Sales & Marketing Alignment

How to Improve Sales 101: Role-Plays

Marcus Sheridan

Keynote Speaker, Author & Partner, Author of ’They Ask You Answer”, Presented 250+ Sales, Marketing, & Communication Workshops Worldwide

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How to Improve Sales 101: Role-Plays Blog Feature

Published on January 11th, 2010

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I recently read on another sales blog an article that discussed role-plays and their value in sales training. What shocked me though about the article, as well as some of the comments that followed the article, was the negative feeling many ‘sales professionals’ have toward role-playing as a means of sales training. Frankly, my thoughts upon reading this article were:


Personally, I feel that role-plays are the most under-utilized, as well as the most under-appreciated, sales training tool in the entire sales industry.

Here’s why: About 9 years ago I started working for a swimming pool and hot tub company. As a start-up business, they had hired me(I’ve since become a partner) to be their ‘store manager’, as well as their first official employee. I had done very little sales in my life but I was certainly excited for the challenge….at least I thought I was until the following happened:

My boss at the time, Jim, had only been selling hot tubs a few months himself. He knew very little about the hot tub market and essentially gave me about 10 minutes worth of training on the fly before I was left in the store to fend for myself. Not knowing what to expect, on my first day of ‘flying solo’ I was soon greeted with a gentleman looking for a hot tub. This is a general reenactment of what came next:

Customer (after some brief small talk): Well I’m looking for a new hot tub to replace my Hot Spring.

Me: Oh…Ok….What’s a ‘Hot Spring’?

Customer (with a look of annoyance and befuddlement): It’s only the #1 selling brand of hot tubs in the world. You mean you’ve never heard of them??

Me: (With that “Oh, crap” sensation running through my gut) Well, actually, I’m a little new, but we do have some great hot tubs.

Customer: Well tell me about what makes the jets in your hot tubs special. With our old tub, we had some incredible jets.

Me (sweat starting to build on my forehead and feeling even sicker): Well, I’m not too sure about that. We do have a variety of jets in our tubs though.

Customer (even more annoyed): I’m sure you do…(customer asks a few more questions but by this point my brain has shut down and does not compute anything)….Well, thanks for your time. Have a nice day.

Me (wanting to vomit): Err….You too.

So there was my first taste of sales in a retail situation and as you can clearly see, I got my butt kicked. Essentially, it was like I’d been asked to play in the major leagues but had never played a game of baseball in my life. Yep, it was nothing short of disaster…..or was it?

After the customer left and I was able to turn my brain back on, I came to a few realizations. They were as follows:

  1. I knew nothing about our product.
  2. I knew nothing about our competitors.
  3. I had no idea how to present my product.
  4. I had just lost myself, as well as the company, a lot of money.

These 4 facts really stung me to the core. They were utterly unacceptable and in that moment I made the commitment not to let such a debacle occur again. In fact, in the coming weeks, I spent all my time learning about our product, our competitors, and developing a sales presentation. And what was the tool I used to refine everything I was learning? What was the tool that gave me the confidence I needed to tackle the most advanced of customers?

Role Plays….And LOTS of them.

In fact, every time my boss was in the store and there was a free moment, I’d ask if we could role-play.  I wanted everything I was learning and developing to be a smooth-running machine, fluid in every way. And in a short time, I can honestly say that such a system was developed.  Since that time, role-plays have become a centerpiece of all the sales training in our company. This includes retail and in-home sales.

So my question is: Why do role-plays get a bad rap?

Frankly speaking, the ONLY reason why a role-play for sales training is ineffective is when the person or persons participating aren’t taking them seriously enough. I can assure you that when a role-play is treated as if it were real, and the participants give it their absolute best, then the results will often be nothing short of outstanding and productive.

Tell me, why do sales managers who are “anti role-play” allow their sales people to ‘learn on the fly’?

'Learning on the Fly’ in the sales world is simply a way of losing the individual, and the company, a whole heck of a lot of money by treating customers as guinea pigs.

That first sales presentation disaster (or whatever you’d like to call it) I had could have easily been prevented with the right information, preparation, and training, which is analogous to much of what I see in retail sales environments all over the country. But instead of taking the time to do effective and powerful role-plays with their employees, sales managers and business owners throughout the world allow customers to walk in and out of their stores every day without buying. And all these customers were nothing but a guinea pig for these newer or less-skilled sales people to learn their trade, all of which is preventable. Pretty sad and ridiculous, isn’t it?

So what’s the ultimate goal of role-playing in sales?

If an employee has performed proper role-play training they will almost never be presented with a question, concern, or comment from a customer that they haven’t already received in their training. In other words, they will start the race running. They will come out the gates making money for themselves and their company. And they’ll likely love their job.

Is this statement difficult to achieve? Yes, of course it is which is why people in our industry bemoan the simple idea of role-plays and sales training. But the challenge is worth it. The results speak for themselves. And in a time of economic struggle and hardship, businesses and sales professionals need every possible advantage. Role-playing, without a doubt, is that advantage.

 So what are your thoughts regarding role-playing as a sales training tool? Feel free to share your experiences with this topic and as always, don’t forget to subscribe by email to become part of our sales and marketing community.

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