I received a panicked call from a salesperson last week. Carol’s annual sales meeting was fast approaching and she and her fellow sellers were asked to participate in a day of role-playing with management. While promoted as a “learning experience,” Carol knew better; this was a test. Carol and her team would be judged on their ability to successfully articulate the company’s value proposition, highlight benefits, handle objections and ask for the business—all within an artificial, high-pressure scenario. A learning experience? Yes. Learning to hate role-playing!
Under these circumstances, Carol will likely summon up all of her acting experience (dating back to the 3rd grade class play), and put on a role that she thinks is expected of her. A role of what she thinks the perfect salesperson might look and act like. A role that has little or no resemblance to Carol on an actual sales call.
Don’t get me wrong, role-playing can be an extremely valuable sales tool, but too many organizations use it as Carol’s company does: an opportunity to judge sellers on their ability to regurgitate the company line. If that is the purpose, fine. Just don’t call it role-playing, call it role-testing.
Role-play originated in theater as a rehearsal tool, not a performance. It’s a chance for the actor to “try on” different aspects of his character in order to deliver a much stronger performance. Applying this mindset to sales turns role-play from an anxiety producing exercise into a discovery of how we react under specific circumstances within the intricate sales-buyer dance. It’s also a great chance to learn from peers. So often the solution to a challenge we’re struggling with is sitting in the next cubicle without us ever knowing. If everyone is towing the party line, none of this is possible.
If you’re ready to get better results from role-playing within your organization try applying some performance-based rules:
- Set the Stage:
Determine the goal of the role-play. Is it to practice new skills or to explore the way sellers are currently communicating? Either one is valid, however be clear with your team. It is unfair to ask sellers to just “be themselves” and then judge them on how effectively they are using new skills.
- The Scene:
Determine a specific set of circumstances. Vague set-ups produce vague results. Instead of: “An initial meeting with a new prospect,” try: “An initial meeting with a CIO for a healthcare company that is considering upgrading their system and currently shopping several vendors.”
- The Cast:
The Director: played by a manager or a facilitator:
Good directors foster a safe environment of acceptance and experimentation during rehearsal. Try to avoid labeling actions as “right or wrong.” Judgment inhibits the creativity and spontaneity necessary to make discoveries. Salespeople, like actors, need to know they are free to be themselves and test out new skills without fear of judgment.
The Client: played by a salesperson or actor:
Embrace the circumstances provided and avoid using a general composite of your clients or you will be playing generalities, which is unlikely to provide any insights. Now comes the hard part: as a salesperson playing the client, forget what you know about your product or service. Decision-makers are deluged with facts and figures from dozens—maybe hundreds—of salespeople. Assume you are starting with a blank slate as it will be closer to the truth.
Really step into the shoes of the client and ask yourself, “What would I do if I were really in this situation? How would I feel?” React as truthfully as you can to the salesperson based on the circumstances you’ve been given.
The Salesperson: played by…a salesperson:
Set aside what you “think” you should say or do and keep the interaction as real as possible. You’ll learn a great deal more about yourself and your client if you allow yourself to take risks and make mistakes than if you simply try and nail all your lines. And you’re more likely to receive valuable feedback from your peers that may help you with specific challenges.
Note: It can be difficult for salespeople to resist saying what they think management wants to hear. Often the mere presence of a manager in the room can inhibit spontaneity and exploration. If you really want to maximize role-playing’s effectiveness within your organization, consider hiring a qualified facilitator. The right person can run the role-play, provide on-the-spot coaching and suggest next steps without putting anyone on the spot.
So what happened with Carol? After our conversation, she is now prepared to sell her VP of Sales on the benefits of using role-playing as a rehearsal tool. A real learning experience. Are you?