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Sales Training Gamification: Game On or Game Over?

Feb 11th, 2019

The following article originally appeared in Forbes on Jan. 10, 2019.

Remember a few years back when everybody (and I mean everybody) was trying to “gamify” their learning content? In this hyperconnected, short-attention-span world of ours, gamification was seen as a powerful new way to engage learners: If you can lure them into a game-like environment where content combines with competition, you can overcome today’s culture of distraction. Or at least that was the theory.

Business-to-business (B2B) advisory firm SiriusDecisions conducted a study focused on sales talent called “Sales Enablement for the First-Line Sales Manager.” (I am a former analyst for SiriusDecisions.) As part of the study, the firm says it asked sales professionals how they prefer to learn. Somewhat surprisingly, gamification and podcasts brought up the rear. SiriusDecisions reported that the ways they did want to learn were what you would traditionally expect: “on-the-job informal learning,” “in-field observation of others,” and “collaboration with peers.”

Does this mean it’s game over for gamification? Not entirely. (At my sales enablement solutions company, we have seen many clients achieve success through a balanced use of gamification.) But it does mean that gamification, like many new tools, has transitioned away from “shiny-new-object” status and settled into its rightful place in the learning toolbox: as a tactic that has merit in the right situations. The danger I see is in overestimating the impact gamification will have on learners and over-relying on it as a sales readiness strategy.

Gamification: Engagement is not Learning

Why were people so excited about gamification in the first place? Because it seemed like a way to get learners (particularly millennials raised on apps and gamification) engaged in learning content by stirring their competitive spirit. For sales reps, this would seem to be the perfect combination of qualities: We want them to engage with learning content, and we definitely want them to be competitive.

However, engaging and learning are two different things. Most of us had teachers in school who were funny, engaging and really easy graders (the proverbial “gut” class), but we may have learned more from the hard-as-nails old-timer who had encyclopedic knowledge and held students to a high standard. If the goal is to get students to show up in the classroom, then the first teacher is likely the most effective. But if the goal is to have them actually learn something, then the second teacher may be superior.

And this is exactly the issue with gamification. The best sales reps are often curious learners — they don’t need games to engage with learning content. They are already hungry to learn because they want to close more deals and earn more money. In my experience, the best way to enable these learners is to give them information they can use as efficiently as possible. Gamification can be a useful subcomponent to learning (including to get lower-performing reps engaged as part of their evolution as learners), but it should not be a foundational element.

Ironically, sales may be the originator of corporate gamification with the long-standing “sales deal leaderboard.” Leaderboards can also be helpful “in the moment” to motivate sales reps to keep up with their training and coaching activities (i.e., “That ‘A’ player already passed his assessment; I’d better get going!”). But, at the end of the day, revenue is what matters most. In other words, no rep wants to be first on the learning leaderboard and last on the revenue one.

Sales Training Should Enable Engagement and Learning

Because top sales reps tend to be naturally curious learners, sales enablement leaders should seek to harness this energy to create a culture of learning in their organizations. There could be elements of gamification in this — such as conducting quizzes with prizes. But for the most part, I believe consuming and operationalizing learning content should be simply “part of the job” for sales reps. This is the approach top performers tend to take — so it should be what everyone strives to do.

Creating a learning culture can include several components, including:

• Working with the chief sales officer to make it clear to every rep that learning is part of their job. A rep who stops learning will eventually stop providing value to buyers. Keeping up on the latest products and competitive intel, and continuously improving their craft, should be part of every rep’s job description.

• Enlisting peers to create content and evangelize the importance of readiness. I’ve noticed reps are much more likely to consume case studies, videos and other learning materials authored by peers rather than by unknown writers.

• Implementing accountability for learning materials. For example, random quizzes during sales meetings on the “top three things” reps learned in the most recent newsletter or webcast could make them pay attention to content.

• Enlisting managers in training, because reps may be far more likely to be “model students” when their manager is leading the class. Managers could conduct mini-workshops at sales meetings, or they could have reps produce videos of themselves pitching the latest product — and the managers could then review the videos and provide feedback.

All of this takes us back to our original question: Is it game over for gamification?

Not really — but like many “hot” new approaches to learning, I believe gamification falls short of the hype. It has its place within a learning culture — contests and competitions are great ways to focus sales reps on specific goals that they care about and to whet their appetites for more learning. However, rather than fixating on gamification, it could be far more productive for sales leaders and enablement professionals to focus on implementing a broad-based culture of learning. This is a critical step toward achieving the ultimate goal: creating a state of perpetual readiness among sales reps.

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