What Effective Sales Role Playing Looks Like

There’s value in rehearsal. In sales, that’s called role playing, and facilitating role playing needs to be in the wheelhouse of every serious sales coach. It’s a learning tool that should be used often to sharpen skills like active listening, cold calling, presenting, negotiating, and pretty much any other rep-to-customer touch point. Coaches can strengthen their sales force by role playing during more formal settings like sales training workshops as well as in one-on-one coaching situations; they can assign “homework,” instructing reps to practice with a script in front of a mirror or, even better, having them record a practice sales call and then play it back to themselves to hear how it sounds.

Sales role playing is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a powerful and essential tool—one that will strengthen your sales team in many ways. Everybody will get insights from role playing, but it is particularly beneficial for those sales reps just starting out who are likely to be new to selling or prospecting over the phone. Role playing is great practice because it prepares reps for the “live performance,” instills them with confidence, and teaches them to speak in a more relaxed, articulate, and effective manner.

Objection Lesson
Through role playing, reps will learn to comfortably navigate around the icebergs of client objections. Practicing what they’ll say in various role-playing scenarios, they’ll try out different points to consider when strategically handling objections. Without the benefit of role playing experience, in real life they might knee jerk into defensiveness and objection might lead to rejection.

Do You, Like, Hear Yourself?
Taking the time to listen to themselves in a recorded role-playing exercise can be an “ear-opening” experience for reps. Suddenly they move from subjective me-ness to objective “the me I’ve never really heard.” No one will be there to turn their warts into beauty marks, and the sound of their own voice will reveal some of their strengths and potentially some of their flaws. They may hear their tone as condescending, too uncomfortable, or too apologetic sounding. There might be a lot of filler words coming out of their mouth: um, uh, like, you know… filler words. By hearing themselves in action, right away they’ll be able to identify areas for improvement.

As a skill-boosting tool, role playing instills the knowhow and confidence to be the master of client interactions. It prepares the rep to think on their feet if the rug gets pulled out from the process during an actual exchange with a client and ensure they are prepared for potential curve balls in advance and not blindsided on the actual client interaction.

Role playing helps team members at all skill levels learn from one another, because it reveals so much about how we interact in this people business we’re in.

To build the most muscle during your role-playing exercises, stick to the following guidelines:

  • Use real-life, relevant examples
  • Don’t replace an actual phone with a banana, a remote control, or someone’s hand. A simulation in which two people sit in the same room and use make pretend to converse will not be as effective as setting up the role playing with as close to the trappings of reality as possible. If an actor goes on stage to play Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and doesn’t really believe he’s Willy Loman, you’ll see right through the performance. Likewise, if the role playing doesn’t seem “real,” the reps won’t believe it. When they do believe it, they’ll really inhabit the role—and learn from it how to be effective in real-world scenarios.
  • Trot out the parade of different customer archetypes reps might encounter: the busy exec; the suspicious, protective gatekeeper; buyers at the bottom-feeder level; even the rude, control-freak manager who sees every interaction as a fight to the death.
  • Somewhere in the role playing exercise the rep might take a wrong turn and veer close to the proverbial cliff edge. Keep the conversation going anyway. Mistakes, even disastrous ones, can be a great way to learn. Afterwards, analyze the recording together and provide feedback on what went wrong and what worked well.
  • You’re not actually mounting a production of “Death of a Salesman,” so keep it simple and limit the practice to only one subject or role-playing scenario per session. Offering too much feedback and information at one time will overwhelm the rep, maybe even undermine their confidence.

Role playing should not only be instructive, it should be a good experience (even at times fun). See it as a growth opportunity for the rep, and avoid simulated situations that may embarrass or shame the participants. Yes, role playing can be fun, but it’s work too. And, at least for reps just starting out, at first it can be unfamiliar, even scary territory to work. As a coach, your first role is hand holder. Often that’s what the rep needs in order to master role playing, so that they can eventually take the show on the road.