Well-designed sales simulations allow sales reps to
address real-world challenges while providing high impact to the
Pat, how was the sales training you attended last week? It was the
same stuff we did last year, just with different models. Doesnt
anyone realize we have some tough, new challenges to deal with?
How many times have we heard salespeople complain about being
disappointed by a sales training program? All too frequently.
Unfortunately, sales training often comes down to a self-proclaimed
expert flipping through a bundle of PowerPoint slides with a quick
role play tossed in here and there.
Salespeople are a more important strategic asset to companies than
ever before. In todays market, a salesforce not only must be able
to sell a competitive advantage but they also must be a competitive
Companies continually try to give their salesforce the skills
needed to become a competitive advantage by taking the sales teams
out of the fieldaway from their customersand into a classroom. The
total cost of a training session is not simply the price of the
program; it also includes the cost of lost time in the field with
real customers. Given these cost elements, it is imperative that
all sessions be valuable to the sales team and provide high impact
to the company.
So how can you ensure that your sales training sessions bring you
the high impact you need? The principles of adult learning tell us
that individuals are responsible for their own learning. Therefore,
to create high impact, you must first start by setting proper
expectations around the intent of the training and the impact the
training will have on sales success and the contribution toward the
company achieving its goals.
Here are four good reasons to consider sales simulations:
- They create a realistic environment to test what if scenarios
and provide the opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment.
- They provide context, content, and process, which are relevant,
realistic, and directly applicable on the job.
- They shorten learning cycles because of immediate feedback.
- They drive business impact through strategic application of
critical selling skills.
Driving business impact
There are three types of participants in any training session:
prisoners, vacationers, and learners. Prisoners would rather be
anywhere but sitting in a sales training class listening to ideas
they believe theyve already heard. In contrast, vacationers are the
ones who enjoy being out of the field, away from customers. These
individuals enjoy the hotel and all its amenities and view the
training opportunity as a break from the real world. Finally,
learners understand the strategic intent of the training program
and why those objectives matter to them. Whether the training
program has been positioned as a new product launch or an approach
to a new customer interface, learners realize that the session they
are preparing to attend isnt about simply improving sales skillsits
about helping the company attain a critical business goal.
Call execution skills, presentations skills, negotiation skills,
strategy development, and other skills programs are critical to
developing a world-class sales team. However, its important to
realize that these types of programs are intended to develop skill.
Business impact comes from mastery of these skills plus in-depth
practice and feedback in the application and integration of the
skills under real-world conditions. This latter objective requires
a different type of learning experience and a different learning
environment. Sales simulations are a great answer.
Many companies choose to implement a sales simulation when faced
- a new strategic direction
- market changes
- a new competitive threat
- new business strategies
- a new product launch
- uncertain economic times.
When sales training is properly designed and positioned,
participants come prepared to address real-world challenges that
can help improve sales results. Every salesperson, even the top
performers, acknowledges that there are sales challenges that make
it difficult to achieve sales success. Training that is relevant to
these issues is critical because participants want guidance on
issues that matter to them.
Case in point: A major medical device manufacturer, which focuses
on selling complex products to the surgical and cardiovascular
departments of hospitals, acknowledged that its sales team was
facing some difficult dynamics in the field. There was significant
downward price pressure coming from customers, as well as new
technology being launched by a major competitor.
While this company acknowledged that it needed to provide support
for its field sales organization, the companys sales leadership
team stated that many of the companys sales representatives were
some of the most highly skilled in the market. Most of the sales
reps had at least 15 years of selling experience and had completed
courses in fundamental selling skills, strategic account planning,
negotiation, and hospital economics.
The challenges for this company were twofold. It had to determine
what would help the sales team be more effective at overcoming the
real challenges it faced in the field, and it had to identify a
solution that had not been done before and would not be boring for
this highly experienced salesforce.
