The Sales Machine Guide to Role Playing

In a previous series of posts, I spoke about the benefits of scripts when used in moderation.  One key to making scripts productive is pairing them with a wide variety of “Role Playing” situations.

One thing I found interesting is that there were a lot more articles out there on role plays than there were on scripts.  Everyone seems to think that it’s a good idea to practice before you get into the live performance.  A great example in sports is a story about Malcolm Butler, a cornerback (defense) for the Patriots who intercepted a pass from the Seahawks in order to win Super Bowl XLIX.  The play in which Butler changed the fate of the game was actually one that they had practiced previously, and he knew exactly what was going to happen.

“I was at practice, and the scout team ran the same exact play…. And I got beat on it at practice because I gave ground.” – Malcolm Butler

Gareth Goh, on the Insight Squared blog says it best, “This lesson – that hours of practice and preparation will pay off when it counts – is something that sales reps and managers should heed. And in sales, practice typically boils down to one exercise: Role-playing.”

So let’s assume we all believe practice makes perfect, and let’s run through a variety of different ways you can help your team practice the skills they need to win.

Straight Through Role Play

The goal here is to get the team member saying the words that were in the script, or firsthand use of the best practice script.  To do this while building confidence, it’s best to let them role play straight through and not introduce any objections or hang-ups.

I’d recommend that you let each person do the script “Straight through” at least 3+ times before they start trying to apply it in more realistic situations.

Objection Role Play

In the real world, people ask questions, people challenge assumptions.  This makes getting through a script/pitch more challenging.  This is the perfect skill to be testing in a role play environment.  Start off with some softer questions, and then slowly dial it up to the tough objections.  Don’t stop until the sales person is comfortable deviating from a script, handling objections, and then getting back on the path.

Discovery Role Play

As your sales team gets more and more comfortable with the basics ( script / objections), then they should start to free up some of their attention to focus on the prospect on the phone.  This focus typically takes the form of asking questions to learn more, or doing a discovery.

Role play a combination of the scripts above, and have the salespeople start to introduce discovery questions.

Peer Role Playing

To spice things up, I wouldn’t have the manager be the only person who does role plays with the team member.  Peer role plays help get the salesperson a different perspective, and often it’s a perspective they trust more.  Have more experienced salespeople role play with your new team members.

Group Role Playing

To keep spicing things up, introduce role playing in a group setting.  You can “hot potato,” where each person has to do a line of the script and then points to the next team member to keep the script going.  It can be awkward at first, but ultimately it helps build a culture where everyone understands that its OK to practice and make mistakes.

Pitch Sign-offs

This is the option for those of you who want an official pitch-sign off and a formal grade.  It drives urgency to learn new material, and helps you put hard numbers to each team member’s progress.

To start, you want to create a grading rubric, and you want to train your graders to use it in a sign-off setting.  The hard part is to make sure that one of your graders is not setting a higher bar than all of the others.  Then you have the team member sit in one room and call into the grading team that’s sitting in another room.  Typically, it’s best to have one person doing the role playing while another grader takes notes.  Another option is to record the conversation so that you can listen to it with the salesperson afterwards.

Tape Review

In the pitch sign-off above we covered potentially recording the role play.  The goal behind this is that most people can’t “hear” themselves.  Either they “black out” while they pitch and can’t remember what they said, or the pitch lasts so long they can’t remember all the intricate details of what happened.  The issue with this is that if you don’t know what you did on a call, it makes it hard to improve.  Having recordings and being able to review tape with a salesperson makes it much easier to hear what they are doing correctly or incorrectly.

Many times, you can use the tape review session to have the sales person coach themselves.  They’ll often identify the areas for improvement without the trainer / manager, and they’re more likely to make improvements if they believe that its an issue.

Sell Something new

How do you ensure that what was learned in the classroom will be executed on the sales call?  The key is to role play frequently, relentlessly and thoroughly.  When role playing, have salespeople sell products that they don’t currently sell. This will ensure that they stay focused on asking questions of the client to understand their issues.

Tony Cole expands on this idea here in a post on Sales Gravy, “The key is to role play, frequently, relentlessly and thoroughly.  When role playing, have salespeople sell products that they don’t currently sell. This will ensure that they stay focused on asking questions of the client to understand their issues.”

What do other People think?

I’m not alone!  Other people also think role playing is important!

WHAT THE @#$@$%  IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE???  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. – Marcus Sheridan , The Sales Lion 


Really. If you are able to prepare for what you’ll say, and then edit, practice, and fine-tune it, why wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t turn in a rough draft if you were going to write a very high-profile article in your industry publication would you? – Art Sobczak, Smart Calling


Reps need to learn to sincerely understand the prospect’s problem, ask for more information, and offer clarity to help the prospect overcome their objections. You should do extensive role play and training to help prepare your team for this. Zorian Rotenberg, Insight Squared


We coach and train sales on everything else — the demo is no different. The starting point is to have structured training on giving the demo including role plays based on the answers the fake buyer gives in the opening phase of the conversation. Then, managers need to listen and watch their reps do their demos and provide coaching. Craig Rosenberg, Funnelholic


The advantage of role playing is repetition, creating something similar to muscle memory. In our inside sales department, two different approaches are used each morning or afternoon during role playing.  One approach is calling each other on the phone; the other is face to face. Jessica Winn,


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