Sales role plays – time for an update


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If you are a sales person and have been to a sales skills training program in the last 25 years, there is a 99% chance you have participated in a role play. They are the most common type of learning activity used by training vendors and in-house training departments.

So, why have role plays been used by so many, for so long? Short answer: they work. One does not learn a skill, particularly one as difficult as selling, by watching the unfolding of a PowerPoint deck accompanied by a talk track from the person in front of the room. Learning a skill is all about practice and feedback. In short: the better the practice, the better the feedback – the better the learning.

Like most good ideas that have been around for a while, how to design and use role plays needs updating from time to time. After all, the telephone was a pretty good idea but the iPhone was a great update for the world we live in today.

So, let’s explore some improvements that can make role plays better than ever.

A particularly bad idea. Before exploring some ideas for improving sales role plays, let’s expose one bad idea that keeps being reinvented. The bad idea of course is the infamous “fish bowl” role play. While there are several variations the underlying idea is to select one person from the class. drag them to the front of the room where they play the seller and the instructor plays a tough buyer. The rest of the class observes and critiques.

This technique of course is what gives a fundamentally good idea (role plays) a bad name. The “fish bowl” is often justified under the banner that “sales reps have to learn to deal with the heat in the kitchen.” This proposition makes no sense and runs counter to everything we know about how adults learn.

Some improvements with a good track record. With this very bad idea off the table, let’s turn to some ideas that various companies have tried for making role plays better.

Customization. Okay the time has come – generic role plays should be put out to pasture once and for all. Classroom time is too valuable for sales people who sell sophisticated systems to spend hours practicing how to sell “widgets.” Sales role plays need to be customized to the level needed to replicate the experience the learners will encounter when they are selling in their own accounts. The challenges, opportunities, buyers, and objections must be real and relevant. The real world must be dragged into the classroom.

Yesterday if a sales skills program was customized at the company level that was probably adequate. Today, in a large multi-divisional company that is no longer the case. For example, if a company was implementing a company-wide training initiative to improve fundamental selling skills, the role plays need to be customized for each division. Plus, because of the rapid changes in the market, the role plays need to be up-dated frequently. Any role play that is one year old – is one year too old.

Buyers. In a typical training configuration, a class is divided into small groups of 4 to 5 participants. When time comes in the program for a role play each group is ask to select one person to play the buyer, one to play the seller and the rest observe and give feedback. Not bad. But is there a better way?

One change in role play process that adds significantly to the learning experience is having a front-line sales manager assigned to each table. The sales manager plays the buyer on all the role plays and equally important they manage the feedback session. As the program unfolds the sales managers rotate from table to table. There are several huge payoffs of this approach:

  • Realism. Because of their years of experience and relationship considerations sales managers are able to play the buyer more realistically. They know the challenges and what constitutes value for each particular buyer scenario.
  • Feedback. Again because of experience they are in a better position to orchestrate the feedback session. This is a big deal because the level of learning is driven by both the relevancy of the practice + the quality of the feedback.
  • Coaching. In addition to providing a better learning opportunity for the participants, this approach also provides sales managers an opportunity to improve their sales coaching skills. A couple of refinements have a great track record. First, provide sales managers a one-day up-front sales coaching program. This means they can learn the latest coaching best practices, then immediately put them to use in the sales program for the reps. A second idea is to have an expert in coaching attend the program and sit in on the role plays, then have a post session with the sales managers to provide feedback on their coaching.

Up-front work. One of the ideas receiving a much-desired spotlight in recent years is the notion that what happens before and after a training program is really important. For this discussion, let’s focus on the “before” piece and examine a couple of ideas for making role-plays better.

  • Best Practices. Do you know what your very best are doing on their very best day? And, are you helping the rest of the folks to learn those best practices?

If you want to make role plays more effective than a good idea is to isolate these best practices and integrate them into the role plays in the program. They can be integrated by several approaches: provide them to the participants in a pre-read, make sure the design of the role-plays provide an appropriate practice opportunity, and review them with the managers who are serving as table leaders so they can be discussed in the feedback sessions.

It is neither efficient nor effective to expect each sales rep to figure out each and every message. So, getting the Marketing Department to delineate the messages for each of the buyer contacts in each of the role plays in the program and providing that information to the participants and mangers will significantly improve the learning from the role play.

Role plays are very effective learning activity to incorporate in any sales skills training program. With a little extra effort in how they are designed and executed, the associated learning experience can be increased significantly.

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©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Janet Spirer
For more than 30 years Janet Spirer has worked with the Fortune 1000 to craft sales training programs that make a difference. Working with market leaders Janet has learned that today's great sales force significantly differs from yesterday. So, Sales Momentum offers firms effective sales training programs affordably priced. Janet is the co-author of Parlez-Vous Business, to help sales people have smart business conversations with customers and the Sales Training Connection.


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