What Can Sales Learn From Gaming


“To me, gamification is finding the way to incent the behaviors that you want your team to have.”  – Dave McDermott, Director of Sales Enablement, Kelly Services, Dreamforce 2013’s Gamification Forum

Gamification has become a buzz word in sales.  It drives off the combination of both micro and macro task competitiveness to improve outcomes – whether completely on a solo or social basis.  Gamers for years have had an innate satisfaction from both micro tasks (like completing a particularly difficult part of a level or a specific task) or macro tasks (like beating a boss or finishing the game).  Many game publishes provide ‘achievements’ within their game to recognise this and allow the player to compare their prowess with others or strive for 100% completion of a game.  This doesn’t just recognises the players performance; it encourages it.   It improves the playability of games – both in terms of enjoyment and duration.  It allows seemingly mindless tasks, like baking bread in Minecraft, to be recognised as an achievement.  If my daughter’s squeals of delight in the weekend were anything to go by – it works.

This gamification has come across to sales as a means of similarly encouraging and recognising the achievements of sales people.  But, I wonder if we’ve missed something in doing this.  Gaming is so much more than the achievements and there are many more important lessons we can learn from gaming.  As a gamer, the achievements are important and a great way to brag to fellow gamers – particularly when the achievement is difficult to obtain. However, there are many more parallels between gaming and sales.  What do gaming and sales have in common and what can sales learn from gaming and gamers?

Micro tasks lead to macro outcomes

In line with the gamification focus – gaming has recognising the successful completion of many small tasks can result in the achievement of a large one.  Also, and importantly, gaming recognises the incremental achievement, not just the overall outcome, as important and rewardable.

In sales, we often simply focus on the ultimate outcome of our efforts – the successfully closed sale (or not as the case may be).  As a result, we don’t always recognise that whilst we achieved the sale, there may have been some suboptimal components within the sales process that we need to work on. In essence, a pass is good enough to move on – we don’t aim for 100% completion.

Similarly, when we don’t close the sale, we view it as a failure yet there may have been some absolutely stunning discrete pieces of work within the sale at a micro level which are worth recognising, rewaring and most certainly replicating.

Social is better than solo

The current trend in gaming is the move to online, multiplayer games.  Whether playing against or with friends and other gamers – gaming is social.  It is best enjoyed together.  Leaderboards work because you are comparing yourself to other people.  Achievements work because your friends and others can see them.

But it is more than that competition.  It is also about collaboration.  Some games are just no fun (or impossible) to play by yourself.  You need a mix of skills to successfully, or optimally complete the game.

Sales isn’t any different – it is a skill best deployed with people around you.  People you can share both successes and failures with.  People who can help you achieve your tasks and who can accentuate your skills with their own.  Learning from the successful around you and helping others to become successful.  Competing on a healthy basis with your peers and on a vigorous basis with your competitors.

Despite what they say, it is always competitive

Gaming is always about competition.  If playing solo or cooperatively – you are competing against the AI and yourself.  If versus – it is about beating the other player(s).

Sales is no different – it is competitive.  Not necessarily in the mercenary sense against your colleagues or clients – but unless you’re in the unique position of having your market all to yourself, there is always competition for your clients businesses.  Never forget this.

Practice is essential

As much as it pains many parents the world over, you get better at gaming by playing it more often.  Hours spent staring at TV screens and monitors by people the world over as they master their gaming skills.  Sometimes you need to practice complicated movements offline before you can take those skills to the competitive arena to dominate your enemy.  If you play competitively or professionally, there are hours of contracted practice and scrimmage to work through to hone your team tactics and roles before you meet your competitors for a real match.

Sales isn’t any different.  It is a profession so we need to treat it professionally.  It is, like an eSport, a skill that needs to be practiced.   Yes this means role plays, video analysis, coaching, feedback and all manner of tools.  You will have a skill threshold which is naturally yours – surpassing this will require practice and external support.

New games level the playing field

You have a game mastered – you can absolutely dominate your peers and all comers.  Then the unthinkable happens – a new game comes out and all your friends start playing this.  You’re left with some of the best skills, but no one to play against.  You need to start playing this new game and you’re not good at it.  You’ve gone from the top to the bottom.

