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focus_Sales Simulation Programs that Drive Performance

Sales Simulation Programs that Drive Performance

By Brad Hummel

The best sales training programs, the ones that truly drive sales performance, are those that center on sales simulation. Regardless of size or available resources, every organization can incorporate a simulation program into its training curriculum.

To have meaningful impact, a sales simulation program must embrace the following concepts. Failure to implement any one of the above will lead to missed opportunities for sales growth and representative development.

Real-Plays vs. Role-Plays

The purpose of a sales simulation program is to provide the representative an opportunity to practice in an environment similar to that of the field. Though this is common knowledge, most training curriculums utilize standard “role-plays” where two peers pair-up and one plays doctor, the other representative. After a generic exchange, where the doctor agrees to everything the representative says, and commits to placing the next five patients on product, the rep then receives positive feedback. As a result, the representative gains a false sense of security by practicing in a manner that in no way reflects the real-world. Additionally, there is little opportunity for improvement due to the lack of constructive feedback.

If the goal of sales simulation is to check a box that deems the representative ready for the field, then a “role-play” approach will suffice. However, if the goal is to adequately prepare the representative for the field, then a true-to-life, “real-play” approach should be taken.

Model Offices, Customer Profiles and Mock Scenarios

Three ways to ensure a real-world approach to sales simulation include creating model medical offices, fictitious customer profiles and mock selling scenarios.

Model medical offices can be created under any budget. Large budgets may allow for construction of a separate area of the homeoffice dedicated to sales simulation. Small budgets may limit sales simulation to the strategic use of tables, chairs and imaginary walls. It is important to note that budget and physical attributes of the model medical office have little bearing on the effectiveness of the simulation program. How the model is used is what matters.

Depending on availability of space, the model medical office should allow for simultaneous practice in areas frequented by the sales representative. Examples include reception area, physician offices, pharmacy window, sample closet, and break room. If possible, these areas should be made to look the way they would in the field. This can be done with fake plants, picture frames, office supplies and signage. A model physician office can even have diplomas and certificates displayed on the wall that link to a fictitious customer profile.

Fictitious customer profiles are critical components of a successful sales simulation program. Although most training programs require representatives “role-play” with various customer types (doctor, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, pharmacists), few provide them with detailed profiles beforehand. This is a missed opportunity. Creating fictitious customer profiles based on real-world data gives representatives a chance to practice precall planning using numbers similar to what they will use in the field. Introducing analytics in this manner makes the exercise more realistic and adds an element of business acumen training to the sales simulation program.

Mock selling scenarios are also important to the effectiveness of a simulation program. The best way to prepare a representative for the field is to put them through rigorous exercises in a simulated environment. Considering the importance of “lunch-and-learns,” it seems logical to have representatives practice through some of the situations they may face in this setting.

Example: Dr. Jones walks in to the break room, grabs food and sits down with the representative. After a few minutes of detailing, Dr. Smith walks in and starts loading a plate. What does the representative do? Do they engage Dr. Smith or wait for him/her to sit down? What if they do not engage and Dr. Smith sits across the room? How will the representative draw Dr. Smith into the conversation without compromising the ongoing detail with Dr. Jones?

Despite the fact this happens all the time, most training programs fail to prepare a representative for it. The list of potential scenarios is endless. One thing to keep in mind is that the representative should always be assessed on the quality of the interaction and provided constructive feedback.

In addition to “lunch-and-learns,” scenarios can be based on other common sales interactions, such as “in-services,” “sampledrops,” “walking details” or “first visits.” How does a representative handle a distracted or disruptive guest while speaking? What is the best course of action when a physician comes out of an exam room and says “Do you have something for me to sign?” What does the hospital specialist do when given an opportunity to walk with a physician from grand rounds back to the clinic? How does a new representative handle the dreaded first visit to the office? These are all examples of situations faced in the “real-world” that are rarely addressed during sales training.

It is important to note that even well-designed sales simulation programs fail if they are perceived as a game. “Real-playing” and mock scenarios only work when taken seriously. Prior to engaging in simulation, ground rules need to be established. All participants should be instructed to behave just as they would in a professional medical setting. Anyone playing the role of a health care provider should wear a lab coat and be asked not to break character.

Selling Model Reinforcement

Many training programs do not take advantage of the opportunity to use sales simulation to reinforce the organization’s selling throughout the industry. Though wording varies, most models dictate the representative take a step-wise approach to sales calls by working through stages such as opening, probing, aligning, objection handling and closing. In addition to these stages, pre-call planning and post-call reflection are often components of the selling model.

All sales simulation programs should drive pull-through of the organization’s selling model and examine core competencies around its application. Generally speaking, basic role-play exercises allow for assessment of skills pertaining to each stage of the model (probing, closing, etc.). They do not, however, allow for assessment of a representative’s ability to conduct pre-call planning and post-call reflection. Although stressed during training, and included on field coaching reports, many organizations do not have a formal process around planning and reflection. Consequently, these critical skills often lack among sales representatives.

Assuming the organization has an established protocol for pre-call planning and post-call reflection, it should be incorporated in the sales simulation program. This is very easy to do. Prior to “real-playing,” representatives should be provided with fictitious customer profiles and instructed to pre-call plan based on that information. After the “real-play,” they should be asked to complete post-call reflection per protocol. During feedback, both planning and reflection should be discussed in detail, with appropriate coaching provided.

Group Feedback

Feedback is absolutely essential to sales and sales training. After all, it is the primary tool for facilitating improvement. Although most sales simulation programs incorporate feedback, many only provide it to the individual participant. This is another missed opportunity. Individual feedback helps one person.Group feedback helps everyone. For maximum impact, specific feedback should be delivered to the representative, and generalized feedback should be delivered to the group. “Real-playing” in front of the group can also be productive because feedback is delivered and heard by everyone. Additionally, the peer-toper interactions allow the entire group to improve in unison. Soft Skill Consideration Soft skills, such as common sense, the ability to deal with people and having a positive or flexible attitude, are often overlooked during sales training. This is because most training curriculums focus on job-specific skills such as clinical acumen and resource utilization. Success in sales is due in part to a representative’s ability to develop relationships and be well-liked. Though this is common knowledge, these skills are rarely addressed in training and are certainly not assessed during sales simulation exercises.

By incorporating the real-world suggestions previously mentioned, soft skills can easily be addressed in sales simulation. A model medical office with reception area allows for practice approaching and speaking to the front-desk staff. Including personal facts on a fictitious customer profile enables the representative to engage in small-talk before delivering a product detail. The same is true for personal or professional effects displayed in the model medical office. Finally, mock selling scenarios can be designed that test the representative’s ability to navigate a complex situation or deal with ambiguity.

Failure to do so will result in missed opportunities for sales growth and representative development. Embracing the “real-play” approach and each of the concepts discussed in this article will result in a sales simulation program that truly drives sales performance.


Brad Hummel is an oncology sales trainer at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Email Brad at

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