Rethinking the Complimentary Coaching Session. Part 2: The Selling of Coaching

In Part 1 of this series on Rethinking the Complimentary Coaching Session, I wrote about being introduced to the Comp Session as part of my coach training and how, at that early stage, something just didn’t sit right for me. I felt uneasy about using techniques that increase a client’s pain to tip them over a threshold into action. I thought coaching was a positive approach to change.

What I didn’t know in those early days was that the Comp Session was just a rejigged sales process, and letting clients “feel the pain” is a common old school sales technique. (I say “old school” because contemporary theories of selling are based on relationships and needs rather than manipulation.)

To understand how a Comp Session is a Sales Session in disguise, we need to look at the processes of each.

The Sales Process

While many techniques and methods are used in the selling activity, a five-step sales process underlies them all:

1) Prospecting for clients,

2) Qualifying clients,

3) Presentation of the product or service,

4) Overcoming objections, and

5) Closing the sale

(Pederson, Wright and Weitz, 1988).

Over the last 20 years, the selling process has evolved to focus on more consultative approaches and satisfying customer needs (Weitz, Castleberry and Tanner, 2001): the “soft sell” approach. The intention of this “partnership process” of selling is now concerned with “responding to objections” rather than overcoming objections, and “obtaining commitment” rather than closing the sale. There is also greater emphasis on building long-term partnerships after the sale.

There are hundreds of different methods for the salesperson to obtain commitment from a buyer. According to Weitz et al., no method should persuade a buyer to do what they do not want to do or buy something they do not need.

Commitment to buy can also take place outside of the salesperson’s actions by influence rather than directly obtaining commitment. Cialdini (1993) identified reciprocation as one of the most powerful and prevalent influence processes. The principle of reciprocation asserts that people are more likely to comply with requests from those who have already provided them with something.

So, even before the client meets the coach, the offer of a complimentary coaching session engages the potential client in a sales process. And the rest of the ‘sale’ is completed in the Comp Session.

The Complimentary Coaching Session Process

To understand the Comp Coaching Session process, let’s look at one used by one of the major international coach training organisations, CoachU / CoachInc.  It goes like this:

·       Welcome the prospect to the session

·       Briefly outline how the session will work

·       Listen as prospect shares the answer to the question you emailed him or her

·       State back to the prospect what you heard, making a point to identify his or her strengths

·       Allow the prospect to respond

·       Remember to listen for blocks and passions

·       Assign action steps for prospects to take immediately

·       Allow prospect to accept and end coaching part of session

·       Ask prospect what experience was like for him or her

·       Ask if the prospect sees how coaching could benefit him or her

·       Invite him or her to become your coachee

·       Allow him or her to answer; field questions and handle objections

(CoachU, 2005, p. 367)

It all sounds pretty good. The “prospect” (a sales term) is listened to and walked through a process that builds commitment to action. The close is a little awkward, but at least it’s presented as an invitation. It’s all fine until you get to the final phrase, “handle objections”, which gives away what this session is really about: getting the client to buy coaching.

How the Comp Session is a dressed-up Sales Call

If we look at the Comp Session in the context of the five stage sales process, we can see that inserting “Coaching” into stage three (presentation) gives you the process for client enrolment using the Complimentary Coaching Session. Stages one and two are taken care of by the coach’s marketing (find prospects and qualify – although the qualify stage can also be part of the comp session). Then, the Comp Session fulfils stages three, four and five with its coaching presentation, commitment/close and overcoming/responding to objections.

A Comp Session that follows this process can be on a continuum of soft sell (focusing on relationship and commitment) to hard sell (close the sale by any means). It is the recommendations for those final two steps of Closing the Sale and Overcoming Objections that take the Comp Session into “hard sell” territory.

The actual sales techniques used in the Comp Session depend on the potential client and what objections they may raise when the coach ‘closes the sale’ by asking them to be their client (or continue working together). The CoachU training manual presents three pages of potential objections (from “What are your qualifications?” to “I can’t afford it”) as part of the “Close the Sale” step.

The manual further advises the trainee coach that “objections are ‘buying’ signals. The prospective coachee is telling you ‘Yes but…’” (p. 367). CoachU (2005) also recommends that for self-employed coaches (which Grant and Zackon’s 2004 survey of coaches found was 73.7% of their sample) the complimentary coaching session is “one of the most important aspects of selling coaching. You want to allow the prospect to feel special.” (p. 365).

The manual rationalises the comp session as a way to evaluate whether there is a coach-client “match”, but doesn’t actually provide the criteria for assessing this “match”.  Instead, the coach is given two alternatives: the “puppy dog close” (i.e. “take the puppy dog home for the weekend…”) of the complimentary session, or the “assumptive close”, which continues the conversation on the assumption that the coachee has assented to continue.

CoachU anticipates the objections of its trainees with its own ‘Close the Sale’ conclusion:  “Although the idea of selling your services and closing a sale might seem removed from coaching, it is the only way to bring coachees into your practice.” (CoachU, 2005, p. 366)

CoachU’s training is not the only (nor the most overtly sales-focused) example of recommended complimentary session processes and strategies. I use this example because their training manual is a published document and easily verifiable.

Not all coaches advocate the use of the complimentary session, and not all coaches who do recommend the session advocate the use of the more persuasive sales strategies.

Writing about “how to give great sample sessions” in The Coaching Insider in 2006, Dianne Legro advises the coach to support the coachee’s decision to not continue and to “let go of the sale”. However, she also recommends that the coach needs to remind the coachee “the cost now of not living the life the client wants”. If a coach chooses to use stronger sales techniques, he or she is reminded to be “mindful that you don’t overly manipulate”.

Is a sales approach detrimental to coaching?

But when is the manipulation line crossed? When is the coach putting his/her interests (to get the sale) ahead of their clients (seeking a workable solution)? Does the client feel manipulated or pressured to sign up for coaching? And what effect does this having on the outcome?

If one of the first tasks of a coach is to build rapport and trust with their client, then would the sales-focus undermine this?  Also, if coaching is a client-centred, helping process then would using a coach-centred, sales process undermine this?

This is the tension I wanted to explore in my research: to pull apart what’s happening in the Comp Session. I wanted to find out if it really is effective or whether it creates a tension that is detrimental not only to the client and the coach, but perhaps the whole coaching industry.          

In Part 3 of Rethinking the Complimentary Coaching Session, I look at the research that addressed this question.


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Titles Referenced in this Post:

Cialdini, R. (1993) Influence: Science and practice. 3rd edition. New York: Harper Collins.

Coach U (2005) The Coach U Personal and Corporate Coach Training Handbook. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Grant, A. & Zackon, R. (2004) Executive, workplace and life coaching: Findings from a large-scale survey of International Coach Federation members. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring. 2 (2): 1-15.

Pederson, C., Wright, M., and Weitz, B. (1988) Selling: Principles and Methods. 9th edition. Homewood, Il: Richard D. Irwin.

Weitz, B., Castleberry, S. and Tanner, J. (2001) Selling: Building Partnerships. 4th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.