Coachability: the missing ingredient for creating a world-class sales team

Not every rep can become a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James of sales, here’s what you should look for in candidates when you’re hiring for a top-tier team

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Building a world-class sales team comes down to two key things: hiring great people and effective sales coaching.

Here’s the thing though, “great people” don’t need to be “perfect people.”

Few reps walk into an interview fully-formed—and in the rare case that they do know every best practice in the playbook, they don’t know everything about your company or your customers.

The most important character trait to look for when hiring a sales rep isn’t experience, it’s coachability.

Here’s what that means and how to identify coachable candidates and unlock their all-star potential.

What is coachability and what makes a seller “coachable?”

According to the Sales Readiness Group, coachable sales reps are capable of performing the job, receptive to feedback, likely to achieve measurable growth both personally and professionally.

Coachable sellers don’t shy away from tough feedback—they embrace it and use it as a learning experience.

But what does it mean to be “coachable?”

Admittedly, defining coachability is a little tricky—it doesn’t refer to any single trait, rather a handful of soft skills that indicate that a person has the capacity to change their behavior for the better.

Here are some of the key characteristics common among the “coachable:”

  • Flexibility
  • Active listening
  • Can follow instructions
  • Open to receiving feedback without getting defensive
  • Asks others for advice/input
  • Participates in group discussions
  • Learns from mistakes
  • Actively seeks opportunities to learn and improve
  • Embraces and adapts to change
  • Demonstrates self-awareness and has a realistic view of strengths and weaknesses

How to identify coachable sales reps

The traits I just mentioned all fall on the “soft” side of the skills spectrum, and are thereby hard to quantify and evaluate during the initial screening process.

While you can’t necessarily measure empathy or the desire to learn with a numerical score—at least not without introducing bias—you can incorporate a few tactics into your interview process to get a sense of what you’re working with.

Here are some ideas:

Ask the right questions

Instead of asking boring, open-ended interview questions like “tell me about your work experience.” Ask pointed questions that help you gather the information you’re looking for.

Still ask about work experience, but frame questions in a way that no matter the answer, candidates provide some insight into how they’re likely to respond to coaching.

A few examples:

  • What are your personal and career goals? Look for responses that suggest an intrinsic desire to learn new skills and improve existing ones. If they say something like “my goal is to become a sales director, VP, or make it to the C-Suite” with no mention of how they plan on making it happen, it could indicate that they view learning as someone else’s responsibility.Candidates with less experience or polish with a strong growth mindset and enthusiasm about learning—even if it means failing in front of others—are a better bet here, with the potential to become great salespeople with the right coach.
  • Tell me about a challenge or mistake you’ve dealt with on the job—what did you learn from that experience? This gives you some insight into how the candidate recovers from a setback—and whether they’re able to quickly move on, having learned a lesson they can apply to future situations.
  • Share an example of feedback you received from a manager. How did you use that information to improve? In a similar vein, this question is designed to give you a sense of how the candidate responds to feedback—do they ignore it or get defensive or use it to improve?

Engage candidates in a quick role-play exercise

One of the best ways to find out if a candidate is “coachable” is, well, engaging in a little coaching.

During the interview, ask the candidate to perform a short role-play exercise.
The key thing to keep in mind is, how the candidate responds to your request is more important than how well they perform.

Someone who gets flustered or resists the request is likely to have a hard time in future coaching sessions, workshops, and client interactions.

Look for someone eager to jump in, who responds to an impromptu exercise without missing a beat. These traits become crucial when reps start interacting with buyers and need to be able to adapt their strategy on-the-fly based on real-time data. In these situations, hesitation can cost you the deal.

Ask candidates to perform a self-evaluation

Here, you’re looking for thoughtful self-reflection and a willingness to be open about strengths and shortcomings.

Watch out for reps that are way off-base in their assessment.

Even if they’re able to receive negative feedback without getting defensive, an inability to identify what’s working or not (even when given specific examples) is a red flag.

Down the line, this person may end up making decisions based on an interpretation that doesn’t align with reality.

Incorporate actual coaching into the interview

After the candidate wraps up their self-assessment, provide a quick 1:1 coaching session to discuss their performance.
Keep it brief and share one piece of positive feedback and one piece of constructive criticism.

Remember, the goal is to observe their response—not to dig into every problem you observed.

Instead, focus on the interviewee’s body language, whether they’re asking clarifying questions, or taking notes—all signs that they’re engaged and open to receiving feedback—even if it’s tough.

Consider video coaching assignments

If you’re hosting remote interviews, want to pre-screen applicants before booking an official interview, or you’re just short on time, you might ask candidates to submit a short video assignment.

You can still have them perform the self-evaluation exercise and see how they respond to 1:1 coaching but you’ll save some time—and you’ll have a reusable template you can send to multiple candidates.

Avoid giving assignments during the application process. Some companies ask for short videos or assignments before communicating directly with applicants. This often forces applicants to invest extra effort before they know if you’re interested in them—or if they’re interested in meeting with you.

Coaching for performance

So you’ve hired a team of eager learners that are ready to grow into the best team in the world. Time for the playoffs, right?

Of course not. First you have to do the actual coaching to get them there. And the coaching program has to be as good as the players if they’re going to get anywhere.

Our recent research shows that over 25% of sales leaders don’t know how to track the effects of coaching. And 50% develop their coaching on the spot each time they meet with the team or individual reps.

To get reliable results, coaching should be systematic, and the impact must be trackable. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea if all of that time spent coaching is just going to waste, and you’ll have no way of orienting yourself towards more effective coaching.

Just tracking activity and revenue metrics and calling for bigger numbers doesn’t count. Coaching should improve performance in specific areas so that reps can close deals more reliably.

To find out where many organizations are going wrong and steer your team towards coaching that consistently drives revenue, we have conducted a benchmark research on the matter. Watch the webinar to learn more.

The importance of prioritizing sales coaching

So what’s the big deal? Developing a sales coaching program is an organization-wide initiative that can be really hard to implement correctly.

Well, organizations that fail to get it right stand to lose a lot.

As competitors surge ahead with modern sales tech and modern coaching, lagging sales orgs quickly lose their market share.

Right now, sales is changing fast. The strategies that worked last year, or even last month, may no longer resonate with buyers right now.

Sales organizations need to confront that new reality and focus on developing a program that builds responsive, data-driven sales teams capable of diagnosing and solving problems on their own.

The bottom line—if you don’t have a sales coaching program, it should be an urgent priority. Fortunately, if you’re still getting your coaching program together, we’ve set up a webinar with a couple of world-class sales management experts on just this topic.

Check out Coaching for Quota with Dr. Howard Dover and Jason Jordan on March 25th at 2pm ET and learn how you can build a coaching program that delivers measurable results for your sales team.