Sales role plays – do them right then they work

Sales role plays

Sales role plays

From time to time we hear disparaging words about the use of role-plays in sales training programs.  The particular complaints vary from salesperson to salesperson.  Some say: “They just don’t work – not realistic.”  Others comment: “Role-plays are old hat – our people like activities that are built on gamification principles.”  Sometimes we just hear a simple, straightforward thought like: “Nobody learns anything because nobody takes them seriously.”

Our best recommendation is we should stop picking on role-plays.  Instead we start designing them based on established learning principles and stop doing them so they’re destined to create a negative experience. 

Here are some the dos and don’ts – starting with a couple of bad ideas that will improve the situation if eliminated.

  • At the top of the list for most undesirable is the old favorite – the “fishbowl role-play.” This is where a person is selected from the class and asked to role-play with the instructor in front of the class in real time.  This was a bad idea 20 years ago and continues to be so today!
  • A second bad idea is failing to incorporate time no only to do the role-play but also for preparation and feedback.  When you take into account preparing, doing, and reviewing most classroom role-plays will take about 50-60 minutes.  Significant less time is simply a waste of time.  It is will to remember that practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice + feedback makes perfect.

It’s easy to identify the bad ideas – but what about identifying good idea? Here are some fundamentals for designing sales role-plays that will create an experience that will be well received by salespeople and sales managers – provide a platform for real behavior change.

From a design perspective, three factors stand out:

  • Real-world content
  • Realistic buyers
  • Good feedback

Real-World Content.  With a few exceptions, generic role-plays don’t work very well.  In general, sales role-plays need to be customized to the specific sales challenges a specific company is experiencing at a specific time.  This needs to be done with input from  senior leadership for strategic reasons and from others like sales managers and sales reps because they know the day-to-day challenges.

Realistic Buyers and Good Feedback.  Too often, the person playing the customer at each table during sales training is a program participant. The responsibility rotates from one practice session or role-play to the next. Feedback usually comes from the salesperson playing the customer role, then the seller, and then others sitting at the table who observed the role-play – often followed up with a class-level summary.  Eavesdrop at the tables and you usually hear the customer and observers congratulating the seller on “doing a good job” – but providing little constructive feedback.

Can salespeople realistically play the customer?  Sometimes they can, but more often than not, they can’t.  For example, they often lack the knowledge and demeanor necessary to play a senior person in an organization. Second, no one at the table usually has mastered the best practices for handling the opportunities and challenges in the role-play.

The result? Lack of expertise, or in some cases willingness, results in sharing feedback around best practices that is incomplete at best. Even when scripted in advance, the salesperson playing the buyer role is not able to relate the best practices to what happen in the role-play.

An alternative approach is when a top sales performer at each table plays the customer role, orchestrates the feedback session and shares best practices. Who are these top sales performers? Let’s start with using front-line sales managers.

Can you justify taking a group of front-line sales managers out of the field to spend time in the classroom realistically playing the customer roles and providing feedback to a group of sales reps during training? Absolutely – and under certain circumstances it’s actually a bargain.  In complex sales that generate substantial revenue, like high tech or medtech for example, it’s easy to make the business case for front-line sales manager participation.

The benefit to front-line sales managers?  In most cases, the front-line sales managers will do more coaching during the two classroom days than most do in six months in the field. And, the sales training program usually can be structured so the front-line sales managers get feedback on their coaching; so when they do it in the field, they are a little bit better at it.

For organizations that don’t have enough front-line sales managers to participate in sales training programs, look to others in the organization – top performing sales people, national account executives, or field-based sales trainers with past sales experience are all good candidates.

Summary.  So let’s not discard a really good learning technique like role-playing because it has gotten a bad rap for undeserved reasons.  In general, with the advent of online learning, we now have a particularly good opportunity to devote even more time in the classroom to practice and feedback.

If you found this post helpful, you might want to join the conversation and subscribe to the Sales Training Connection.

©2014 Sales Momentum LLC

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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One Response to Sales role plays – do them right then they work

  1. Wayne Arnspiger says:

    Role playing is not an effective sales training technique. You cannot replicate the same environment that a salesmen would be in during a normal sales call at a customer’s location. Plus, the salesman is having to role play with another salesman, sales manager or some kind of a trainer that has been brought it by management. It is a horrible, nervous producing, unrealistic situation that proves nothing. Why put a good salesman in a situation in front of a room of his peers that is not what he or she would encounter in his daily sales role? Role playing needs to go away just as annual reviews need to go away.

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