Board games can energise and involve participants far more than role plays and flip-charting can. Could this be why the dice are rolling for sales training games?
Board games may seem like an anachronism in modern sales skills training, but they are proving surprisingly durable.
Several training consultancies now provide them and have adapted some as part of blended learning programmes to help increase delegate interest and skills retention levels.
There are several games available in the sales field, where specialist training has often been difficult to apply.
Perry Burns, chief sales officer at training consultancy Sales 101, says board games are an ideal medium for transmitting specific messages to staff. He says the informal atmosphere created by gaming sessions, coupled with a competitive edge and serious training element, can have a real impact on sales training.
“This sort of training is a lot of fun and because it’s informal, it’s a more powerful way of getting messages across. Players learn new techniques and gain knowledge from their colleagues,” he says.
Burns is hoping to harness these qualities with a new game-based sales training package called Sales Master. The programme is based on a competitive board game where up to 30 participants compete against each other in teams.
It comes with a series of videos that provide advice and guidance on various aspects of the sales process, including making a sales pitch and dealing with difficult customers.
“Participants will gain a much better idea of how salesmanship works through the game,” says Burns. “It encourages debate and really helps with knowledge transfer within an organisation.
“The game itself is a traditional-style board game, and the idea is that people look at all aspects of the sales process by playing the game,” he explains. “The format is designed to appeal to sales staff and the winning team is the one that makes the most money.”
During the game, a facilitator asks questions based on the sales process and the teams get a minute to answer. Correct answers are rewarded with fake money, and the team with the largest amount at the end of the game are declared the winners.
Because the questions are based on real-life scenarios that most sales people will encounter during their job, the game also draws out any further training needs.
“It is set up so people can have a bit of fun but with a serious training message,” says Burns. “The real test of salesmanship is not in the classroom or in mastering the theory – it’s what happens out in the field. The game simulates all sorts of real-life situations that happen all the time in sales roles.”
Although the game is primarily focused on teams, it comes with an e-learning suite to help resolve any training requirements that individuals may have. Managers can also get staff to complete an online test after the game to see what lessons have been learned and identify who needs to use the e-learning.
“The e-learning suite can help managers look at where the team needs strengthening as well as the difficulties individuals may be having,” he adds.
The game is also a useful tool for geographically disparate teams, because it enables staff to come together and share knowledge that might otherwise remain hidden. But Burns believes the concept could work for many other sectors.
“This could work for roles with any sort of process skills, so there could be more developments in the future,” he says. “A lot of sales managers we deal with use this as part of a buzz session each week to help motivate and enthuse their teams.”
The base unit of questions and a licence for the online learning costs between £1,300 and £2,000.
Christine Elgood is an expert on this type of training, as her firm designs and sells a wide range of business games and simulations. Elgood Effective Learning offers more than 32 different generic training board games, but also designs specific games tailored to corporate needs or problems. It has created ones to tackle all kinds of challenges, dealing with everything from improving safety to sales problems.
The traditional card or counter-based board games are complemented by more sophisticated computer-based business games and simulations, but the central theme remains the same.
“Giving people the experience in a non-threatening environment can really help develop them,” says Elgood. “I think it lets people act more naturally and allows facilitators to see how they would behave in the working environment.
“Business games help people understand problems and apply their own knowledge to resolve them,” she explains. “It also lets people work together in teams and share ideas on their own industry.”
Elgood claims that the fun element helps people become more receptive to new ideas and more responsive to the strategy a company wants to follow.
“The games are competitive as well as collaborative, and because we’re such social creatures, I think that really helps the learning to stick,” she says.
The games can cost anything from £100 to £1,000 depending on what’s required and, although they can be used over and over, the way they are used by companies is crucial.
“Facilitation skills are really critical if a game is going to meet its objective,” Elgood warns. “The games are often facilitated by someone else and that person is critical because they interact with the learners. A great game poorly facilitated is less effective than a poor game well facilitated.”
Gillian Tinney is the worldwide master distributor for another training system which uses gaming to help employers train sales staff.
The Sales Activator is described as a sales training tool kit. It includes two board games to help improve things such as mental preparation, handling questions, closing deals, negotiation and dealing with difficult customers.
“It’s a fun way of learning and that’s a huge reason why the training can stick. It lets staff share experience and in a time when the electronic age is removing lots of personal contact, it lets people work together face-to-face,” she says.
The games, which cost about £2,500, provide a sophisticated training system for staff, but can also be used as an ongoing motivational tool.
“During the game, the skills of the team will be highlighted, but it will also draw out gaps in their knowledge and identify further training needs,” Tinney adds. “A lot of our clients play every month and then keep the figures running with the overall winner getting a big prize at the end of the year.”
Harvey Sykes, a director at Simulation Training, has a range of products that help teams learn through game play and simulated business models.
The Simpact game is based on a detailed business simulation. Teams inherit a media business, and are responsible for running its operations and management divisions.
“Because teams are competing against each other, we find that this gives it more of an edge and makes it more engaging,” says Sykes. “It lets people loose in a realistic business setting and allows them to enjoy a game.
“It’s a great opportunity to experiment with decisions and behaviours in a safe environment. At a senior management level, it gives people the chance to take risks and make mistakes without having an impact on the real business.”
Fun, engagement and teamwork seem to be the key messages when it comes to workplace gaming and it seems the enduring popularity of board games have now found a new niche in the training world.
Case study: Oracle
IT firm Oracle turned to business games as part of a major training programme for its sales managers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
It wanted to provide better sales training for managers in the region, and set up a series of workshops designed by Elgood Effective Learning.
These included a business simulation game which was designed to promote effective sales techniques, communication, knowledge transfer and problem-solving.
Peter MacNaughtan, former sales director at Oracle, says the game enabled participants to try out new ideas developed in training, gain experience of new initiatives, and experiment with multi-tasking.
“Within a few minutes there were animated discussions in the teams, and you could actually see people learning by doing,” he says. “That for me was really one of the seminal moments in underpinning how important and useful the game is.
“We regularly take feedback and it’s always extremely good. It’s not just because it’s an enjoyable activity – the sales managers have come away saying the game really helped them understand what they needed to do, and to share ideas,” he explains.
Phil Codd, a participant at one of the workshops, thinks the game was also an excellent motivational tool, and something he hoped to use with his own sales team out in the field.
“The business games have been extremely well received and I’d actually like to run them – perhaps in a modified form – for my own sales team at some stage.”