Learning to Earn

At the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort in Orlando a few months ago, the conference room was filled with adults paired off in front of laptops, competing at video games—in the middle of the session. But it wasn't a gamers' convention, and they weren't goofing off.

Believe it or not, it was the annual sales meeting for Prentice-Hall Business Publishing, and the "gamers" were sales reps using a computer-based business simulator to practice selling a new accounting textbook to a virtual professor, Mary Green of fictitious River City College.

Without leaving their ergonomic 12-hour chairs, the reps practiced introducing themselves to the professor, finding out about customer needs, and positioning their product. The virtual professor let them know if their pitches were effective or not, growing distant if they wandered off-topic or telling them to cool it if they got too aggressive.

Games like this, which one observer has likened to "Xbox crossed with Zig Ziglar," are big in sales training nowadays. "Instead of a PowerPoint presentation with a talking head, people want learning that has a higher impact," says Rommin Adl, president and CEO of Strategic Management Group (SMG) in Philadelphia, which produces sales training programs.

Games aren't the only thing coming from cutting-edge sales trainers. Successful Meetings talked to training experts across the country to learn their latest and greatest methods for coaching salespeople. Here are their best ideas.

Playing Around

Is it any surprise that games are big in sales training? As baby boomers retire, the workplace is increasingly dominated by Generation Xers—people who were weaned on Pac-Man. "Soon sales training modules will be downloadable on Game Boys, if they aren't already," says Michelle Nichols, a sales consultant in Reno, NV, and author of the "Savvy Selling" column for BusinessWeek Online.

Nichols is kidding (sort of), but these games are a trainer's best friend. By making learning fun, says SMG's Adl, they help salespeople retain more of the information imparted, which in turn makes the reps more likely to change their selling behavior. Those two factors drive results—the whole point of training in the first place.

Adding an element of competition is also important for salespeople, who tend to have hard-driving Type-A personalities. That's why the Gronstedt Group, the marketing agency that developed the video training for Prentice-Hall, had the reps going head-to-head on their laptops. But Gronstedt can do similar training for up to 4,000 people at a time. "We play the simulations on a big screen, and we give the audience electronic keypads to vote on what action they would take next," explains Anders Gronstedt, president, North America, for the Broomfield, CO-based company.

Technology is hot right now, but games needn't be computer-based to be effective or fun. In addition to computer simulations, SMG makes customized board games (the company prefers to call them "board simulations") in which teams of salespeople compete at managing a business that mimics one of their potential clients' firms. Moving around the board, they take money from pools of customers that they then allot to salaries, investments, and the like. Along the way, certain challenges come up—a new competitor, or an unexpected regulatory situation—and the actions players take in response affect the business accordingly.

"It gets them to walk a mile in their customers' moccasins, so they can speak the same language, call on different levels of the organization, and better articulate solutions," explains SMG's Adl. Companies that have used these popular games to train their salesforces include Texas Instruments, IBM, Juniper Networks, and real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.

Like Drilling Teeth . . . Not!

What can you say about a procedure that Jack Welch recently compared—albeit favorably—to getting your teeth cleaned? You heard right: A chapter in Welch's book Winning is entitled "Six Sigma: Better than a Trip to the Dentist."

It's well known that Welch's championing of Six Sigma at GE made it the process-improvement technique for firms from Marriott to Carlson to HSBC. Still, as his title suggests, the very name makes people's eyes roll. Well, Welch (alas, no relation to this writer) is out to convince the Six Sigma skeptics that they're wrong, and so is Michael J. Webb, who has taken this five-step process for boosting productivity and applied it to sales and marketing.

Webb, a Norcross, GA-based sales consultant and author of the just- published Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way, explains that Six Sigma essentially quantifies what works and what doesn't in the sales process. He's somewhat vague about exactly how it does this (you'll have to get a Six Sigma Belt—kind of a nerd's version of a martial-arts belt—to learn more), but he notes that Acuity Brands, a lighting company, improved its revenue per salesperson by more than 20 percent after applying Six Sigma methodology.

Another process-improvement technique that competes with Six Sigma is Multivariable Testing (MVT). As the name suggests, MVT is a way of assessing various factors simultaneously; it was originally developed during World War II to improve British accuracy in shooting down German bombers, and was introduced to the business world more than three decades ago by Charles Holland, then an employee of Union Carbide and now founder and CEO of QualPro, a Knoxville, TN-based consultancy. Like Six Sigma's, MVT's techniques started in manufacturing and are now being introduced in sales training.

MVT's methodology is simple, Holland says: To improve sales, ask the people involved in the selling process—everyone from the frontline employees, to their customers and managers, all the way up to the CEO—what they think would improve things.

"We sit down with everyone who has any worthwhile input and ask them for suggestions," says Holland. These brainstorming sessions typically yield at least 100 new ideas, of which Holland shelves roughly 70 percent, leaving the ones that are "practical, fast, and cost-free." In other words, he explains, "Can this idea be done right away? Would it be easier than what we've been doing? Does it cost the same (or less)?"

If the answer to all three is yes, QualPro plugs those individual ideas into software that combines them into different solutions—which Holland calls "recipes"—for testing. The testing could be done through a new sales script, for instance, or a new advertising campaign.

Using MVT, Holland says, a car dealership had huge success with a mentoring program for new salespeople—an idea the new hires themselves generated. Not only did the new reps improve their own sales by 15 percent, but their mentors improved theirs by 25 percent.

Besides improving the bottom line, MVT has another benefit: empowerment. "When you get everyone involved in making suggestions, it's the greatest morale-builder in the world," says Holland. "People have their say, instead of having some expert tell them, 'You're going to do this.' "

Attack of the Pod People

It's not only games that are being played in training sessions. Another kind of play is popular—the press-the-"play"-button kind. Piggybacking on the popularity of Apple's iPod, a growing number of firms are delivering educational content to their salesforces via podcasts: digital audio files that reps can download to their MP3 players and listen to at their convenience.

"Podcasting has become part of the playbook for sales training," says Gronstedt, who launched a podcast as part of Prentice-Hall's sales training at the company's conference earlier this year. "As busy as salespeople are, the car is one of the few places to reach them." Many firms are converting nearly all their training and communication to podcasts, adds Gronstedt, including EMC and Xerox.

At Capital One Financial Corp., the McLean, VA-based credit-card provider, more than 3,000 iPods have been handed out companywide to everyone who receives training—including the sales reps, who use them both to prep for training via "pre-work" (for instance, listening to a Harvard Business Review article on their way to class) and to reinforce the message afterwards. The reps also use the iPods to download audiobooks on management and leadership that they discuss with their peers during weekly conference calls.

"It's the 'cool' factor," says Dave DeFilippo, director, learning and development for Capital One University, of his salesforce's enthusiasm for the toy that resurrected Steve Jobs' career. "Capital One gave them iPods. They're learning, but they also feel like it's a perk." And with the book-discussion groups, DeFilippo notes, "The managers let people from their teams find books that interest them and lead the discussions. It creates a culture of learning—rather than the sales manager saying, 'Go read book X.' "

But as much as sales reps are gravitating toward gadgets and technology, experts remind trainers not to forget the human element. "The trend we're finding with customers is that they're looking for less technology and more personal connection," says Nichols. She cautions trainers and salespeople who "still want to be in business in five years" to "take the time to listen to your customer first, ask good questions, engage them." In other words, let the salespeople use all the cool tools they want during coaching—as long as they take out those earbuds from time to time.