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June 23, 2020

Make Role Playing the Centerpiece of Your Sales Training. Here’s Why.

True story: My first job after college was as a sales rep for the DuPont Company. While much of the 3-month training program was technical in nature, we also spent a good deal of time developing our selling skills. And on one particular day, we were tasked with doing some role playing (and it was to be videotaped!). My training scenario was that I was visiting a client (played by the Sales Trainer) who started complaining vehemently about the terrible quality of our product. After 30 seconds of being berated by the client and trying to respond appropriately, I just froze up, looked at the camera and said, “Help me!”

Afterward, we debriefed about what happened and what I could have done better. Little did I know that that role playing session would be the best sales training lesson I could have ever received.

Months later, when training was long over, I was on the road visiting my second largest client. My contact there was the head of engineering for the entire division, a grizzled old veteran whom I was meeting for the first time. No more had I walked into his office and sat down, then he started complaining vehemently about the terrible quality of our product. Uh-oh… here it comes! But unlike the role playing, I knew what to do… I asked a lot of questions, I went to see where our product was being stored, I asked to see samples of the bad materials. I started applying all of that training that DuPont had invested in me. Most importantly, I didn’t freeze.

As it turned out, this grizzled old veteran was just having a little fun with me. He was testing this rookie sales rep. There wasn’t a problem with the product; he just wanted to see how I would respond. And thanks to the role playing experience… I came through with flying colors. From then on, my relationship with that client was great!

Ever since then, I have been a big fan of role playing as part of sales training. True, it’s not natural and it always feels a bit contrived, but being on the spot like that, without a ton of prep time, can really push sales trainees out of their comfort zone and force them to think on their feet. And it’s really the only time sales reps will get the chance to practice using the right words and language in a ‘selling’ situation.

Think about all the different selling scenarios that can be tested and rehearsed with role playing:

  • Client & prospect phone calls
  • Client & prospect in-person visits
  • Delivering your elevator pitch at a networking event
  • Asking good questions (and coming to the ‘meeting’ with those questions prepared)
  • Handling sales objections (and coming to the ‘meeting’ with prepared responses)
  • Delivering capabilities presentations (both online and in-person)
  • Working a booth at a conference
  • Delivering a lunch-n-learn to your largest client
  • And a hundred other scenarios that you might face in a given year

If you manage sales people – whether they’re full-time sales reps or seller-doers – building role playing into your sales training program (both initially and on-going) will pay remarkable dividends… especially for those new to your industry or new to sales, in general. The key is to follow a structure similar to what I went through back at DuPont:

  • Craft realistic scenarios (using your products & services and involving a familiar client type)
  • Give the sales rep a little time to prepare, but not too much time
  • Record the encounter
  • Debrief afterward – with the entire sales team, if possible – so all of the sales reps can learn from each other

Being in sales is hard enough. But role playing will help sales reps get ready for the real world by preparing them for situations they won’t find in a sales training manual.

Good luck and good selling.


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