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How to Use Role-Playing to Increase Sales

Posted February 7, 2023 by EnerBank USA

How to Use Role-Playing to Increase Sales

Techniques, exercises, and sales tricks are plentiful in the business world, but one training tool is somewhat of a pariah among sales teams.

“People don’t like to role play,” says Larry Williams, principal at the training firm Williams Leslie Group, who has almost 40 years of training and consulting experience in sales and customer service. “They feel like it’s not the ‘real world.'”

The lack of authenticity in role-playing may be one reason why sales reps recoil at the term, but that’s not the only thing holding them back.

“It’s easy for reps to feel like they’re being ‘measured and evaluated,'” says Williams. “When role-play exercises make employees feel like they’re close to the axe, they tend to retreat, making what could be a valuable educational tool completely useless.”

Regardless of the general dislike among salespeople, role-playing exercises are still popular training tools. They provide a special kind of education that has proven to be valuable for sales teams.

That value is turning knowledge into a skill, which, for Williams, means best practices become behaviors. “The best way you learn behavior is by doing,” he says.

Role-playing affects behavior because it takes what you learn and turns it into a skill through practice. When done correctly, role-playing to increase sales becomes more than just learning concepts; it becomes about adopting them.

How to Have an Effective Sales Role Play

The common pitfalls around role-playing are what make it an ineffective tool, not the training itself. Here are a few right (and wrong) ways you can use role-playing to increase sales.

1. Practice Preparation

“The biggest mistake companies make when conducting role-playing exercises is not preparing enough,” says Williams. To lead an effective training, companies need to clearly understand the purpose of the exercise and how it’s going things will work beforehand. To do that, start here.

  • Use Past Scenarios – Pick one or two examples of sales you didn’t win, break them down, and decide what worked and what didn’t work in advance. Then, sit with your team and review in the form of a role-play exercise. It needs to be “real” (or at least feel real) and be well-crafted beforehand; it’s never a good idea for training leaders and participants to “wing it.”
  • Coach “Customers” – Sales reps shouldn’t play “customers.” Bring in individuals from other departments or outside sources to play the customers to get the most authentic results. Make sure you coach customers on the role they’re playing. Develop clear guidelines for conduct during the exercise to reduce diverging from the training objectives.
  • Create the Right Environment – To lessen nervousness and hesitation, create a positive, somewhat private environment for the role-play exercises to take place. Williams recommends conducting the performed scenarios in a private room with a video camera and then critiquing each interaction together as a whole.

2. Minimize Measurement

People are resistant to role play largely because they can feel judged during the training. To make the training most effective, companies should try to reduce those feelings as much as possible. Here are a few ways Williams suggests doing that.

  • Low-Threat Environment – To create a low-threat environment, it’s important to reduce the presence of “management.” If possible, someone other than sales managers should conduct the role-playing exercises. If that isn’t possible, it helps to have managers participate in the exercises themselves as salespeople in the dedicated scenarios. Developing that trust and equality among the participants will encourage walls to break down.
  • Only Participants Can Critique – Only allow those who participated as salespeople in the scenarios to join the group critique. If managers who didn’t participate give critiques, players feel judged. And if customers share critiques, sales reps may feel like they can only fail this assignment.
  • Beware the “Gotcha” – When participants feel like they are set up to fail, Williams calls it a “gotcha.” He says you can reduce the “gotcha” feeling by eliminating scripts from the scenarios, keeping customers out of critiques, and focusing the training on the learning objectives. Make it clear that the purpose of role-playing is learning skills, not correcting them.
  • Teams Reduce Threat – If managers are directly involved, it can help reduce perceived threat if participants are divided into teams, instead of working as individuals. This makes the training feel more like a learning exercise, and less like a personal evaluation.

3. Rely on Relevance

If there are skills that someone needs to learn, there’s never a bad time to employ role-play training. However, some companies might find it more appropriate and effective during certain times than others. Here are a few ways you can make sure your sales team gets the most out of this type of training.

  • The Right Time – “Training is most effective if a company has established a new business initiative or changed direction that will require new skills,” says Williams. Role-playing exercises are aimed at developing behaviors, so having important behaviors to learn makes the process more rewarding.
  • Redemption – Williams recommends holding two role plays close together. Role-playing allows sales reps to “try on” different skills and behaviors. “If you do role-playing and someone hasn’t performed very well, you’ve got to give them a second chance to redeem themselves,” says Williams. The more opportunities to try on the different learning objectives, the more successful the training will be.
  • Follow Up – After a few days of role-playing, follow up with sales reps and reevaluate the skills they’ve learned. Managers should schedule a day with them or monitor their sales calls with a focus on observing the learning objectives. They should then offer further feedback and coaching where necessary.
  • Involve Everyone – Williams is strict about everyone participating in role-playing. If star players don’t participate, it intensifies the feeling of appraisal among those asked to perform. Sometimes it’s those who resist participating that get the most out of the training.

Effective Role-Playing To Increase Sales

“When you look at developing competencies, there’s a knowledge base and a skill base… This incorporates both,” says Williams.

Although a somewhat disdained practice, the benefits of role-playing to increase sales are clear. Not only do participants receive education about the skills they need to know to succeed, but they also get to try them on and (hopefully) adopt them as second-nature behaviors


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