When pressed, the companys sales leadership team acknowledged that
the sales team, overall, had skill gaps despite all the companys
previous training efforts. These skill gaps were directly affecting
the sales teams ability to deal with the issues of downward price
pressure and the impending competitive product launch. Any training
program had to focus specifically on these two extremely relevant
issues. In addition, the training program had to be designed in a
way that challenged the most tenured reps without leaving the
The company decided to implement a competitive hospital sales
simulation that replicated the reality that this sales team faced
on a daily basis. The first step was to create a mock hospital.
This hospital had an organizational structure that included key
decision makers and influencers who were typically engaged in the
The mock hospital was facing challenges typical of todays real
hospitals, such as cost reduction goals or budgetary issues, which
meant that the sales team would have to deal with real issues,
particularly the increased downward pricing pressure. In addition,
the simulation environment included the competitors most often seen
in the real world. The competitors in the simulation mimicked
real-world competitors by using existing or new relationships,
positioning new products, and introducing competitive pricing
The simulation design was created to provide opportunities for both
strategic account planning and call execution. This design enabled
the company to reinforce other training investments and identify
gaps in the application of the lessons learned in those
The simulation also sought to provide a learning experience for
both high- and low-performing sales reps. To engage all parties,
the simulation setup was competitive in nature, with a winning team
determined by classroom performance. The participants were divided
into teams, with approximately five reps per team. Each team earned
points throughout the simulation for both sales call execution and
account strategy development.
To facilitate peer-to-peer learning, top performers were divided
evenly among the teams and were assigned a leadership role for
their respective groups. This distribution kept the top performers
engaged in the program because they were given the opportunity to
share their best practices and show others how its done. They also
remained engaged because top performers want to win, especially
against other top performers.
The average performers also stayed engaged throughout the
simulation for several reasons. The competitive aspect of the
programs means that no one wants to be the one who lets his team
down. In addition, by having a respected top performer as a team
member, the average performers know there is much to be learned by
watching and working with those individuals.
Why simulation succeeds
The Competitive Sales Simulation and the other sales training
initiatives this company had previously invested in have one thing
in commonthey take place in a classroom. That is where the
similarities end. The simulation reflects reality in a way other
programs cant and gives individuals real-time learning experience.
In the end, the participant feedback was that the simulation was
the most impactful training program they had ever attended.
I believe the positive results from this engagement stemmed from a
few critical factors. First, the vice president of sales positioned
the training program as a critical initiative to sustain the
companys revenue growth and maintain its average selling price.
Second, the sales team understood what they stood to gain, as well
as the importance to the success of the company.
Experienced salespeople reflect a particular type of learner who
responds to a specific kind of learning that is found in
- Fast-paceda successful learning experience must mimic the
dynamic pace of their real-world selling environment.
- Feedback-richthe experience must give salespeople the
opportunity to make mistakes and get expert feedback.
- Challenging and competitivethe program must represent
challenging and competitive situations that engage the salespeople
in the experience.
- Team-basedthe best learning experiences should be team-based so
salespeople can share best practices, push back on ideas, and
strengthen one anothers thinking.
- Relevantto deliver strong results, learning activities must be
based on real-world situations.
- Funthe experience must create the motivation to learn.
John Steinbeck wrote: Life is a story that you write about
yourself, a journey filled with failures and triumph intertwining.
You can learn from both failure and triumph. Sales simulations
build on this idea because salespeople experience failure and
triumph in a safe environment, allowing them to learn from their
experiences to improve their chances of success in the field. This
can happen because throughout the simulation salespeople work with
business scenarios written from their perspectiveincluding the
market conditions, trends, and competition they face daily.
Unfortunately, many of the sales simulations in todays market are
generic and, thus, are of questionable value. Most salespeople find
it hard to learn from the experience if it doesnt relate to their
own business. According to a McKinsey Quarterly article titled Is
Simulation Better than Experience? the authorsDory Bertsche,
Christopher Crawford, and Stephen E. Macadamwrote: Done well,
simulations can bring enormous benefits. Indeed, companies using
only traditional training programs may be wasting time and money by
Today most companies have a common sales language in place. But
because a number of external and internal factors, companies need
to help their sales teams apply those existing skills to a new set
of market conditions. Sales simulations can do that.