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The Center for Sales Strategy Blog

How to Set the Right Expectations When Coaching Salespeople

How to Set the Right Expectations When Coaching Salespeople

You may not realize it, but you are setting expectations all the time. You set expectations in everything you do and in everything you don’t do.

It’s an amazing power to have. As a leader, you can have a positive impact on the lives of each person you manage based on the expectations you set for them.

The Impact of Expectations on Performance

You may have heard of Dr. Robert Rosenthal. He was a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and he conducted highly respected research on the impact of expectations on performance. He studied how this worked with doctor-patient relationships, teacher-student relationships, and manager-employee relationships.

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One of Dr. Rosenthal’s more famous experiments involved an elementary school. He administered a generic, standardized test to a group of students. The teachers were told that the test was a groundbreaking exam developed at Harvard, and the exam had the ability to predict which children were on the brink of experiencing dramatic growth in their IQs.

After the students took the test, he chose several children from each class at random. His selection had nothing to do with the children’s test results (after all, it wasn’t a “groundbreaking” exam, anyway). Dr. Rosenthal told the teachers that the students he identified were “intellectual bloomers” according to their exam results. The teachers were not told to do anything differently with these “intellectual bloomers.” They were only told that these students were about to hit their stride.

The teachers and students then went on with the school year while Dr. Rosenthal and his team observed. Throughout this experiment, his team discovered that the teacher’s expectations of the “intellectual bloomers” impacted the students’ performance.

The teachers expected these students to blossom, and all of the “intellectual bloomers” outperformed the rest of the students that year. Without even realizing it, the teachers behaved differently toward these students. They gave these “intellectual bloomers” more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more encouragement.

In turn, the higher expectations of the teachers changed the students’ beliefs in themselves. Their beliefs then changed their behaviors as well. They may have studied longer, paid attention better, and tried harder.

Sales Leaders' Top Challenges— Setting Clear Expectations

Management Actions Influence Salespeople's Behavior

Just like the teachers’ expectations impact their students, you can have an enormous impact on the people you manage by setting high expectations for them. Your actions toward your salespeople influence the beliefs they have in themselves and, ultimately, their behaviors. If you expect a little, you’ll get a little. If you expect a lot, you’ll get a lot. You have the power to help change someone’s performance.

The secret to setting the right expectations for people starts with talent. Each individual brings a unique set of talents to the table, and what you expect of them should be based on their strengths. We all have strengths, and we all have weaknesses that are hard-wired in us from a very young age.

If you have the wrong expectations for someone and expect them to be something they simply are not, it can be damaging. As you set expectations, ask yourself: What are this person’s strengths? What comes naturally to them? What doesn’t come as easily to them? How can I set them up for success?

Once you’re ready to set your expectations, keep these three things in mind:

1. Create the right mood.

You communicate expectations both verbally and non-verbally. Think about the mood you’re creating and the message you’re sending through your tone of voice, eye contact, and body language.

Smiling more, looking people in the eye, and having open body language can communicate your confidence in someone’s ability to perform. Uncross your arms, maintain eye contact, and give that person your full attention when talking with them.

2. Establish an educational environment.

Teach, train, and coach your salespeople. Provide plenty of information and resources, so they feel fully informed and never out of the loop.

Conduct “what if” exercises during sales meetings, schedule brainstorming sessions, and encourage everyone to share ideas, opinions, and success stories. The more you invest in your team, the more they will want to perform for you.

3. Provide feedback on performance.

Recognizing big accomplishments and celebrating their wins is crucial, but it’s not enough. Remember to praise your salespeople often. Let them know what they’re doing right each step of the way, not just when they cross the finish line.

When you give frequent, consistent, specific, and positive feedback on performance, you set the expectation that you believe in them, they are on the right track, and you want them to succeed.


Setting expectations around strengths can become a catalyst for great achievements. Think about the expectations you’re setting for your salespeople, and then imagine you were told they all had the potential to be top billers. Take some time to adjust your expectations, and you may be amazed by what you see.

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*Editor's Note: This blog was originally written in 2014 and has since been updated.

Topics: sales coaching