In view of the paradigm shift triggered by globalization, virtual consumption and technological progress, the InnoSÜD sub-project "Sales Lab" is concerned with solutions with which sales organizations and sales processes can be designed to be location-independent, flexible and cost-efficient. The five-year-project is carried out at HNU’s Center for Growth and Sales Strategy (KVW), which focuses on digitalization and artificial intelligence in sales.
In their design thinking workshops, the researchers initially observed that while role-playing is a common tool for sales training, it is not only bound to time and place, but also takes up to 40% of the training budget. The researchers decided to remedy this by translating it into the virtual world: Together with their partners Tricat and ZwickRoell, who contributed practical technology and sales expertise, the team led by Professor Alexander Kracklauer, Barbara Dannenmann and Jan Fiedler developed a prototype that makes it possible to negotiate with a bot. The unique aspect of this virtual simulation is the way it combines speech recognition, artificial intelligence and machine learning in a VR environment.
The bot behind the avatars John and Paul served as a prototype. Research assistant Barbara Dannenmann fed it around 700 sentences and assigned them to different negotiation styles. However, this artificial intelligence uniquely uses no predefined script; the bot already recognizes the corresponding negotiation styles from partial sentences—and learns by itself every time.
For its unique combination of speech recognition, artificial intelligence and machine learning in a VR environment, the Sales Lab team received two awards: In August 2020, "Beat the Bot" was awarded the DIVR Science Award, and in December 2020, the project received the Community Award of the NextReality.Contest in Hamburg.
"It was particularly important to us to design the setting as naturally as possible: You shouldn’t just have to navigate artificially generated dialogs, but be able to interact via natural language," explains Jan Fiedler, research assistant for the field of virtual/augmented reality. In this way, typical scenes in the business-to-business segment can be simulated and trained without being subjected to the time pressure and artificial framework of a seminar situation.
In an initial study, the researchers found that learning success in the VR setting is actually even higher than through classic role-playing games. Currently, negotiation training with the prototype is based on a single, exemplary negotiation situation or tactic—in this case, the peacemeal strategy—which can be played out. In order to expand the use cases, the application is to be extended in the medium term with the additional component of an editor. This will enable trainers to customize the application to their specific needs in the future. In this way, virtual negotiation training opens up a wide range of different use cases—from salary negotiations to consulting meetings.
In a current study, the Beat the Bot team is gathering further data on how this technology-enhanced negotiation training compares to in-person role-play training for users. “Our first study focused primarily on subjective perception. Now we would like to compare VR and classic role-playing, primarily on the basis of body function measurements. Our main goalis to show what added value virtual negotiation training has over classic training,” says Jan Fiedler, explaining the Sales Lab team’s medium-term plans.
While professorships at Universities of Applied Sciences usually focus on teaching, the instrument of the research professorship makes it possible to concentrate more on one's own research for a while. Thus, the teaching load is usually reduced from 18 to up to nine hours per week. This allows more intensive work on relevant research topics and the acquisition of third-party funding.
A PhD at HNU is possible in cooperation with a university. The virtual negotiation training project, for example, is being supported by research assistant Barbara Dannenmann with a doctoral project in cooperation with the University of Potsdam. HNU maintains cooperative PhD programs with international universities, for example in Australia, Africa and Spain. In addition, there are integration opportunities such as the BayWISS Joint Academic Partnerships to support a doctorate in collaboration with a Bavarian Research University.