How to Improve Sales 101: Role-Plays

by Marcus Sheridan

I recently read on another sales blog an article that discussed role-plays and their value in sales training. What shocked me though about the article, as well as some of the comments that followed the article, were the negative feeling many ‘sales professionals’ have toward role-playing as a means of sales training. Frankly, my thoughts upon reading this article were:

WHAT THE @#$@$%  IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE???

Personally, I feel that role-plays are the most under-utilized, as well as the most under-appreciated, sales training tool in the entire sales industry. Here’s why:

roleplaysAbout 9 years ago I started working for a swimming pool and hot tub company. As a start-up business, they had hired me(I’ve since become a partner) to be their ‘store manager’, as well as their first official employee. I had done very little sales in my life but I was certainly excited for the challenge….at least I thought I was until the following happened:

My boss at the time, Jim, had only been selling hot tubs a few months himself. He knew very little about the hot tub market and essentially gave me about 10 minutes worth of training on the fly before I was left in the store to fend for myself. Not knowing what to expect, on my first day of ‘flying solo’ I was soon greeted with a gentleman looking for a hot tub. This is a general reenactment of what came next:

Customer (after some brief small talk): Well I’m looking for a new hot tub to replace my Hot Spring.

Me: Oh…Ok….What’s a ‘Hot Spring’?

Customer (with a look of annoyance and befuddlement): It’s only the #1 selling brand of hot tubs in the world. You mean you’ve never heard of them??

Me: (With that “Oh, crap” sensation running through my gut) Well, actually, I’m a little new, but we do have some great hot tubs.

Customer: Well tell me about what makes the jets in your hot tubs special. With our old tub, we had some incredible jets.

Me (sweat starting to build on my forehead and feeling even sicker): Well, I’m not too sure about that. We do have a variety of jets in our tubs though.

Customer (even more annoyed): I’m sure you do…(customer asks a few more questions but by this point my brain has shut down and does not compute anything)….Well, thanks for your time. Have a nice day.

Me (wanting to vomit): Err….You too.

So there was my first taste of sales in a retail situation and as you can clearly see, I got my butt kicked. Essentially, it was like I’d been asked to play in the major leagues but had never played a game of baseball in my life. Yep, it was nothing short of disaster…..or was it?

After the customer left and I was able to turn my brain back on, I came to a few realizations. They were as follows:

  1. I knew nothing about our product.
  2. I knew nothing about our competitors.
  3. I had no idea how to present my product.
  4. I had just lost myself, as well as the company, a lot of money.

These 4 facts really stung me to the core. They were utterly unacceptable and in that moment I made the commitment not to let such a debacle occur again. In fact, in the coming weeks, I spent all my time learning about our product, our competitors, and developing a sales presentation. And what was the tool I used to refine everything I was learning? What was the tool that gave me the confidence I needed to tackle the most advanced of customers?

Role Plays….And LOTS of them.

In fact, every time my boss was in the store and there was a free moment, I’d ask if we could role-play.  I wanted everything I was learning and developing to be a smooth-running machine, fluid in every way. And in a short time, I can honestly say that such a system was developed.  Since that time, role-plays have become a centerpiece of all the sales training in our company. This includes retail and in-home sales.

So my question is: Why do role-plays get a bad rap?

Frankly speaking, the ONLY reason why a role-play for sales training is ineffective is when the person or persons participating aren’t taking them seriously enough. I can assure you that when a role-play is treated as if it were real, and the participants give it their absolute best, then the results will often be nothing short of outstanding and productive.

Tell me, why do sales managers who are “anti role-play” allow their sales people to ‘learn on the fly’?

‘Learning on the Fly’ in the sales world is simply a way of losing the individual, and the company, a whole heck of a lot of money by treating customers as guinea pigs.

