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Why Salespeople are the Hot New Target Audience for Sims

There has been a nearly tectonic shift in the target audiences for simulations and serious games. Compliance issues around ethics and safety are still the leading use of sims for large enterprises. But coming up fast to number two is sims for salespeople.

To be effective here, sims have to accomplish some combination of three learning areas. They have to develop expertise in the following questions:

1. What are the problems that the salespeople's customers are facing? What is their new world view? What can they control, and what is their balance scorecard of metrics? What does their new technology and competitive landscape look like, and how is it changed from two years ago.

2. What are the new products and services that their organization are selling? What are products and services that the competitors are selling? Do the shifts in the customers' environments mean totally new competitors with new value propositions.

3. How does the new products and service solve the new operational and strategic challenges of the customers?

Then, the sims also have to meet specific program goals:

A. The sims have to be highly engageable. They have to actually be fun for the salespeople.

B. The entire sim has to be able to be taken in less than one hour. Further, the chunks of the sim (often in the forms of levels) have to each be able to be completed in less than 15 minutes, and ideally less than 10 minutes.

C. The content of the sims has to be very easy to update as markets change.

Salespeople are asked to do so much more than they ever have. While salespeople used to be organized vertically or horizontally, now they have to be experts in both. Further, they have to shift markets, absorb new products, and react to new landscapes and topographies seemingly overnight.

And, perhaps most importantly, salespeople have to not just "understand" the new realities, they have to be comfortable with them. They have to exude passion and confidence to their customers. They have to "get it" viscerally and reflexively, not just have a set of points to make. In the old days, this came out of decades of experience. But the compression of market shifts necessarily requires the type of compression of experience that comes from playing and "messing around" with new ideas, augmented with strong visuals and interactivity, which today requires a simulation.

Here are some worst practices:

  • Be overly focused on highly specific products. Augment the sim with a database look-up tool, but focus on the approach, not the product numbers. The content of the sims has to be both philosophical and practical, but not buried in lists.
  • Wait too long before starting. While the specifics change overnight, the large industry shifts can be predicted a few months in advance, or more. Where a significant change is on the horizon, start the sim process immediately.
  • Think about the audience too narrowly. A good sim gets around. What starts off as an internal sales tool gets spread around the organization, and more often than not the best salespeople will also show it to their customers to gain thought leadership with them. It is a best practice to both involve marketing people in the visualization and development, and even create an additional scrubbed version to show externally.
  • Focus on multi-player. A lot of organizations erroneously think in terms of multi-player sims as their default model. This creates scheduling nightmares, prevents the ad hoc future accessing of the sim in the months and years to come, and also "kicks the can" of content development. Even the best computer games precede their multi-player experiences with single player.
Simulations used to quickly ramp up salespeople to their new realities not only makes sense, but increasingly is realized as necessary. The smartest organizations are working with outside simulation design and development resources initially to save time and to ensure completion. Some portion of these organizations will then increasingly bring or all of the capability in-house.

Step 1.0: The Concept

The first step for all sim development is creating an awareness of the opportunity. Here, the person who will eventually take the role of client manager has to build a community of people with an appreciation of the limitations of their current methodology and the new results possible.

The conclusion of this stage is to have identified the topic(s) for the first simulation(s) and the roles of key people including developers and sponsors.

Step 1.01: Identify and Build Buy-In for the Broad Need for Sims

Why use educational simulations and serious games?

The first step in developing simulations in an organization is to build a broad understanding of why sims are important, even critical.

Competence + Commitment = Comfort

The core reason to do a sim is to drive competence and commitment. In fact, sims do this better than any other media.


Competence is a pretty well understood idea. It is the ability of a learner to apply the right skills. It can even include use the right words.


But developing conviction in an audience is even more important for most applications. Conviction is the enduring understanding and drive in the learner to do the right thing.

I look at the conviction level by gauging:

  • How do people actually behave when no one is watching, and/or when stressed?
  • Can people improvise the philosophies to appropriately adapt it to situations not covered in the formal course?

The Incomparable Value of Conviction

The enterprise value of employees (or students in universities) with conviction is so great that the old methodologies seems absurd.

  • People who learn conviction are not capricious. They stick to these convictions, even in times of boredom, greed, and stress.
  • They are also ridiculously powerful at holding others accountable to the same higher standard.
  • And they apply the material to broader areas.


