While as children most of us engaged in some form of role play, sales has managed to turn this experience into an awkward, high-pressure test of a rep’s ability to correctly articulate product knowledge, messaging, or sales methodology. Expectations are high and circumstances are vague: "Okay, Bob, you’re the salesperson. Carla, you’re the customer … Go!"

This all takes place under close scrutiny of the sales manager and an audience of peers.

The result is a performance that has little or no resemblance to how the salesperson will act on an actual sales call. And with reps singularly focused on nailing their lines, real gaps among your team remain unexposed and problem areas continue to go unaddressed.

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Adapting the key concepts from a rehearsal-style role play model can help your reps perfect their messaging, reveal how they react under specific circumstances, and give them the opportunity to practice more effective behaviors.

Use the following five guidelines to turn sales role playing into a valuable learning tool for internalizing knowledge and adopting new skills and practices.

1) Set the stage 

Choose specific objectives for your role play. What skill(s) or messaging do you want reps to focus on? Sticking to one or two objectives keeps the focus sharp, so participants won't be  overwhelmed. Give instructions like, “Focus on incorporating our new value proposition into the conversation and making better eye contact." The more straightforward and specific your goals are, the better.

2) Create a specific scenario

Good sales reps rarely go into a sales call blind, so why send them into a role play with little to no backstory? Providing specific circumstances helps ground reps in the “reality” of the situation, which can relieve some of the panic associated with role play.

For example, instead of vague instructions, like “You’re meeting with a doctor,” try, “After five attempts to see Dr. Henry, a busy internist in her mid-forties with a large practice, you finally have an appointment. The nurse says she is familiar with our drug but has been prescribing brand X with satisfactory results. Dr. Henry is running thirty minutes late and you’ve just been invited into her office.”

3) Cast the roles

You have two roles to cast, both the sales rep and the prospect. Since the goal is to “suspend disbelief” as much as possible, you’d do well to cast two people who are not close friends in these roles. Here are some unique considerations for each role:

  • Sales Rep: Surprisingly, this is the easier of the two roles if the scenario and objectives have been clearly laid out.
  • Customer or prospect: The rep playing the “customer” takes on the difficult task of putting aside what they know about your solution and stepping into the customer’s shoes. To assist your rep, provide him or her with a specific buyer persona. Based on this persona, ask the “customer” to focus on their circumstances and respond accordingly. How does this challenge fit into their business? What impact is it having on them? What would be helpful to know in order to solve the problem?

4) Allow time for getting into the role

Actors need a few moments to “get into the role,” and so do your sales reps.  Ask them 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?” Imagining what took place just prior to the role play is a very helpful technique for jumping into the scene; for example, “I am in the conference room setting up my demo before my meeting and chatting with one of the project managers.”

5) Direct the role play

Fostering a safe environment is critical to getting authentic performances from your sales reps. Tell your reps you are taking off your manager’s hat and that this is a rehearsal, not a judged performance. If they’ve done traditional role play before, reps are likely skeptical, so it’s vital that you stick to your word.

Review the objectives of the role play and set the time-line. This may be either time or objective based. (Note: Ongoing role plays with no end in sight make even professional actors nervous!)

After the role play is over, start by asking each rep what they think they did well, followed by what they would do differently. If time allows, take a few comments from the group.

When it’s your turn to offer constructive feedback, honor your rep’s trust and courage by keeping focused on the objectives as much as possible.  Avoid labeling things “right and wrong.” Instead, note where there may be more effective choices. If you find there are additional areas to work on, plan a follow-up session.

It’s extremely valuable to give your reps a “second take,” where they repeat the role play making one or two adjustments based on the feedback they've gotten. This is where new behavior starts to go from theory to reality. It’s likely you and your team will see a big improvement in this round, so go ahead and feel free to applaud.

Adopting a rehearsal-style role play may not bring back that childhood love of role play, but your reps -- and you -- will love the results.

sales plan

Originally published Mar 7, 2017 6:30:00 AM, updated July 12 2019


Sales Management