Improving Sales and Service with Simulation Learning
As Dr. Tony Alessandra articulated so well in his Nov. 30 blog, “Foolproof Sales Training,” many organizations are turning to virtual training (i.e. simulation learning) to create a continuous learning culture. The advantages of virtual or e‑learning are many. It is easier to disseminate across a far-flung training audience. It can be done anytime, anywhere, giving the learner flexibility. It is more “in the moment,” allowing learners to focus on what is most important for their success right now. And it allows learners to repeat lessons until they fully understand and can incorporate the concepts and skills into their daily practice.
Tony also talked about several keys to making virtual training a success – providing the lessons in bite-size pieces, and working on one or two skills at a time to build competence and confidence through repetition. A lot of virtual learning focuses on the “what,” leaving the learner to work on the “how” on their own. There is more to learning a new skill or changing a behavior than knowing “what” to do. We have to then DO it. If knowledge alone was enough we could just listen to podcasts and be set for life. There are certainly enough books, videos and other instructional materials out there that tell us what to do to enhance our abilities. The key is we also need to be competent enough to actually DO the right thing at the right time (execute skills and practices) to achieve success in the real world.
Getting the desired sales performance requires both competence and confidence, which only comes from practice. The Adult Learning Loop is made of three parts – Practice (the doing), Feedback (analyzing what worked and didn’t work) and Adjust (fine-tuning to move closer to perfect performance).
In the business world, this learning Adult Learning Loop usually happens in real time with real customers and real consequences (we have our people practice sales on customers!). In many organizations, you get exposed to a new skill or concept and then try to put it into action in your next customer interaction. Sometimes it works, sometimes It doesn’t. After all, you're still in the learning stage and the new skill may feel awkward. That awkwardness may translate in subtle ways into your behavior and present itself as uncertainty or lack of confidence. The customer can see your hesitancy and react negatively. After the customer interaction, we can sit back and self-assess if we are a self-motivated superstar. Or if we’re fortunate, a coach, mentor or supervisor can provide feedback. We strongly recommend live coaching, but that is another topic. The problem is any assessment is reactive (after the fact) versus proactive. That particular opportunity to succeed is gone.
I had a friend in the corporate learning and development field once lament the absence of a good practice tool to help learners move through the learning curve more efficiently. He was a big Star Trek fan and wished for a holodeck, like on the spaceship Enterprise, to allow his learners to practice their new skills in a realistic, but safe environment. If you failed, which is a key part of the learning process, no harm was done. The simulation was reset and you could try again, and again until you achieved success. Of course, this does exist now in the form of a flight simulator for pilots. They can practice take-offs and landings in all sorts of conditions until they “know” what to do instinctively and aren’t relying on book knowledge alone. Flight simulation software accelerates “experience.” You rapidly build competence and confidence much faster using targeted, realistic simulated practice than you would only getting experience in the plane. I don’t know about you, but I feel much safer knowing that my pilot has practiced hundreds of hours in a simulator before encountering the situation live and in the air, with me in the back. Captain Sullenberger credits his time in the flight simulator with his ability to safely land his plane in, or rather on, the Hudson River. There was no time to think, just time to do. And as a result, no lives were lost that day.
Doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way in sales may not be as dramatic as saving hundreds of lives, but it is critical to the success of each of our employees and the business as a whole. Most organizations still live or die based on the skills of their people. We don’t have the time or luxury to let them practice new skills on our valuable customers or prospects. Each encounter counts.
What we have done to accelerate the success of our soft skills training is add simulation technology to put the best development practices “on steroids.” We first introduced a voice-based simulation training system back in 1995 and have had extraordinary results from diverse clients like Discover, Verizon, Royal Caribbean, Bank of America and Con Edison.
Like the flight simulator or the holodeck on the Enterprise, we have created a tool that simulates any interaction that takes place in a conversation. It can be salesperson to customer, supervisor to representative, on the phone or face-to-face. This computer-based simulation tool provides the safe place to practice the new skills repeatedly until they become instinctive or natural. You can observe the progression to “muscle memory” where the performer says the right thing, at the right time, in the right way with confidence and ease.
Ideally, simulation learning tools should provide a target to aim for – examples of excellence. The old adage “practice makes perfect” isn’t quite true. Practice makes permanent. Only PERFECT practice makes perfect. You can practice a bad golf swing all day long and you will get the same results you always got. It is only when you practice a “perfect” golf swing that you see an improvement to your game. So a good sales training simulation starts with establishing what “perfect performance” is for your salespeople. We capture the beliefs, actions, verbiage and vocal qualities of your top performers and build it into multiple simulations that all model excellence. Learners first listen to the model and then record their performance with progressive difficulty built into the process. In Review mode, they can hear both what they said and how they said it – focusing on the vocal qualities of tone, tempo, volume and inflection. The learning is in them comparing their performance to the ideal example. As they progress through Review they have the ability to instantly re-record any portion moving closer and closer to perfect. They get to leave their best work for their coach to review and provide additional feedback. As they gain competence you can take away the “scripting” and allow the learner to use their own words and experiences to conduct the conversation.
Simulation learning provides the perfect environment to take what your people are learning in any form of training and add the missing piece of safe, repetitive, perfect practice that leads to increased competence and confidence. It can also become a complete virtual learning tool by adding tutorials, video, quizzes and other components that round out the learning experience. The simulations should be short, bite-size micro lessons that can easily fit into busy schedules. And most importantly, they need to be customized for each target audience. Your people should practice the exact conversations they have with real customers making the transfer of learning easier and faster.