Simulation-Based Programs Develop and even Change Conviction: An Example of Design

Sims shape conviction (and commitment) in a scalable and measurable way. This requires a specific design process. When convictions have to be changed, for example, scenarios may take on the following properties:

  1. Allow the student to experiment with their traditional behavior. Allow them to do what they would naturally do. Then show not only the immediate, apparent, and high-probability consequences (which are often positive) of their traditional behavior, but also the long term, hidden, and/or "unlikely" but possible consequences (which can be devastating). Allow the player to experience emotionally the direct devastating consequences.
  2. Visualize the "invisible system" - the flow of events that people can't normally see, but leads to any devastating outcomes.
  3. Allow students to repeat the scenarios (which means they can't be too long, or rely too much on linear content), and then "discover" for themselves the right way of doing things.
  4. Include the little feedback signs to teach players what are signs in the real world that indicate a straying into risky behavior.
  5. Put the student in novel situations that require improvising based on their earned knowledge.
  6. Present tailored, not generic, after action reviews/debriefings.


The combination of Competence and Conviction creates Comfort. This is the ease that comes with real experience, especially experimentation. Comfort can be around a using a new online tool, selling a new produce or service in a new way and in a new environment, or leadership or project management.

The ability of sims to create comfort is unique and insanely valuable. Once an organization begins developing simulations, they understand why there old ways failed.

Step 1.02 Identify the Area of Need

Once there is an understanding of the importance of sims, identify where to build them.

At a strategic areas, ask these question to find the best places for development:
  • What are the important areas where people need to learn but are not learning using traditional methodology? This may be a place where the current education is failing, or as likely an area where traditional education has not even been tried (i.e. teaching leadership or stewardship.)
  • Where is there an increased need for competence, conviction, and comfort?
  • Is there a group of people who really want this to happen outside of the Learning Development Community? Are there sponsors and underwriters?
Then, tactically, use this framework:
  • To create a sense of presence, use virtual worlds;
  • To easily access diverse, “real-world” communities, use virtual worlds;
  • To increase user engagement, use games;
  • To provide access to labs and props, use stand-alone sims or sims in virtual worlds;
  • To increase depth of knowledge, use educational simulations or environments, either stand-alone or in virtual worlds.
It is best to begin the process with the identification of three or four areas for sim development. At least one will be culled for reasons that are fairly unpredictable at this point.

Step 1.03: Set the Right Expectations - Most educational sims developed for corporations are about the complexity of an iPhone app

Setting expectations is a critical part of building an educational sim. All of us, from sponsor, to designers and developers, to subject matter experts, need to understand the level of complexity.

It was not too long ago that clients would initially ask me for a serious game that had the feel of World of Warcraft or Halo. This was tricky, of course, for so many reasons, including:

Approach World of Warcraft Corporate Sim
Budget $150+ Million $100,000
Time to Develop 3 + Years 7 months
Operating System PC, Installed Flash, Web deployed
Desired Addictiveness Very high Low
Player Time 15+ Hours/Week 1 Hour in Total
Predictability of Success* Low Very high

*Predictability of success is critical: WoW has been attempted to be duplicated by quite a few game companies with little success.

Instead, it is much more relevant to point to iPhone app games or (increasingly) other enterprise-built serious games (such as PlayTrue) as much better level setters. This keeps the conversations sane and productive, while delivering solutions that are manageable and, better yet, highly effective in building competence and conviction.

Step 1.04 Produce Concept Document

Create a 4-6 page concept document that describes the basic look and feel of a desired 30 minute to 1 hour sim. In this concept document, include:

  • Introduction
  • Learning objectives
  • Set up/Story
  • Basic gameplay
  • Basic screen interfaces and interactions
  • Basic feedback and reward system
  • Overview of underlying mechanisms from a descriptive more than technical perspective
  • Basic level structure.
I use a lot of rough PowerPoint sketches as well as existing computer game screen shots as mock-ups. While not pretty, they do show all of the basic components. (If the project is for a proposal, clients may invest three hours of a professional artist/graphic designer to make the three or four screen shots look better, and about two hours for someone to proof and format the entire document.)

The Concept Document can be used to build support for a sim in an organization.