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Dear Workforce How Do We Raise the Issue of Coaching to Our Boorish Boss

The owner of our small company thinks he is the world’s best salesman, but we cringe when he goes out on the road, because the feedback from our customers is always so negative. He seems to come across as arrogant, which turns off the customers with whom our regular sales force has already established a good relationship. We have to do damage control when he makes these visits, sometimes even warning customers in advance when he’s planning to come their way. He is a very intelligent man, and knows more about our products than anybody, but his style is just too abrasive. How do you tell your boss that something that he’s proud of is actually hurting the company rather than helping? I personally cannot imagine asking him not to call on any more customers because they don’t like him.
August 31, 2009
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Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, The HR Profession, Dear Workforce
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Dear Ticklish Situation:
 
Thank you for your question. You've got a difficult situation, one that negatively affects your business, and thus deserves to be addressed.
I would first caution you to be sure your facts are correct—that Mr. Big is indeed turning off customers (more than one), that it is in fact damaging business outcomes, and that his customer visits aren't prompted by a sales force that is failing to do its job very well. One good place to start would be to accompany Mr. Big on a few sales calls. (While you're at it, stop “warning” customers, as doing so is disrespectful to your owner, and a clear sign to the customer that your organization doesn't have its act together.)
Second is the matter of who best to engage the boss in receiving some coaching.
Preferably, it should come from a member of the senior leadership team (one of his direct reports)—a person who is unquestionably performing his or her own job well, is skilled at performance coaching, and has the boss's respect. Assuming that your sales manager/executive meets these requirements, he might be the best person for the job, as he is the one most affected by Mr. Big's unintended wake.
Third, whoever gets this assignment will want to handle it skillfully, for all the obvious reasons. Some suggestions:
• Pick a time coincident with a recent episode with an offended customer, and at a time when the boss is in a mood to listen to some feedback. Arrange for a private conversation.
• As a sign of support, start the conversation by taking some responsibility for the fact that this conversation should have occurred before now. Also, ask your boss if he's willing to listen to some unsolicited feedback about something that is potentially deleterious to your business. (“Man up” here, and don't hide behind others. He'll appreciate it.)
• Take a deep breath, remember that this is a conversation and not an inquisition, and then frame the topic. I would ask for his recollection of a recent sales call that you know was off-putting to the customer. Hear him out, and listen carefully to his perspective. I would then share with him the fact that, his tremendous product knowledge notwithstanding, you have reason to believe that this customer might have been put off by his approach. Be prepared to discuss the call in detail and in particular his assessment of the customer's reaction. Some resistance can be expected here, and will need to be dealt with. One way is to remind him that the only reason you're bringing this up is for the good of the business, and in an effort to help him accomplish his objectives.
• As a means of helping him see the impact of this situation, point out that it's likely this situation is costing him money. As much as he loves making independent sales calls, at some level doing so could be hampering the development of his sales force. It might be beneficial to pose this as a question: “If you were being paid to do a job, would it bother you if your boss continually felt the need to do your job for you?”
• Once it's evident that the topic is clear and both of you have a full appreciation for it, you'll want to at least offer to work with him to find a course of action that will serve the business well and be satisfactory to him at the same time. One possibility might involve him continuing to make sales calls but in a joint capacity with sales reps where his role might be better leveraged by doing more observing, teaching and supporting than selling.
• When the conversation is over, leave it in the room. Whether he agrees with you or not, you have at least responsibly raised his awareness of something that is keeping the organization from performing optimally. If your boss is as smart as we think he is, he will appreciate someone who cares enough—and has the courage—to discuss the matter candidly with him.
SOURCE: Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette, co-authors, Contented Cows MOOve Faster, August 13, 2009

LEARN MORE: Please read HR Feedback for Your Boss for additional insight on handling this issue.
The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.
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