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Sales coaching at Corona Energy

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Why the B2B energy provider has coached all employees, whatever their role, in the art of selling

The company

Corona Energy is an independent B2B energy supplier. Its 8,000 customers make up 11% of the industrial and commercial gas market, and approximately 1% of the total UK energy market. The company supplies gas and electricity to commercial, industrial and public sector clients across the UK.

The challenge

As sales challenges go the task of persuading someone to convert to a different gas or electricity supplier is perhaps one of the toughest. “This isn’t Google or Apple where you have a branded product – it doesn’t get much more of a commodity than gas. You don’t even touch it,” says head of human resources Zsuzsanna Kispal.

She explains that the people element of the company is therefore vital: “Customers don’t stay with us because we provide better electricity or gas. They stay with us because they like the way we operate and serve them.”

The company decided just under two years ago, however, that strong customer service wasn’t enough alone, given the scale of the sales challenge. To really continue its growth story Corona needed all hands on deck. It had to turn its reputation for strong customer interaction into a sales opportunity. It needed, in short, to turn every person into a salesperson.

That presented another not inconsiderable challenge. Pretty much every company would jump at the chance of all employees performing sales alongside their day jobs. But just how do you persuade staff this is something they want to do, and equip them with the right skills?

The method

Corona decided a coaching method would be most effective. Kispal describes the opportunity that helping all employees to sell presents, explaining that customer services, receptionists, the credit team and even those in back office functions, were all involved: “Before the coaching sessions they would just take the call, answer the query, ask if there was anything else they could do, and put the phone down. What they started to do differently was engage customers in a conversation about other products and services.”

Corona rolled out coaching training to its senior leadership team in October 2014. The second stage was training all 23 people in the middle management layer. Now all people leaders are trained in the technique, as well as ‘product champions’ who monitor calls and coach employees based on this, so that everyone in the organisation has a coach.

Staff coaching takes place in one-to-ones with line managers, extra sessions if a particular issue is identified, and during “water cooler moments” to troubleshoot problems as they come up.

Jan Bowen-Nielsen, coach and trainer at the organisation Corona uses for training, Quiver Management, believes that the value lies in empowering people to help themselves. “We trained managers that whenever someone comes for advice instead of just giving it – which will reinforce the idea that the other person is helpless and can’t figure it out themselves – they should ask ‘what thoughts have you had, how do you see it?’”

The benefits of tapping into employees’ pre-existing capabilities was why coaching was chosen to help roll this out, explains Kispal. “Coaching makes it clear it’s not about doing something you’ve not done before. It’s about using what’s already there, just bringing it out in a different way,” she says. “It’s important to understand that people will travel on this journey differently. Those one-to-ones were a good means of allowing people to come on board at their own pace.

“Of course we had people who said ‘this isn’t in my job description’. But it’s not about forcing people to do something they don’t want to do; we’re very careful of bearing that in mind throughout the process.

“It’s about finding out what’s stopping them at the moment. I refuse to believe that people don’t want to, full-stop,” she says. “There’s always something else, there’s always an underlying cause.”

Kispal adds that usually the barrier is self-doubt: “What we find is that 99.9% of the time it’s confidence. People don’t feel confident to start those conversations so the coaching session needs to be focused around that. It starts with giving people the right tools and then it’s chance to practice – so providing a safe environment where they can roleplay these conversations.”

One question that springs to mind – and surely did for Corona employees – is whether staff should be incentivised to sell. Kispal reports that the initiative was launched with a bonus scheme, but this has since been phased out (apart from incentives for best lead gen and highest margin of the month). “Now we have an understanding with people that it’s part of their job. In a year’s time people felt it was part of their job and those conversations were coming more naturally,” she says, adding: “We didn’t have a massive disagreement on that.”

The company has now launched a new incentive scheme to encourage employees to use their personal networks to secure sales, however.

The result

This personal network approach has been where the company has counted some of its most notable successes. Kispal cites an example close to home: “Shazia [Chaudhry, an HR administrator] was a very shy person but has become much more confident in talking outside work. She has four or five leads already, from just talking to a community centre, for example.”

Other success stories include accounts executive Sewa Adeyemo-Ajayi, who Kispal reports initially lacked confidence but after a couple of coaching sessions has brought in four new contracts. But most impressive perhaps is the £15,000-margin contract receptionist Hazel John-Baptiste recently secured. “That’s someone who in their day-to-day role is answering phone calls and replying to emails. Their job is definitely not to sell,” emphasises Kispal.

She adds that she’s been particularly impressed with the way the credit team has risen to the challenge: “When you call a customer to say they owe us money that’s actually a pretty difficult conversation. Sometimes it’s emotional as well. So for the credit team to sign the customer up for another couple of years, that’s outstanding.”

Regarding how ingrained coaching and going the extra sales mile has become, Kispal adds: “We have a number of couples in the company who live together. They always tell us stories of their dining table conversations where they’re saying ‘stop coaching me now!’”

Following a £41,000 investment the overall result is £200,000 of sales generated by non-sales staff in the six months following the programme, meaning the company is on track to achieve £750,000 in gross margin from new recurring business generated by non-sales staff.

Quiver’s Bowen-Nielsen explains that the success of this strategy has been very much down to sustained focus on honing coaching methods, and senior level buy-in from the start. “Most organisations will go through the training, then they expect that people will just use it. Here it was discussed in every weekly strategy meeting – it’s really unusual for it to be right up there on the agenda.

“The monitoring systems were also good. There was a very clear system for knowing how many conversations had taken place and their impact.”

He adds that the beauty of coaching is it can now be used to roll out other initiatives. “The good thing is coaching is now in the tool bag, so if Corona decides to introduce a new skill again, coaching can very quickly get the whole organisation engaged.”“It’s a fantastic accelerator,” agrees Kispal.