the facts and consequently, wind up solving the wrong problems or providing ineffective solutions.

The Billion Dollar Coaching Question

Option Two: Rather than choose to be in reactive or directive mode, choose this powerful coaching strategy as your second option instead.

“I’m happy to share my opinion with you, Tim. However you’re much closer to this (customer, situation, etc.) than I am and I trust you and your judgment on this. So, what’s your opinion on how to (handle this, move forward, resolve this, land this account, communicate to the team in a way they would be open to hearing your ideas, etc.)?”

Then, depending upon how they answer, follow up with:

“Thanks for sharing your opinion on this, I really appreciate it. Let’s walk through that (solution, scenario, approach, strategy, etc.) together to (ensure it will achieve the results you want/see how it could play out) and together, share some best practices each of us have used in the past in similar situations in order to create the best possible outcome for you (and your customer).”

Five Parts of the Billion Dollar Coaching Question

Part 1: “I’m happy to share my opinion with you”

Acknowledge that you will be sharing exactly what they have asked for, keeping them engaged.

Part 2: “However, you’re much closer to this situation than I am”

Many times, it’s the seller who has the relationship with the customer and is much closer to the customer than their manager. This statement acknowledges their position, role, and most important, their accountability in their scenario or issue, in a positive way.

Part 3: “And I trust you and your judgment on this.”

This statement alone is so powerful. How often does someone say this to you? Do you hear this often? And if you do, how does it make you feel? What does this do for your self-worth and confidence? Acknowledging you trust someone and believe in their abilities builds their confidence. It also builds a deeper, more trusting relationship with your team, as well as their trust in you.

Part 4: “So, what’s your opinion on how to handle this?”

Here’s the coaching moment you have created. Seek to understand their opinion and viewpoint before sharing yours. Otherwise, you may find yourself creating your own Groundhog Day scenario.

Just the sheer act of respecting, actively listening, and truly wanting to understand their point of view builds trust and stimulates the Law of Reciprocity. That is, if you respect their opinion, authentically care, are insatiably curious, and give them the gift of your listening and attention, they will do the same for you. This fosters trust, deeper collaboration, and is the formula to spark remarkable innovation. Besides, what people really want in their career and from their manager is to be acknowledged, to be heard, to be able to contribute, and to be respected.

Finally, think about how long it took to ask that question. Much less time than giving an answer and you’re empowering others to do the work, and own it.

Part Five: “Thanks for sharing your opinion on this, I really appreciate it. Let’s walk through that (solution, scenario, approach, strategy, etc.) together to (ensure it will achieve the results you want/see how it could play out) and together, share some best practices each of us have used in the past in similar situations in order to create the best possible outcome for you (and your customer).”

Once you hear their opinion, depending upon what you hear, you can follow up with this question, allowing you to explore and solidify their solution further, without making them wrong. Why does this work in every scenario? Because you will hear one of three general responses after asking the first part of this strategy.

  1. The opinion/solution they provide is spot on and may even be better than what you proposed. So, congratulate them and tell them to run with it!
  2. The opinion/solution they shared is half baked. If this is the case, use the question above.
  3. The opinion/solution they provide is way off base. And again, if this is the case, use the second question above to walk through the solution together.

By taking this approach, you’re collaborating with them on creating the best possible solution, rather than turning it into either an interrogation or worse, telling them that, “Your solution will not work and here’s what you need to do.” Taking the latter approach will erode the trust between you and the person you’re coaching, in addition to invalidating them and making their opinion wrong. And opinions are not right or wrong, they’re just opinions.

In addition, once the boss tells them what to do, what solution do you think they’re going to go with? Yours of course, and again, you’ve succeeded in being the Chief Problem Solver. That’s why you need to exercise patience to have them explore their opinion through to completion so the coachee can see the gaps for themselves. Then together, you can refine and come up with the best possible solution or strategy.

Remember, you always need to seek to understand their point of view first so that you can uncover what they know in every conversation. Otherwise, you’ll run the risk of being redundant and telling them things they already know! Plus, if they create it, they own it!

Ask For an Opinion, Not a Solution

A few months ago, while delivering a one day sales leadership coaching workshop for a team of senior leaders, we were addressing this very point. After sharing this powerful coaching tool, a manager immediately questioned it’s validity. “Keith, I can see how this can work on some people but other people will not want to give you an answer. Whether it’s because you’re their manager, they don’t want to look bad, don’t trust you, know you’ll give them the answer anyway, or they really just don’t know, you get the “I don’t know. You tell me, boss.”

My response, “The statement, ‘I don’t know’ certainly carries a different meaning for each person. However, I don’t want you to ask them for the answer. Let me share with you the question again.”

“Oh,” the manager said. I didn’t hear you use the word opinion the first time. Or I guess I’m not seeing the difference between an opinion and solution. Why is that important?”

“Because every single person on this planet has an opinion. If you ask some people for an answer or solution, you will often hear, “I don’t know.” However, even if someone may not have an answer, everyone has an opinion because an opinion is not right or wrong. They just are.

Like a surgeon, each word you choose is critical and carries a different meaning for each of us. Precision in your language and in the questions you ask is critical to become an elite coach.

The best part about this strategy is, you can use it immediately, in your very next conversation!

Ideally, the manager would go through the proper steps to ensure there is trust, create buy-in and alignment around coaching, establish clear expectations around coaching, and structure a coaching cadence. And yes, the manager would ensure that they have the right people on their team.

However, if there’s a baseline of trust in the relationship, combined with authenticity, transparency, care and precise communication, this one coaching strategy can achieve all of these objectives at once.

Of course, tweak the positioning statement and question to best fit the situation. You will be pleasantly amazed how responsive people are to this and how much more of an impact you will make.

Photo Credit: Keith Nerdin