Whenever I have a chance, I like to talk to participants in my sales management workshop several months afterwards to find out what has stuck with them. One recent conversation with a sales manager touched on a theme that gets mentioned a lot: how to find the line between coaching a rep so they improve (a long-term fix) vs. telling them what to do (a short-term fix).

“My reps often come to me and describe something they want to do or have just done, then ask for feedback,” this sales manager told me. “Of course I always take the time to give them my opinion because I’m very serious about making sure I support my reps.”

However, he added, going through my workshop made him rethink this strategy.

“I realized that maybe I’ve been helping them too much—being too specific about what think is going on,” he said. “That may help solve an immediate issue, but the more I tell them what to do, the less they have a chance to self-evaluate or improve their critical thinking skills.”

A simple switch that improves critical thinking

I asked him what he’d done as a result of this insight.

“I’m still going to respond when a rep asks for a feedback.” he replied. I asked him to describe what “inquire first” meant to him.

“Well, I’m always really tempted to jump in and tell my reps what I think—especially when they are asking for my opinion! But I’m teaching myself to ask them a self-evaluation question first,” he said. Example questions he gave included:

• What do you think is best—and why?

• What happened the last time you had a situation like this? How did it work out? What are you doing differently this time around?

This simple switch in his approach allows him to get a better handle on how well a rep can assess different situations. “I’m getting better insights into their thinking, and I can see where each rep is going wrong in their analysis and where each one is strong,” he explained. “That helps me provide better coaching.”

One other switch he’s made has been how he wraps up the coaching conversations. “After we’ve discussed the reps’ analysis, I ask them ‘How can I help?’ I’m not offering to solve the problem or implement a change for them—I’m offering to help them learn for themselves how to do it.”

The self-improving rep

As I wrapped up the conversation with this sales manager, I asked him if he realized the full impact of his new approach. He asked me to explain.

“By helping reps get better at their analyses, you’re creating self-improving reps!,” I said. “They’re going to be able to do better and better even when you’re not around—which, since none of us can be everywhere at all times, is a very good thing.”

Inquire first. Advise second. That’s a sure-fire formula to improve your coaching and your team.