Again, there are lessons here for sales.  Competitive advantages can be wiped overnight.  Pricing benefits can be quickly matched by competitors.  New products or ways of selling can catch you stationary.

As a sales person, you need to be both multi-disciplined and adaptive.  You can’t hang your hat of a single sales skill/technique or on something you can’t control like price or product.  You can’t get complacent that you will always have competitive superiority to the market or ‘own’ a market niche.  Things change and can do so quickly.

There is always a ‘boss fight’ somewhere

All gamers know this pain.  Hitting a part in a level or game which is soul-destroyingly difficult to pass.  For me, I still recall trying to achieve full gold licenses in Gran Turismo or the hours I spent trying to beat Donkey Kong (yes, this shows my age).  Games have inbuilt skill filters.  They realise the next level is going to be difficult, so in order to be worthy enough to unlock it, you have to prove your skill with a boss battle of some description.

There are often boss battles in sales.  Whether it is dealing with objections from left field, a competitor who swoops in at the last minute, an incumbent who drops price to retain business after 12 months of you selling to their client, or a difficult decision maker who was previously amiable – skill challenges will present themselves in sales.  Your skills don’t have to just be good enough to deal with the day to day, they need to be good enough to deal with these boss battles.

You can always get better

These boss battles also highlight something else in games – what was seemingly impossible yesterday, can be simple tomorrow.  Like trying to work out fatality combinations in Mortal Kombat where, when you start, you almost turn your fingers in to pretzels and still only do a front kick.  A month later your fingers fluidly dance across the keypad and your opposing friends sits there in awe as your onscreen character destroys half their health bar in a 30 sec flurry of fists, feet and special move.

In sales – no matter how good you think you are; tomorrow you can be better.  There are always new skills to learn and old skills to improve.  There is always something you can fine tune, mitigate, or learn.  It is a matter of being good enough, or the best you can be – the choice is yours.

There is always someone better at it than you

This brings up another truism in gaming.  No matter how good you think you are, there is a 99.9% change there is always someone better than you and if you’re the best today, that person will come along tomorrow.  I’ll confess I’ve been both the recipient and provider of this learning experience in gaming.  Challenging players to 1v1 games because you think they need some ‘skooling’ only to find it is you who learns the lesson.

There is always someone better at you in sales.  And, if they’re not better than you as a whole, they may have certain skill areas which surpass you.  And, if they don’t, they could learn them and be better than you tomorrow.  Like the previous example, sometimes your best isn’t good enough to prevail over your competitor.  We just need to accept this as a fact and either improve ourselves to fight a better battle or appreciate that we aren’t going to win every encounter.  We could just ‘rage quit’ or choose to lose graciously to a better sales person.  Some of my best online friends now are people who previously destroyed me.  There is a strong learning opportunity here – especially if they are in your team.

Finally, People play differently

Gamers are very diverse and as a result, they all play differently.  You regularly encounter differing gaming styles which can upset your game play, infuriate you, make you laugh or marvel at their skill.  In games, there are many different ways to achieve the outcome – it could be stealthily slithering through the level without firing a gun or being seen, or (which is my style) running headlong in to the action with guns a blazing.  Both of these styles may work and, unsurprisingly, can also be a great compliment for one another.  Many a gamer as laid down their digital life so another in their team can achieve the objective.

Remember, sales is a people skill and people career.  As a result, people will bring with them their personality, attitudes and preconceptions.  They will do things differently to you in many cases.  This doesn’t make them wrong – just different.  You need to be adaptive to these differences.  Whether it is a client with an opposing personality style to you or a colleague with a different way of approaching a task or meeting.  It is these differences which make things interesting and these differences which can, in some situations, allow you to achieve a task which you couldn’t have completely by yourself if you work with them.

So, while we think about gamification in a sales leaderboard and motivational sense, consider the above.  Gaming can be seen as a ‘waste of time’ or ‘escapism’ and convey many other negative connotations at times, though there are many synonyms and lessons we can draw from the industry.  It is only growing and, we’re already seeing sales infiltrate gaming through product placement and sponsorship.  Hopefully, we can see more of gaming infiltrate sales.

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