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How to make sales role-plays less awkward

5 min readJanuary 7, 2019

Want to hear your sales team groan? Tell them that it’s time to do sales role-plays. It’s the activity that sales professionals love to hate because they always seem to feel awkward and uncomfortable. Role playing is dreaded and awkward because it is a cross between public speaking and acting, the soft skills that people fear the most, mixed with a public test of career competence. No wonder everyone groans about them.

Despite this, role-play exercises are effective. They are a form of deliberate practice and deliberate practice has been found to improve performance. Sales publications have been writing about them for decades.

What is deliberate practice? According to researcher Anders Ericsson, “deliberate practice involves stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities.” He also said, “Simply wanting to improve isn’t enough — people also need well-defined goals and the help of a teacher who makes a plan for achieving them.”

Never fear, there is hope! Sales role play exercises will never be everyone’s favorite experience, but they don’t have to be so uncomfortable. With some intentional structure, this activity can yield great benefits and even be surprisingly fun for your team.

So, how do you make role-plays less awkward for everyone involved so your team reaps the benefits without the whining? Here are a few ideas:

Set structure and lead by example

You shouldn’t make your team do role-plays without being willing to do them yourself.

The best role plays I have seen to date involved a two-part schedule:

The first part was a “showcase” role play in front of the entire sales team. This involved 2 of the leaders sitting in front of the room, acting out a sales scenario that was pre-planned to demonstrate a particular skill or product positioning.

The second part involved the team breaking in to groups of 3, where each member of the group took a turn playing one of three different roles: the Customer, the Salesperson, and the Evaluator. The Customer and Salesperson would enact the role-play scenario, and the evaluator would give feedback to both sides. Then they would trade roles and do it again, until everyone in the group has done all 3 roles.

This structure escapes the fears of public speaking and acting, while giving the team more exposure to different ideas. Rather than having one role play happen at the front of the room while everyone zones out, participants can observe and/or participate in 4 role plays in 2 hours, which is just more opportunities for growth.

Set specific goals

Don’t try to accomplish too much with each role-play. Make the role play about one or two skills. Provide feedback on those skills, not on the entire performance. One time the focus might be on smoothly incorporating a value proposition in the conversation. The next time the goal could be effectively answering a particular objection. This will eliminate some of the pressure for perfection and allow the rep to work on one the area of interest each time.

Clearly define the scenario

Set your reps up for success and allow them to focus on the desired behavioral improvement by clearly setting the stage. Provide them with a clear set of specific circumstances that most closely emulate a real-life situation they’d encounter in their day-to-day work. This reduces the pressure, because they won’t feel like they have to improvise everything. This will make it relatable and allow them to prepare for a successful role-play. Include details like the prospect’s title, company type and specific solution interests before starting the simulation.

Prepare the customer too

All too often, the person who’s playing the part of the customer is left to wing it. Some will try their best to play hard-ball for laughs and others make it easy on the rep so the role-play is over quickly. Neither of these are productive. Instead, provide as much context to the person playing the customer so they’re able to step into the customer’s shoes. One way to accomplish this is by specifying a particular buyer persona for them to emulate. This makes the practice session more true-to-life.

Allow time for preparation

Once your actors have received their details, allow them a few minutes to prepare. You wouldn’t want them to attend an actual customer meeting without proper preparation and role-plays should be no different. This reduces anxiety and sets them up for success.

Develop a safe environment

Role-plays should be a safe place to practice new skills while promoting continual growth and improvement. Treat them like rehearsal for the main event. Don’t be overly critical and make sure that all feedback provided is constructive, not destructive. When eliciting group feedback, spell out clear guidelines to ensure it’s all beneficial and on target.

Take turns

Like mentioned in the previous point, if everyone on the team knows that they’ll be taking a turn as the rep, the customer and an observer, their perspective will change. Nobody wants to be attacked with undue criticism and everyone wants to know how to improve.

Practice the way you actually sell – If your team sells on the phone, role-plays will seem more true-to-life if they take place on the phone as well. To replicate the phone call experience, have the reps sit in chairs back-to-back, so they aren’t looking at each other when they talk..

Make it a habit

Like deliberate practice, role-plays should be performed routinely for maximum impact. When they become a habit, the awkwardness will go away over time and your reps will become more comfortable with them. If recording the role-plays, you might pair off reps and have them do daily role-plays on their own. Have them record these and submit them to you for written input within a designated period of time. This would function as peer-to-peer coaching with you providing additional feedback.

Try these tactics to make sales role-plays less awkward. You may find that your reps actually start looking forward to them when they start seeing the positive impact on their sales productivity.

What have you been doing to make sales role-plays less uncomfortable and more productive? Tell us in the comments below.