Written by Steve Gielda, Principal – Ignite Selling

How do you address real-world sales challenges while providing high impact to the company?

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 today’s market, a sales force not only must be able to sell a competitive advantage but they also must be a competitive advantage.

Companies continually try to give their sales force the skills needed to become a competitive advantage by taking the sales teams out of the field away from their customers and 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 they have 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 is not about simply improving sales skills, but is 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, it is important to realize that these types of programs are intended to develop skills. 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 with:
• New strategic direction
• Market changes
• New competitive threat
• New business strategies
• New product launch
• Uncertain economic times

Case study
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 company’s sales leadership team stated that many of the company’s 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 sales force.

When pressed, the company’s sales leadership team acknowledged that the sales team, overall, had skill gaps despite all the company’s 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 others behind.

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 sales process.

The mock hospital was facing challenges typical of today’s 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 models.

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 investments.

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 it is 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 program 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 common: they take place in a classroom. That is where the similarities end. The simulation reflects reality in a way other programs cannot 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 company’s 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 simulations:
Fast-paced. Successful learning experience must mimic the dynamic pace of their real-world selling environment.
Feedback-rich. The experience must give salespeople the opportunity to make mistakes and get expert feedback.
Challenging and competitive. The program must represent challenging and competitive situations that engage the salespeople in the experience.
Team-based. The best learning experiences should be team-based so salespeople can share best practices, push back on ideas, and strengthen one another’s thinking.
Relevant to deliver strong results. Learning activities must be based on real-world situations.
Engaging and fun. The 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 perspective including the market conditions, trends, and competition they face daily.

Unfortunately, many of the sales simulations in today’s market are generic and, thus, are of questionable value. Most salespeople find it hard to learn from the experience if it doesn’t relate to their own business. According to a McKinsey Quarterly article titled Is Simulation Better than Experience? the authors Dory Bertsche, Christopher Crawford, and Stephen E. Macadam wrote: “Done well, simulations can bring enormous benefits. Indeed, companies using only traditional training programs may be wasting time and money by comparison.”

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.