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How to Coach Your B2B Sales Team Like Phil Jackson

5 min readApril 9, 2013

Former L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls head coach has a new book called Eleven Rings, in which he will detail his journey en route to becoming the most winning coach in the history of professional basketball. Phil Jackson’s often-unorthodox coaching style has won him the reputation as a transformative leader in the hyper-competitive world of pro hoops. But one needn’t be a fan of Bryant’s Lakers—or Jordan’s Bulls—to appreciate Phil Jackson’s zen-master approach to coaching. In fact, one needn’t even be a sports fan to glean valuable insights from his unique leadership style. Since B2B Sales can seem just as competitive, I often wonder what Phil would do if he was the coach of a B2B sales team.

After some reflection and meditation, I’ve arrived at some lessons from Phil’s coaching style and applied to B2B sales. By following these lessons, you just might see Phil Jackson-like results on your sales pipeline.

A Winning Team Plays as a Team

B2B Sales Techniques Phil JacksonUCLA hoops coach John Wooden once remarked, “the star of the team is the team.”  There could be no better way to sum up Phil Jackson’s coaching style. Jackson’s critics are quick to equate the coach’s success with having star players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (arguably the two best players in the history of pro hoops). However, Michael Jordan was the NBA’s top scorer during his first six seasons, but didn’t win a single title. It was only after Jackson took over as the Bulls’ head coach that Jordan started winning rings. This is because the team previously relied too heavily on Michael Jordan. One of Jackson’s mentors, the great Red Holzman, instructed Jackson to tell Michael Jordan that the sign of a great player wasn’t how many points he scored, but rather how he lifted his teammates’ performance.

In the world of B2B Sales you need to recruit stars. Without great players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Jackson would have had a much harder time winning rings. While it’s unrealistic to expect that every sales rep on your team is going to be a star, your top sales reps can lift the morale, mentor and raise the overall performance of the rest of the sales team. As a sales coach, rather than promoting an environment of cutthroat competition among your sales  reps, it can pay to incentivize collaboration. One way to do this is to reward an entire team if it meets a certain revenue goal, rather than offering individual incentives. This gives your star reps a vested interest in helping less-successful reps improve.

A Winning Team is Mentally Prepared

As a coach, Phil Jackson has always emphasized the importance of mental preparedness. He is famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for requiring his players to meditate. The meditation is an extension of Jackson’s Zen Buddhist approach to hoops. Jackson believes that players should have an “empty mind” when playing. This does not entail being dumb. Rather, Jackson coaches his players to learn to quiet distracting thoughts when playing, and instead focus on performing every act with undivided attention.

However, part of mental preparedness is to ensure that all relevant skills are properly honed so they can be executed without thought or distraction. Kobe Bryant is revered for the extra hours he puts into practicing his game. He has also spent countless hours with Phil Jackson watching videos of his game and analyzing ways that  his performance—as well as the team’s performance—could improve.

This same tactic can be applied to B2B sales. For example, we are currently working on a call recording feature to our mobile sales app in order to allow sales reps, as well as sales managers, to listen back to calls and analyze which sales tactics are working and which are not. When calls go well, call recordings will help reps and supervisors to identify ways that the rep broke past sticking points in order to close the deal. If reps keep encountering resistance from prospects on a particular issue, then it can be an opportunity for the team to work together to develop tactics to break past resistance.

A Winning Team Practices Relentless Execution

Phil Jackson is famous for his execution of the triangle offense. This strategy allows a high degree of ball movement and creates opportunities for any player to take a shot. To be clear, the triangle offense does not always work. Every Lakers fan has yelled at his TV set more than once while watching the team lose due to spotty offensive execution. But for every such memory, I have countless more of the triangle offense creating the opportunity for the Lakers to gain 20-30-point leads over rival teams.

As a sales leader, it’s important to not only help your reps hone their sales skills, and then give them the maximum number of opportunities to use those skills to close deals. Time that your reps have to spend with menial tasks like entering data manually into a CRM is time that they are not spending on the phone and closing deals (i.e. taking shots). As such, we designed our mobile CRM app to sync with Salesforce.com, in order to automatically log sales activities while your reps close deals.

A Winning Team Plays through the Pain

B2B Sales Techniques Kobe BryantWhen your team is under-performing, it can be tempting to bring in new talent in order to shake things up. But Phil Jackson is famous for doing the opposite. He often avoids calling time-outs during losing stretches, preferring to let players play through the pain and work out their own problems. His belief is that it instills poise in his teams, even when their opponents are on a colossal run. Again, these moments can be difficult for fans to watch, but it’s hard to argue with a man with his record.

The best way to apply this strategy to B2B Sales is by focusing on the big picture. There are bound to be rough stretches for any sales team. But what does a rough stretch matter if you win in the end? By tracking sales data in your CRM, you can help monitor which reps are on fire and which need to train harder. Sure, some reps might need to be “traded” to another organization (as the Lakers—thankfully!—traded Vladimir Radmanović in ’09). However, your sales agents can often up their game when given the opportunity to do so. It can take some time for new reps to get the hang of B2B Sales. But as long as reps show overall growth, it can pay to keep them in the game and enable them to build the poise required to be champions.