That first sales presentation disaster (or whatever you’d like to call it) I had could have easily been prevented with the right information, preparation, and training, which is analogous to much of what I see in retail sales environments all over the country. But instead of taking the time to do effective and powerful role-plays with their employees, sales managers and business owners throughout the world allow customers to walk in and out of their stores everyday without buying. And all these customers were nothing but a guinea pig for these newer or less-skilled sales people to learn their trade, all of which is preventable. Pretty sad and ridiculous, isn’t it?

So what’s the ultimate goal of role-playing in sales?

If an employee has performed proper role-play training they will almost never be presented with a question, concern, or comment from a customer that they haven’t already received in their training. In other words, they will start the race running. They will come out the gates making money for themselves and their company. And they’ll likely love their job.

Is this statement difficult to achieve? Yes, of course it is which is why people in our industry bemoan the simple idea of role-plays and sales training. But the challenge is worth it. The results speak for themselves. And in a time of economic struggle and hardship, businesses and sales professionals need every possible advantage. Role-playing, without a doubt, is that advantage.

 

So what are your thoughts regarding role-playing as a sales training tool? Feel free to share your experiences with this topic and as always, don’t forget to subscribe by email to become part of our sales and marketing community.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason January 12, 2010 at 9:42 pm

I would say that the greatest deterrent to role plays in sales training is a feeling of initial awkwardness and even embarrassment. I know I felt pretty silly at first until I realized that its better to feel a little weird with a colleague in training than with a client when you fumble over your presentation. Sales people simply have to get over this if they want to be great.

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Jesse Vanderwerf January 31, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Jason,

I agree. I used to work for a person to person fundraising outfit. The first day was spent “training” which meant rough role plays focused on delivering a key message. I was then asked to go out and raise money door to door on my own for the last hour of the 6 hour work evening. It was nerve racking. I’d never don anything like that and was totally un-equipped to deal with the rigors of “Major League” play.

I now work for a company that specializes in a role play based training technology called DialogCoach. I love working for them because this software takes the nervous performance-like quality out of Role Plays through an interactive game with the computer. In short, based on what DialogCoach hears and does not hear it gives you feedback.

I’d be interested to see how traditional role plays could be slightly modified and used in our product. Please take a look:
http://www.dialogcoach.com

thanks,

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Scott Burkey January 15, 2010 at 6:50 pm

In my sales career I’ve felt, like many before me have, that role-playing is awkward at first. What I found over time is that role-playing, or walking through the presenation and potential objections by the client/prospect, prepares me for what may be in store for me when I’m in front of the prospect.

That moment in the meeting where I’ll have to abandon my agenda and react on my feet to the client’s questions and objections will inevitably happen. It might be the minute I walk into a meeting or it might be right before I walk out. But, sooner or later I’ll get caught off-guard. If I’ve not gone through some role-playing either on my own, with a colleague or with my boss, I’ll likely be less effective in that moment and it will likely impact the sale.

I agree that using clients as the guinea pig is potentially (and likely) practicing on the client at the cost of losing an opportunity. Take role-playing seriously. Do it with a qualified person like another sales person, your boss or trusted colleague. Give it a chance. It’s also great to do right before you walk in (or get on the phone or whatever you do) so that you are prepped and warmed-up before you have to be “on”. Because as sales people that’s what we do, right? We’re “on” for a living.

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Marcus Sheridan January 15, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Wow Scott, what a great comment! Thanks for adding value to this conversation, you certainly appear to have a firm grasp on the importanc of role plays and sales training. Hope to see more of you on here in the future:)

PS— Love your http://www.townhall.com site…great stuff.

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business sales training November 15, 2010 at 4:39 am

I’m right there with you Jason. Role-playing does feel silly. I had a group interview one time where they made us role-play and it was very awkward. I do see where it can help a new sales person perhaps come out of their shell and learn to be quick on their feet when presented with questions or objections. It is all a part of being prepared.
.-= business sales training´s last blog ..Making Sales in Tough Times by Tom Hopkins =-.

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Bob McCall November 21, 2011 at 11:57 am

I have wondered why more companies don’t include role play in their training. It seems obvious to me that it simulates the real world better than any other single training venue.

