sales training goes experiential

Sales Training Goes Experiential

Exploring the available options in modern sales training

Most people acknowledge that, where skills are concerned, adults ‘learn by doing’. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, for example, reports that, “we are likely to remember 90 per cent of what we read, hear, see, say and do, compared to only 20 per cent of what we read.”

Thanks to learning theorists from Jung to David Kolb, we can add some additional depth to that insight. Adults actually learn best from a combination of experience, reflection and experimentation – ideally with a good measure of coaching to help the process along.

So what options are available with this combination of experience, reflection and experimentation when training a modern sales force?


Role-plays can be intimidating for participants, but there’s a good reason why they remain a core part of so much soft-skills training: they work. Implemented well, a role-play can follow the experiential learning cycle very closely. However, Kolb’s insights show that the experience gained in role-plays and classroom exercises is only useful if the participant is able to reflect on it. In most classrooms, however, the facilitator is unable to provide much individual debriefing and coaching. This is why on-going coaching in the field is so critical for any change process.


Simulations strengthen the learning process further by allowing the user to ‘learn by doing’ in an accelerated environment. Unlike a role-play, a computer-based simulation can have individual coaching and debriefing built in. These simulations satisfy all the key criteria for engaging and motivating a user. They offer a challenge and a sense of realism, they create opportunities to explore, and they allow the user plenty of control.

Alternate Reality Gaming

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), are based largely in the real world, using multiple media and game elements to engage participants and, to some extent, allow them to shape the game itself. ARGs are already used commercially as a marketing tool. Devotees pick up clues placed in websites, adverts and other media, and soon find themselves immersed in an adventure game where the characters reach into the real world, even calling them on their mobile phones.

For salespeople and other learners, the approach offers a way of deepening the sense of immersion and providing a richer set of experiences to reflect upon well beyond the classroom. The approach can also help learners to keep new concepts at ‘top of mind’ – imagine receiving a text message or even a telephone call from a simulated customer you were selling to some weeks before!


The logical next step from games that impinge on reality is to base the learning on reality. In a real-play, fictional case studies and role-plays are replaced by real life situations and actual conversations with customers.

This tends to be more effective with telephone-based relationships and requires a degree of preparation (for example, pre-screening contact details). However, the learning and commercial impact can be significant. In one real-play workshop on generating appointments, the group walked away with 14 actual leads.

Just-in-time learning and coaching

Technology can also help, by providing just-in-time learning and even the ability to self-coach, and connecting it all back to the application tools and processes used by salespeople on a daily basis.

Increasingly, this support can take a mobile form. A salesperson waiting for a meeting can use a PDA to access their account plan, bring up a framework to help structure the meeting, review best practice for that type of interaction, and even work through a mini simulation to help prepare. As well as, of course, debrief afterwards to reflect on what happened!

In a less technical vein, account clinics (sometimes known as Reconnects) can provide a way of leveraging your best coaches to help salespeople or teams to succeed in major tasks such as winning a large bid, planning a new campaign or gaining entry to a promising prospect.

You get what you measure

Measuring impact allows you to reflect on what is working and what isn’t, so that you can refine your approach before continuing. In a very real way, this process of reflecting on the programme as a whole extends the application of Kolb’s experiential learning model, from the individual level to the organisation.

The principles of experiential learning have been understood for many years, but are not applied often enough. Imparta’s research shows that experiential learning can be two to four times as effective as traditional teaching. New approaches and technologies are opening up a wide range of options and making them increasingly accessible for learners in all industries.

More insights…