Take the First Step: Lessons Learned Using Simulations for Sales Training

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

When designing sales leadership or associate development programs, it’s essential to create an environment where learners can perform and practice new skills being learned, reflect on what they’ve learned, make conclusions from the experience, and apply new knowledge and behaviors in the workplace. This is not a new concept. What is new, however, are the tools used to create this engaging learning environment.

Through the use of business simulations, developers are able to reality-test new behaviors and skills before the learners apply them. We can bring real-world learning into live or virtual classrooms, and put leaders through a myriad of different experiences, provide corrective feedback, and equip them with tools that they can apply on the job. Simulations, when designed well and with the proper fidelity to mirror the job, can move the learning environment from one that simply shares knowledge and discussion to one where learners actively perform new behaviors.

But how can we effectively design our programs to incorporate simulated sales experiences? There are four steps when designing for simulation-based learning experiences:

  1. Orientation 
  2. Immersion 
  3. Reflection and Feedback 
  4. Application.

Let’s take a closer look at each one and some examples. 


Before setting a learner in a simulated experience, it is helpful to provide an overview of the learning environment, detailing learning goals and what success looks like. Unlike traditional learning approaches that focus on knowledge sharing that sets the stage for practice, orientation is preparing the learner for what they will experience during the Immersion phase of the simulation. This up-front prep pays off because the learner doesn’t need to worry about how the experience will work. Instead, they can focus on the experience itself.

Orientation can be done in many ways. I have used webinars, step-by-step guidebooks, peer-to-per chats, and video walkthroughs as ways to familiarize the learner with what to expect from the learning experience. 


Immersion is the process whereby learners undergo knowledge creation and behavior change through interaction with the simulated learning environment. Simulated instruction flips the traditional form of instruction—from one where subject matter precedes learning to one where learners immerse themselves in the experience to learn. Essentially, learning becomes a by-product of the act of creating.

The ability for a simulation to create an immersive experience is the hallmark of a good design. Some of the key characteristics are:


  • Context: Does the simulation resemble the real-world learners experience now or in the near future?
  • Content: Does the simulation provide rich information so learners can derive meaning from the experience?
  • Emotion: Does the simulation express emotional content, such as a sense of urgency?
  • Autonomy: Does the simulated reality provide enough “space” for the learners to express themselves and ideas within it? This may not sound as obvious as the other characteristics, but it makes a great difference. To be truly effective, learners need the ability to project themselves inside the simulated world and shape it. 

Reflection and Feedback 

Simulated environments give the learning practitioner a glimpse of the real behaviors learners actually perform in the workplace. This ability to observe what is going on and provide feedback is essential to the learning process. Without it, little impact can be gained by the organization, and the learning is unsustainable back on the job.

Some ways to incorporate feedback or reflection during the simulation include: 

  • Peers to provide feedback to each other during the process (team-based simulations). 
  • Formal coaches or business advisors provide spot feedback based on observation during the simulation. 
  • Instructors or leader teachers provide spot knowledge or consulting sessions (can be done live or “office hours”).

Some ways to incorporate feedback or reflection post-simulation include: 

  • Workplace challenge exercises such as creating a work artifact (like a marketing plan) and presenting it to the class. 
  • Learners prepare stand-up presentations to a mock board of directors.  
  • Instructors prepare data analytic profiles to see what and how the learners did compared to the benchmark. 
  • Peers participate in reflective discussions on how the simulation differs from the real-world situation and why something worked well or not. 


Because simulations are based on and attempt to replicate the work being done on the job, application should be seen as a continuation of the learning process. Unlike traditional action planning in which learning is summed up, prioritized, and then applied to real-world problems, application is part of the experience in a simulated learning environment.

Consider a sales simulation we developed with Advantexe. Learners experience a client’s business strategy and issues, practice positioning products to simulated clients, and then create presentations that are used with actual clients. These final presentations become the result of the collective insight gained by learners. Additional assistance is provided by managers, peers, and ongoing consulting—all resulting in more reflection and feedback, as well as refinement of new knowledge. 

Moving Forward 

When developing your next learning design, think about these four steps. What role can they play in making your learning programs more effective? How can you use them to build a breakthrough learning application? No doubt, by adding simulations to your sales enablement toolbox, learners will come back to the workplace with a different frame and begin to experience their work in a more meaningful way.

About the Author
Sanford Gold is an expert in corporate learning, leadership and professional development, and works with Fortune 500 companies both in the US and abroad. Sanford speaks and writes about issues in corporate learning and leadership, and higher education, and is a recognized thought leader in the field of innovative approaches to associate learning and leadership development. He earned his Doctorate of Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. He can be contacted through LinkedIn or via email at
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