What's the best way of taking a good salesperson and making him or her even better? Sales coaching would be the top response from a number of managers and executives across North America. However, the concept of sales coaching can be rather nebulous and many businesses approach this process from a variety of angles. This was further exemplified at the Sales Excellence Canada Conference earlier this year, where key leaders struggled to define the improvement process.

Steven Rosen, a sales expert, points to the definition offered by the Corporate Executive Board for guidance: "Sales coaching is an ongoing and dynamic series of job-embedded interactions between a sales manager and sales rep, designed to diagnose and correct/reinforce behaviors, specific to that individual." The board adds that "effective coaching will tend to be formal, highly structured, deliberate and regularly scheduled. The unique advantages of coaching stem from how it is tailored to the individual and delivered at the point of need."

All sales coaching programs should be designed with that explanation in mind. Programs need to be tailored to the individual to capitalize on each person's strengths and weaknesses. They also need to be relevant to the business goals of the company.

One of the most critical aspects of coaching initiatives is establishing the relationship between the mentor and the salesperson. Sales managers looking to further improve their training programs need to build trust with trainees by "taking off their management helmets and putting on their coaching hats," Rosen adds.

"The coaching hat is about being non-judgmental and allowing the individual to be open in the discussion of behaviors and/or performance challenges. Trust is the foundation for coaching," Rosen explains.

Perhaps the best way of establishing that trust is by asking questions. Skilled salespeople often have a certain amount of pride in their work, and when they've been performing at a high caliber, they are likely confident in their abilities. Remember that sales coaching is designed to supplement their experience, not start them over from square one.

With that in mind, coaches should avoid telling salespeople what to do. Rather, they should ask effective questions that force trainees to think about how and why they do things a specific way. Suggest other ways of achieving better results and help salespeople find solutions, but don't tell them specifically how to do their jobs.