People with paranoia are being helped to deal with reality using virtual reality (BBC News, 5/5/16). Applying technology to solve people’s problems is always something to celebrate. An application that helps with such extreme circumstances must give us pause for thought about the more regular uses of simulation in our working lives. Are we preparing for situations or are we just fighting one fire after another? There is nothing new about the principle of practice leading to success. The question is to what degree people need to be immersed in a difficult experience in order to learn how to make the best possible decisions.
Simulation training is nothing new. War games were being used over 5,000 years ago, and today the military invests in a variety of highly sophisticated simulation environments to prepare for a variety of its roles. Simulation 'games' are also common in management learning; the first business game was recorded in 1932. Today it is a multi-million dollar market. Computer-driven management games are used by most US and UK business schools. Even those that are predominantly spreadsheet-based offer functionality, realism and flexibility.
To what degree can we speculate about the application of simulation training to sales? There are cost-effective training packages which can offer video-assisted exploration of customer scenarios to help with call planning, games which incorporate the randomness of the business environment and competitor response to help with longer-term account planning, and simulators for sales resource deployment. Research evidence suggests that students and trainees enjoy simulation games. They can generate emotional involvement in the training and even excitement. Because they stimulate a full cycle of learning including theorising, action, reflection, experimentation and adjustment, they encourage more preparation for learning, and learning to a deeper level, which addresses the common concern about training wearing off over time.
Simulation training involves problem-solving, seeing the effect and reflecting on what might be done better. This is learning by doing, but in a low-risk environment where real customers are not affected by the trainee’s mistakes. Trainees can achieve better understanding and retention of concepts, procedures and choices. They gain confidence in taking decisions and relationship-building, and they can become more positive towards their job role. With so many advantages, it seems as if simulation is a must-have for sales trainers.
However, simulation effects have to get more and more real for generations of young people who have spent their childhood in computer games. In the case of role-plays, the impact of exercises with colleagues or videos is trumped by exercises with actors. Working with convincing strangers can create a buzz at a sales conference, but they are expensive and, generally, one-offs. Enter the start-ups producing training software for VR headsets – surely the next big thing for giving salespeople practice for generating rapport, negotiating with purchasing, giving presentations, dealing with customer complaints and working with colleagues. Like all technologies, it will in time get cheaper and easier to use, so that it can be a regular element in training and development of salespeople over their career.
VR will not be a magic button for sales training, but its potential is huge. Salespeople will still need to learn about customers, products and the competition from a variety of media. The users will still need briefings and de-briefings from real human beings. In educational settings, they would still be required to acquire knowledge of theory before trying to apply it and to write reflections afterwards. It would be easy to be sceptical about the value of VR in business; but if it can help to build the confidence of people who are suffering mental illness, surely it can help sales professionals to develop resilience and performance.