Sales coaches and consultants can be hugely valuable at the right time and place, but here’s why you don’t bet the farm on them.

After I shuttered my family business, I tried for a time to reinvent myself as a licensed insurance agent at a large brokerage. Chubb Insurance ran a school that was known in the industry as a fantastic place to learn how to sell insurance.

The broker paid a ton of money and I spent a week in New Jersey at the school. It was a lot of fun and we were treated to some expensive dinners. (Large brokers are resellers, of course, for insurance carriers. We were Chubb’s customers.)

I learned a ton. For example, we got into extensive conversations about the persona of Chubb customers, technical details about their offering and differentiation, as well as fantastic sales tactics focused on selling the product. The trainer even offered monthly follow-up calls.

Frankly, it was mostly a waste of time, as all of the execution points required the existence of a massive rolodex of either referrers or prospects that fit the Chubb profile–which only included wealthy people who owned fabulous homes. Not really my social network as you may have guessed.

After six months I was fired by the agency for lack of production. I was, frankly, a terrible hire. I had no personal network of high-net-worth CEOs to mine, which is a prerequisite for starting a career in private client insurance. That week of sales training was a waste of money for the broker as well as Chubb.

I learned a ton. The trainer even offered monthly follow-up calls. After six months I was fired by the agency for lack of production.

You get the point. What I learned was great, but it didn’t pay for anybody.

In my experience, sales training is essential for solid, well-run sales departments needing to refocus their expertise or learn how to better execute a new strategy. But it’s not that effective when the company has no strategic or execution capabilities in place.

Coaches and consultants can deliver a lot of positives and still leave you with fatal gaps. Here are three variations on a recurring theme I see again and again:

• Your skill sets are improved, but you still don’t have any new business results. Everybody has the capacity to improve, but to cite one example, training won’t bring you the physical capacity to handle more opportunities. Again, I’m talking about the kind of company that doesn’t have millions to sink into robust marketing and sales departments. This was the case for a top-notch specialty consultant client we had for nearly two years.

With our guidance, we broke a few bad habits and she got better at selling. The lessons stuck insofar as she started running calls better, but there were still massive gaps in follow-up and pipeline management. The skills improvement alone wasn’t nearly enough.

• You or your executive team are still the head prospectors and opportunity chasers. This is another flavor of the capacity issue. We recently on-boarded a team with great offerings and leadership that really knows what they’re doing in a sales conversation. But this company isn’t going to grow if rainmaking responsibility keeps falling on their CEO, who tired of running a carousel of failed salespeople without consultative selling abilities and who he didn’t want to manage even if they did. The principals have awesome selling skills, but they still need mission-critical sales backup.

• Your salespeople got better on paper, but still have to do the job of an entire sales department by themselves. It’s painful when we engage a truly differentiated company with knowledgeable salespeople who know what they’re doing, but are still underfed revenue-wise. This was the case with a client of ours who checked all the boxes… except a coherent sales and messaging strategy. There were serious mismatches between the propositions their salespeople were carrying to market. Consultants can help you hire smarter and put admin processes in place, but that department is still rudderless without the right strategy or messaging — something most sales trainers don’t specialize in.

Coaches and consultants are generally good at the human side and helping you get organized. And if you’re in the kind of business where your department infrastructure is solid and changing a few simple behaviors means your team sells 12% more widgets than last year, then more power to you.

Companies Like Yours Need Constant Engagement and Agility

For companies with a good foothold in the marketplace that are targeting growth and dealing with sales process gaps, the B2B sales landscape can be downright cruel. Disruption is negating formerly effective approaches by the day and you don’t have the luxury of throwing whole armies of reps at the market who are all backed by billions in brand equity and have instant credibility wherever they go.

This is where a sales coach or consultant will ultimately fail you: they simply won’t be engaged long enough to help you with all the culture, process and technology tinkering required to be an agile sales player.

Agile methodologies have been widely adopted across many industries for a reason: they reduce risk and cost while getting you to market faster. Your sales and marketing process shouldn’t be any different.

We have found ongoing success in tying the “minimum viable product” (MVP) and fast-launch concepts to sales. In this scheme, businesses sprint to the sales version of an MVP, quickly collaborating with key internal and external folks to clarify the target and get a campaign going not now, but right now.

Here are the chief hallmarks of your agile sales process:

• Key leaders are engaged so you can tie your sales and lead generation efforts to your true business drivers, gaining rapid clarity on what the sales version of your MVP looks like.

• You move quickly with targeted research and get a focused one-to-one campaign out, because just like your products and services, you’re going to push it through rapid iteration and adjustment as required.

• While previous sales campaigns are being monitored and tweaked, you’re going to consistently put out new campaigns with a distinct target, situation and opportunity in mind.

• If you have the right resources in place (strategy, research, copywriting, pipeline management infrastructure and consultative selling muscle), you’ll see good things happening in short order.

While you interpret market feedback on your first campaign, you’ll constantly be finding new ideas to roll into your subsequent campaign (adjusted targeting and messaging). To be clear, this is not ad hoc experimentation. Your campaign approach must be planned out ahead of time and girded with both proven methodology, the proper support and a sense of your baseline — how to gauge your efforts against previous opportunity-to-close rates, and what companies of your maturity and offering tend to achieve.

The kicker is that there’s not a coach or consultant in the world who can both plan and help you effectively run this scheme. The coaching can be incredible, even if it’s ongoing, but the executional chops aren’t going to be there. You will be forever scrambling to ID and fill the next gap and do this incredibly demanding dance of messaging, closing, prospecting, digital marketing support that has to be retuned weekly.

Sales training and coaching is really important. I learned how to sell from a business consultant that I’ve worked with for many years. He really elevated my game and I would not have succeeded without his help. We talk every day and he’s immersed in the details of my business. Even with that high level of engagement he’s not going to do the work for me.

Hoping that a coach or consultant will paper over things like not having good sales management, talented business developers or a real sales culture in place?

I’m not banking my business on that. Neither should you.

Takeaways:

Sales coaches and consultants can bring lots of value, but none of them will be able to build or run the robust, agile sales culture you need to flourish.