Two words that can send the most confident sales rep racing for the door: Role-play. While as children most of us happily engaged in some form of role-play, sales has turned this once valuable learning experience into an awkward, high-pressured test of a rep’s ability to correctly articulate product knowledge or follow a particular sales methodology.
Traditional sales role-play embodies every actor’s nightmare of stepping into the spotlight without knowing their lines or even what the play is about. High expectations and vague circumstances (Ok, Alice you’re the salesperson, Ken, you’re the customer…Go!) set reps up for failure – and it all takes place in front of the chief critic (manager) and their peers.
Reps go into survival mode under these nerve-racking conditions, regurgitating back information that is expected of them. The result is a performance that rarely resembles the salesperson on an actual sales call.
So what are reps learning with traditional sales role-play? How much they hate role-play!
There is a better way…
Look to the Theater for a Better Way to Sales Role-Play
Role-play originated in the theater as a tool for actors to internalize their lines and explore their role and relationships with other actors — without fear of judgment. Applying some key principles from the theater to sales role-play provides dramatic and immediate improvement in a reps ability to confidently exhibit new behaviors in the real world.
5 Steps for a Better Sales Role-Play
Set the stage
Traditional role-play often lacks clear or specific objectives, or it tries to accomplish too much. Setting up one or two few tangible goals per role-play, like, “incorporate our new value proposition into the conversation and maintain better eye contact,” sets reps up for success by providing them with a clear and measurable focal point.
Create a specific scenario
Sales reps rarely go into a sales call blind, so why ask them to go into a role-play with little or no backstory? Without a clear set of circumstances reps panic to fill in the gaps and become overly self-conscious. By providing a well-defined set of circumstances reps are able to better ground themselves in the “reality” of the situation and block out distractions.
For example, instead of vague instructions, like “You’re meeting with a doctor,” try, “After five attempts to see Dr. Jones, a busy specialist with a large practice, you finally have an appointment. His nurse has told you he is familiar with our drug but has been prescribing brand X with satisfactory results. Dr. Jones is running thirty minutes late and has a waiting room full of patients.”
Taking on a role is difficult if you know too little about the situation, but it’s also difficult if you know too much. Sales reps and even managers who take on the role of the customer suffer from the Curse of Knowledge. They face the very real challenge of “unknowing” what they know about their product or service. Preparing a very specific buyer persona which answers questions like, “what do I know about this company or product? What are my top priorities? How does this product fit in with my goals?” can provide needed direction. Another very effective option is to bring in actors to play the role of the customer. Properly prepared, the right actors can create a more realistic scenario and thus bring out more authentic behavior in sales reps.
Get into role:
Actors need a few moments to “get into role” and so do sales reps. Take a few minutes to focus on the specifics of the scene and consider questions like, “When and where is this conversation taking place? What is my relationship with the other person? What do I expect to happen or encounter? What is my intention for this call?” Visualizing what took place just prior to the role-play is a very helpful technique actors use to jump into a scene. I.e., “I just checked in with the receptionist and I’m reviewing my objectives as I wait for my customer to meet me.”
It’s important for managers to foster a safe environment in order to get the most authentic performances out of reps. Clarify that this is a rehearsal, not a judged performance is critical. If reps have done traditional role-play before, they are likely skeptical, so it’s vital that managers stick to their word.
Review the objectives of the role-play and confirm the stopping point. Ongoing role-plays with no end in sight make even professional actors nervous!
After the role-play managers can honor a rep’s trust and courage by coaching to the original objectives as much as possible. Avoid labeling things “right and wrong” instead, note where there may be more effective choices. If there are additional areas to work on, it’s best to plan an individual follow-up session with reps.
Traditional role-play is often a one-and-done deal. But the theater recognizes the value of taking feedback and immediately self-correcting through repeated attempts. Giving reps a second chance to repeat the role-play and focus on making one or two adjustments each time allows them to internalize what that new behavior feels like. This is where behavioral change starts to go from theory to reality.
By adopting some key principles from the theater reps learn not just how to repeat company and product messaging, but how to internalize their knowledge and adapt it to specific situations while honing new skills and behaviors.