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From Home Furnishing Business

Team Coach or Waterboy?

By: Tom Zollar

While the title of this article might make you chuckle (particularly if you liked the movie), it actually should be pretty scary to some.

In almost 40 years of working on the retail and wholesale sides of the industry, I have seen examples of both. In the first case, the sales manager leads, motivates and drives sales through the team, and in the second the manager provides support for the sales team by taking care of things that might prevent them from doing the job. Both approaches can work in certain situations, but only one maximizes performance. Which is it?

Most of us would say in retail selling, it is best to have a sales manager be a coach that consistently drives improvements, while the operations and office staff support selling. Historically, that is what we’ve seen in most successful home furnishing stores. Yet, in many stores, the sales manager spends 80 percent of his or her time supporting the sales effort and 20 percent leading it. Opposite of what needs to be if you want a coach instead of a waterboy.

Being on the floor and involved in the selling effort at your store is critical, but many sales managers spend too much time at a desk, removed from the sale floor. A real coach spends the majority of time where the action is, observing what players are doing, offering feedback for improvement and making plans to help employees improve. They coach and train to manage the team’s growth and development.

Often associated with athletics, the person charged with improving is the coach. It might be a hitting or fielding coach in baseball, a quarterback or line coach in football or a swing coach in golf. No matter the sport or the position, chances are there is a coach dedicated to improvement. That’s what retailers need for their sales team.

Perhaps the problem stems from the name we give the position. Is a sales manager different from a sales coach? A big part of the confusion could come from our perception of managing versus coaching. Managing is defined as “to be in charge of something such as a store, department, or project and be responsible for its smooth running and for any personnel employed”, by Microsoft’s Encarta Dictionary. The same source defines coaching as “the profession of training and guiding teams”. A manager is a director, administrator and supervisor, while a coach is a trainer, teacher and instructor.

The definitions seem quite different, but if you think it through, they really are not when applied to competitive environments like sports and selling. All managers are responsible for running a smooth operation, but they are also accountable for delivering results. Be it consistently excellent deliveries, customer service, office support or sales volume, they are expected to maintain and improve the store’s performance in each area. The good ones accomplish this by focusing on being a team’s performance coach and using training, teaching and communication skills to drive improvement. It is hard to be a successful manager without also being a good coach.

Whether you like sports analogies or not they are a great way to look at the selling situation. Much like athletics, we deal with creating and maintaining winning behaviors on the sales floor just like the playing field. With that in mind, let’s study the most successful teams to determine the importance of the coaching role.

Other than operations functions, most teams are made up of three main sets of people—owners, coaches and players. We want our favorite team to have the best individuals in all areas because that gives them the best chance of winning a championship. Which of the three roles holds the key to success in a game? The coach, of course. Have you ever seen a team with a weak coach win big time? Probably not. How about examples of great coaches taking over a weak team and turning them into winners? Happens all the time. It is the coaching role that drives a team’s success. The coach is the day-to-day grinder that knows what is supposed to be happening on the field of play and makes sure his players are consistently doing it.

Historically the best teams have an owner that hires the best coaches, helps them get the best players, and supports them. That is what should happen in stores. Hire and develop sales managers that can hire, train, coach and motivate sales associates to win the game on the selling floor. In most stores I have seen, there is a person in place that has the potential to be the sales coach. However, so much emphasis has been placed on the operational side of the business that they don’t have the time to be on the floor. They are too busy taking care of routine customer service issues, creating reports for management or printing sales tags to play a role in what’s happening out on the floor.

Much of what these sales managers are doing is necessary and should be part of their role, however, it’s imperative to ensure those tasks don’t overwhelm them and keep them from doing their most important function—making sales happen. Again, a sales coach should be spending about 80 percent of their time on the floor working with team members and driving sales, and 20 percent supporting the process.

Yet another sports movie analogy—show me the money!

Here’s a bit of proof from a store that reinvigorated its sales management effort in early 2011 as the industry was rebounding from the recession. The manager had assumed other responsibilities and was no longer devoting much time to coaching the sales team. The retailer installed an upgraded sales tracking system, retrained the sales manager and team, and continued to focus on coaching to improve the staff and their performance.

Note: The black line reflects the number of ups per month and the solid green line indicates the revenue per up each month. The dash green line is a trend line based on a two-month running average.








What did it mean for this business? In the three-year effort the retailer was able to take its revenue per up from the lower $400s to more than $550. It continued to drive improvement through 2014, ending up that year at almost $600. As a result, the retailer did $1.15 million more volume on about the same traffic last year than they did before restarting the sales coaching process. That’s an enviable 27 percent increase over the last few years.

The bottom line is that everyone wants to be on a winning team and they can’t do that without coaching. Make sure you have a sales coach and not a sales Waterboy.

Editor’s Note: Tom Zollar is retail operations practice manager for Impact Consulting where he creates and delivers sales training for retailer sales associates and managers, facilitates retail performance groups, coaches managers and helps retailers grow their business. In other words, he’s our resident coach … without the whistle.

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