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Nancy Munro January 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I agree, that role-playing is very underutilized but one of the reasons for this is that organizations have cut down on the amount of face to face training they offer. That’s why our company built a role-playing simulator Mobi-RolePlay, that works from any phone and allows you to practice having a conversation that is recorded and then automatically emailed to yourself or a manager to provide feedback. You can test drive this yourself by going to this web page http://www.knowledgeshift.net/wordpress/?page_id=887

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Alan Friend March 4, 2012 at 9:46 am

Role play is BAD, it should never be used in sales training. The name itself gives it away, in role play you, and everyone else, is playing a role, you are acting out a scenario. As professional salesmen we should NEVER act in front of clients. We treat our prospective clients with respect, as intelligent people, who deserve respect. we are trying to work with clients to build trust, to understand the truth, and to build longterm relationships. Our clients see straight through us when we lie, or when we act! So, it encourages bad practice, its based on bad practice, and we should never be involved in bad practice in sales.
Sales people have lost the art of conversation, and in order to engage with clients and to find the truth, we have to improve our conversation skills. We need to lose our cliquey language – no-one WANTS to be closed!! We need to lose our stilted verbal methods that have been handed down from failed salesman to failed salesman, if someone ever says “I’m sure you’ll agree that……” to me, then you can be sure that I’l everything in my power to disagree!! The best, and only effective, “roleplay” that i have ever done was in a sales traning event 20 years ago. The role play involved goingout of the classroom, down onto the street, and striking up a conversation with a complete stranger. That one skill constitutes a good 80% of any salesmans job, yet so few people are able to master it, and no amount of acting will work.
Learn the art of conversation, and use it in your sales environment, its far more effective than any hammy acting in a 30 minute roleplay!

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gazzaj March 23, 2012 at 4:10 am

I guess that explains why TV, movies, and theatre are so unpopular – people hate anything rehearsed!

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Jeff R December 2, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I disagree with this post. You basically justified why role playing is needed. To learn how to converse with the customer! It’s not a tool to develop ‘cliquey language’, it is a tool to develop that ‘art of conversation’ you speak of. Its better to practice and listen to how you sound on a co-worker or manager that can give you feedback than it is to practice on a live customer whoes only feedback is going to be a lost sale.
Role playing that is done with experienced and successful sales people is successful because they can throw questions at you that they have heard time and time again from real customers, its a great preparation tool and it will yield more sales.

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Carl June 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm

What makes you connect proper practice with insincerity and selfishness? The most accomplished professionals in all fields practice endlessly so they can achieve muscle memory and the fluidness of skill needed to excel. By practicing sales people can develop the very conversational skills you suggest we possess and increase, not decrease their ability to serve the prospects and clients you want to protect.

I think you’re confusing ill-intent with process and missing the point. Try combining good-intent, seeking mutual benefit, with proper role-play practice and I guarantee you’ll achieve greater success. I believe it was Itzhak Perlman who said, “If I miss one practice session I can tell the difference. If I miss two practice sessions my manager can tell the difference. If I miss three practice sessions the audience can tell the difference.”

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John Walley October 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm

I love the idea of role play and gamification. As a trainer I have found that getting people moving and doing in a classroom environment is much more effective that traditional classroom learning.
Role-based training engages students including all of the major learning styles. These include visual, auditory (tonal) & auditory (digital), as well as kinesthetic. This allows for many more pathways for learning than traditional lecture type training.
This is especially true in the area of sales training due to the nature of the job and the challenges we face in human interaction. Over the years we found that combining Everything DiSC Sales profiles with customized sales role-play equal both long-lasting and immediate return on investment. Plus it’s just more fun than stuffy old training.
http://www.1clearpath.com/sales

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david April 15, 2013 at 10:30 pm

i own and operate a service and repair company with 100 plus employees ,i was forced to build a stage ,mock up house with running water and bells and whistle and started doing role playing and it has been amazing !!!!!!

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