Sales: Developing Critical “Soft Skills” with Training Simulations

Although “soft skills” such as teamwork and leadership are the glue that holds teams and organizations together, from a learning and development perspective they can sometimes take a back seat to technical training. However, soft skills are now increasingly recognized as being invaluable to organizations, with pharmaceutical sales teams being no exception.

Yet soft skills are notoriously difficult to teach. For that reason, many trainers such as Cam Tipping, President of training consultancy IIBD, are applying state-of-the-art computer simulations to help develop these skills within pharmaceutical sales organizations.

Collaborative, immersive and effective, these simulations develop three critical soft skills which are in particular demand in today’s sales landscape.

Skill 1: Teamwork

Although salespeople need to have a strong ability to be independent self-starters, teamwork and collaboration skills are among the qualities most desired by organizations. Indeed, teamwork features in the top questions asked to prospective pharmaceutical sales representatives at interviews.

Computer-based simulations, with their competitive and learner-led format,often pit learners in teams against each other — therefore encouraging learning through collaboration.

In fact, research has shown that using simulations for collaborative learning can enhance learners’ performance and better prepare them to enter their real-life careers.1 Furthermore, gamified learning — of which simulations are an excellent example — has been demonstrated to improve cooperative behavior in team-based environments.2

Put simply, by fostering collaborative and cooperative learning environments,simulations help to develop the crucial teamwork skills which are sought after by today’s sales organizations.

Teamwork leads to an improved ability to tackle challenges, which brings us to the second soft skill that can be developed through training simulations — problem solving.

Skill 2: Problem solving

Problem solving skills are vital for any sales professional.However, the ability to replicate real-life problems in a training context can be a challenging task for sales trainers.Simulations, however, take learners through real-world scenarios, breaking down and dissecting the problems they face regularly out in the field. Moreover, simulations’ use of feedback and reward systems motivate learners and reinforce the benefits of being able to solve problems in real-world work environments.

Another key way that simulations have been shown to promote the development of problem solving skills is through their use of “gamification effects.” The use of game-based formats and game thinking engages and motivates action from learners by prompting them to understand the effort and knowledge required to solve complex problems.

Moreover, gamified learning allows for problem solving skills “mastery” — in other words, learners can practice solving problems repeatedly until their skills are perfected. Such opportunities for honing skills in low-risk and controlled learning environments can provide a win-win training approach for sales forces — especially when one considers the potential fallout of making mistakes and failing to solve problems on-the-job.

Yet no matter how much exposure sales teams are given to realistic problems in training, their ability to solve them out in the field will frequently depend on their ability to think in an agile, responsive, and — perhaps most importantly — strategic way. This leads us to the next vital soft skill that simulations can develop — strategic thinking.

Skill 3: Strategic thinking

In the current fast-paced B2B landscape, sales force agility and strategic adaptability are more valuable than ever.3 To be agile and adaptable requires sales professionals to think “strategically,” or in other words, to take into consideration changing internal (e.g. sales budgets, time and resources) and external (e.g. competition and regulatory environments) constraints and opportunities when deciding on a course of action.

In computer-based simulations, learners must assess realistic and shifting commercial scenarios, forcing them to adjust their market strategies and shift the allocation of resources accordingly. Particularly, learners develop confidence in using data to make logical, optimized decisions — a skill that has been recognized by experts as key to strategic thinking in the current business environment.4

As such, simulations force learners to be responsive and agile, allowing them to plan each step in more cost and time efficient ways. This ability ultimately creates more strategically minded and responsive sales forces that are driven by opportunity rather than inertia.

Delivering skills for the future

As the pharma industry continues to evolve, the development of soft skills will continue to play a key role in the success of any sales organization. However, as these skills become more recognized and in demand, the need for innovative and adaptable training approaches becomes clearer. Hence, training simulations — with their team-based, gamified and strategic aspects — are likely to play a major role in developing the critical soft skills needed in today's pharmaceutical sales landscape.

Jeremy Lovelace is the founder and director of HFX Training.