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Commercial coaching: the supercharged coaching approach


Mind Gym's Octavius Black gives us a glimpse of the future of commercial coaching.

Thirty years ago, Neil Rackham’s study of over 35,000 sales calls in 20 countries revolutionised selling. The product-led, hard sell was out; Rackham’s consultative SPIN selling – asking numerous questions – was in.

But there’s a problem with open questions: customers might raise problems that you can’t solve. A 2012 study by the Corporate Executive Board found that successful sales reps don’t bombard customers with facts or ask endless questions. Instead, they offer insight and challenge their customers’ thinking, asking targeted questions to lead the customer towards their solution. This ‘commercial teaching’ approach means salespeople can get to the end result faster, without acquiescing to their clients’ every whim. It’s high time performance coaching underwent a similar epiphany.

Managers used to approach development like an apprenticeship, telling employees exactly what to do and how. Monkey see, monkey do. Not only is this disenfranchising for the individual, it limits their ability to problem solve in new situations. Recently, asking infinite questions has been in vogue: ‘what do you think you should do? What would you say if you did know the answer?’ While more empowering than a show and tell approach, if the pendulum swings too far towards ‘ask’, coaching becomes bloated and lacks direction. Individuals get frustrated and managers lose control. It’s difficult to know how to deal with an underperformer if, when asked ‘how do you think you’re doing?’, they respond with ‘fantastically! Can I have a raise?’

Commercial coaching balances ask and tell. Managers aren’t afraid to share their point of view and valuable insights. The conversation swings between being directive and collaborative, with targeted questions helping manager and employee agree on solutions together. Crucially, it focuses on future improvements rather than dwelling on past problems – like solution-focused therapy.

The commercial coaching ILED model builds on the well-known GROW model (Goals, Reality, Options, Way forward) and has been used to tremendous effect to transform the performance of branch managers in a UK telecommunications company. ILED allows managers to zoom in and out between the specific and the expansive, always giving clear guidance to keep the conversation on track. It goes like this:

  • Ideal – immerse yourself in what ‘excellent’ looks like. Use questions like ‘if you were the best in the team at cross-selling, what exactly would you be doing? What would customers and colleagues see, hear and feel?’ Push them to get 3D: ‘what else?’ Share your thoughts to help them raise the bar – ‘you’d ask lots of questions, you’d catch clues in what people say, you’d hear customers laughing’.  
  • Locate – zoom in on their current performance. Whereas 'Ideal' is about imagining the ideal future, 'Locate' is grounded in facts about the past and present. Give constructive feedback based on specific, observable behaviours: ‘last Tuesday you immediately apologised when a customer said they weren’t interested in our broadband offer’.  If they’re struggling to objectively evaluate their performance, ask them to rate themselves on a scale of 1 – 10 and to give firm evidence to back up their score. If they say 7, get them to describe precisely what they’d be doing differently if they were a 9.
  • Explore – get imaginative again and discuss all the ways in which they might close the gap between the ideal and the reality. Don’t stick with their first suggestion but keep pushing for alternatives. Sometimes it's the 'how' that isn't working or the reason why we aren't performing at our best. Offer your own insights: ‘have you thought about… could you try…?’  
  • Do – create specific next steps and ask what might get in the way. Delve deeper into their rebuttals together. ‘Customers only want to buy what they came into the store for’ could be based on a single unsuccessful experience. Push them to come up with ways to overcome anticipated challenges. Coaching is a continuous conversation so set a time to observe them in action again and schedule another chat.

There’s plenty of evidence that coaching improves performance. When commercial coaching was rolled out in the telco, branches’ ability to hit their revenue targets rose by a whopping 29%. 55% of the branch managers whose performance had improved had been coached by their manager. None of the branch managers whose performance had flatlined had.

Today’s managers spend just 10% of their time developing their direct reports. It’s no wonder that long-winded, question-heavy coaching is often abandoned in favour of show and tell. Organisations who equip managers with commercial coaching skills will see performance improvements in half the time, creating a disproportionately high return.

For more great, hands-on coaching tips, download the Mind Gym white paper on dynamic performance management for free at

Octavius Black is CEO of Mind Gym

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