Role-Playing Still Rules In Effective Sales Training
The best technique to train sales reps is role-playing. This was true decades ago, it’s still true today, and role playing will still be the best way to train sales reps until somebody comes up with something better.
And salespeople, to one degree or another, will still complain about it.
It’s been my experience that even the salespeople who hate role-playing the least still don’t care for it. When you’re in a role-play training session, typically you’re being scrutinized by your boss(es) and colleagues in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re out on your own, calling on customers. I can tell you it feels a lot like auditioning feels to a professional actor – you’re doing your thing in front of your critical fellow professionals (often with your job on the line), which is less fun than doing it for the applause of an appreciative audience. In both situations, performance anxiety can shoot through the roof. So if you’re a sales manager or sales trainer and you announce that you’re going to drag your team into a room for role-playing, expect everything from eye-rolling to a sudden rash of sick days.
So why do it? Because it WORKS. It’s a simple fact that salespeople who train with role-playing close more sales, generate more revenue, and make a higher personal income than those whose only feedback comes from customers in the field. Whether you own the business or are in the role of manager, you leave money on the table if you don’t use role-playing to train your salespeople. And with the challenges presented by today’s economy, you can’t afford to leave money on the table!
Here are some of the reasons role-playing really works. First, it puts salespeople in situations they don’t face every day, re-familiarizing them with the right methods for handling difficult objections. Role-playing is also good medicine – part of the reason it’s successful is precisely because it makes salespeople a little uncomfortable and forces them to stretch themselves. It’s also the best way to build empathy for customers – in a typical role-play, one of your salespeople is playing herself, but another is playing a customer, and will likely bring “pretend” challenges to the exercise that replicate the real challenges he’s faced in the field. Finally, there is simply no better way to practice the skills of selling, and no professional in any field does her best work without practice.
To make role-playing sessions most effective, follow some tried-and-true practices. Start by making it clear that everyone will participate, and that the purpose is to get better at our selling skills so we can make more money. If you can quote statistics about how effective such sessions are in putting extra money in their pockets, salespeople will go along with the exercise, even if reluctantly. Tell your folks that it’s OK to fail, and that with a few exceptions there are no wrong approaches. Get their commitment to uphold an atmosphere of mutual respect, and that the goal is simply to help each other develop as professionals.
Make sure you participate, too. You need to demonstrate some skills, as well as some vulnerability. And limit the role-play session in terms of time (people will feel beat-up if the whole session goes longer than a couple of hours) and participants (don’t have more than seven role-plays; five is better).
Once you’ve set the tone, establish the rules. Typically, this would sound something like this: “Today we’re going to practice the first call, and we’re only going to go as far as handling one or two objections. Our goal will be to get the next meeting, not to close the sale – we’ll practice closing in another session. Each of us will take a turn as salesperson, and another turn as customer. As ‘customers,’ today let’s agree to keep the degree of challenge to the 5-7 range on a scale of ten – challenge your partner, but don’t be impossible. As salespeople, you can call time-out and ask for coaching at any time, then resume the role-play. I’ll time the role-play, and you’ll be off the hot seat by the time you’ve practiced for 15 minutes. Then you’ll get feedback from everyone in the room, and each person will be limited to one positive observation and one constructive criticism. Observers, don’t interrupt… leave that to me, or to the person in the hot seat.”
You can vary the rules, but those work fairly well.
Also set up a procedure for giving feedback, and get everyone’s agreement to stick to it. Model it yourself, and enforce it. For instance, tell everyone to state their observation (what they actually saw or heard), their interpretation of that observation (the impact it had on the observer, or the observer’s perception of the impact on the “customer”), and a concrete suggestion (for positive observations, that suggestion can be as simple as “keep doing that” or “do more of that”). Once you’ve trained the group on this feedback procedure, before your first role-play training session, you won’t have to do it again.
As coach, you may tell the group that you reserve the right to give more than one or two observations… but when giving your feedback, remember that folks will take cues from you as a leader that will clearly impact their performance. So be supportive, and offer your criticisms in a balanced way. During the round of feedback, don’t go first – go last – to avoid others simply agreeing with what you said. (The best way to run the feedback portion of the session is to first ask the “salesperson” to give herself feedback, then ask for two observations from the “customer,” then go in order through the observers – policing their proper use of the feedback procedure, and finally offer your own comments.) And, when giving feedback, make sure to use your own established procedure (observation, interpretation, suggestion), and don’t repeat or refine what others have said even if you can say it better. Try to be as concise as possible, and minimize your own need to “perform” as the coach.
End each role-play/feedback round by asking the “salesperson” if the practice was helpful, and what he is taking away from the experience. This is crucial. When your folks hear each other say how helpful the practice has been, and what they’re learning, they’ll see the power and value of the role-playing training, and you’ll see fewer eye-rolls and sick days the next time.
Once you’ve collected the “salesperson’s” take-away(s), rotate to the next role-playing pair.
These basic principles will help you run successful role-playing sessions, and you’ll notice real results in your team’s performance. There are other nuances that make role-play sessions deeply impactful, and other choices to make (do you pair veterans with newbies, how do you break down which portion of the sales process you practice, in which order do you place each person in the rotation, how do you minimize performance-avoiding “discussion” time, etc.), but don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. Get coaching from someone who’s led many role-play sessions (I can help you), and do some reading on the subject… but importantly, dive in. Sure, you’ll be nervous… but so will your salespeople (even the crusty old dogs). That’s not as important as the priceless lessons your people will learn from the experience – and from each other.