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Sales Managers, What Can We Learn from the NBA’s Greatest Coaches?

Revenue Blog  > Sales Managers, What Can We Learn from the NBA’s Greatest Coaches?
4 min readDecember 29, 2020

The NBA has a history of great coaches. Charged with leading their teams through countless lessons, practices, and games, these coaches must empower, improve, and harmonize their players to ensure they perform at their best. Similarly, sales managers are responsible for leading their teams of reps to victory. Just like an NBA coach and their players, sales managers need to empower, improve, and harmonize their team to ensure they reach goal after goal. In fact, there’s a lot sales managers can learn from NBA players.

Create Thinkers

A cornerstone of Phil Jackson’s approach was turning players into true thinkers who made their own decisions throughout a game. He said, “I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle.” Instead of players who simply knew positions and movements, he developed his team into thinkers who actively sought out the best way to move the ball with little to no instruction. This not only created a team that was unpredictable, but could perform under pressure when there was no option for a time-out.

NBA CoachesSimilarly, you must coach your reps to make their own decisions. In order to be successful, a rep must move beyond the simple path of moving a lead through the sales process. They must actively make the right decisions, have the right conversations, and create the right offers to win leads on their own.

Rather than bringing a rep step-by-step through a specific deal, help them make their own decisions by guiding their thought process, not their sales process. When a rep creates their own procedure, it allows them to retain the knowledge and apply the experience to future negotiations. Instead of constantly trying to fit their square peg (cookie-cutter sales process) into a round hole (different deals), reps will be able to adjust their process on the fly to maximize results.

Build Connections

It’s important to bring your relationships beyond that of player and coach. Avery Johnson (current Alabama NCAA Coach) contributes his initial success with the Dallas Mavericks to the personal relationships he had with the players. The personal connections allowed Johnson to work on a deeper level with each individual team member, bringing them all together as a cohesive unit.

As a sales manager, you should get to know your reps on a personal level. Understand their motivations, strengths, weaknesses, career aspirations, and dreams. When you know what drives your reps, you can leverage their skills and backgrounds to put them on paths to achieve their goals. Fostering these connections and aligning aspirations with actions helps reps feel personally vested in the company and its goals, increasing productivity.

Invest in Development

The Miami Heat and Coach Erik Spoelstra have recently proven the importance of player development.  Miami pulls players up through the D-League and drafts unproven talent that they feel intrinsically have skills that fit into their system, but lack real NBA experience. They invest in the players that they feel have the right raw skills, then shape them into vital assets.

The same holds true for sales teams. While it is important to have veteran salespeople with proven experience, you should recruit reps that have the basic qualities you look for in a salesperson. Then, invest in coaching, education, and training to shape them into your own version of an all-star rep.

Watch and Learn

 Watching game film is obviously incredibly important. It has permeated every level of every organized sport. Game film not only allows teams and players to understand their opponents, their tendencies, and capabilities, but it shines a light on your own team. By watching film of themselves, players understand what they could have done better. From a macro perspective, they can see when they should have gotten open, passed the ball, or when they lost a defensive position. On a micro level, a player can examine things like shooting form, timing, and positioning.

Studying game film also allows players to learn from top performers. Kobe Bryant himself said, “There isn’t a move that’s a new move, there’s nothing that hasn’t been done before… I seriously have stolen all these moves from the greatest players.”

Reps should not only listen to their own call recordings, but also those of top performing reps. Reps can study their pitches, how they handle certain questions, and analyze their calls to improve. Recording also allows reps to virtually sit “next to” to performers when it is convenient to them and learn from the greatest.

Get Uncomfortable

Phil Jackson employed a particularly creative method with the Bulls. When he felt the team needed an extra push, he would have them practice in the dark. While there was still enough light to effectively move the ball, the darkness disrupted the player’s norm enough to break them out of their typical mindset and force them to really think about what they were doing. The plays, passes, and shots that might have normally been done on autopilot were suddenly foreign. If you drive down a road in the dark every night, then suddenly take in the afternoon, it’s a completely different experience.

In the context of your sales team, each of your reps likely has a process or particular methods they are familiar with and like to use. You should bring your reps out of their comfort zones by having them do things they struggle with. For example, if a rep has trouble making calls to C-level executives, you should have him/her make calls to them until it is something they can do confidently.