Role-playing exercises are one of the best tools to use in sales coaching. They’re a low-stakes, low-pressure activity that allow sales managers to model and representatives to practice an organization’s selling process with an eye toward shoring up weak spots. Too often, though, sales leaders miss a golden opportunity to make role-playing as effective as it can be. With that in mind, here is a guide to creating impactful role-play scenarios for your team.

Know and Explain Your Expected Outcomes

Too often, managers focus on a single ultimate objective in role-playing situations, such as closing the deal or securing the next steps in the sales process. It’s certainly important to have that end goal in mind – but there’s space to build on it by including sub-goals tailored to a rep’s individual needs.

Take the following scenario: One of your reports is Lucy, who frequently uses borderline off-color humor as a way of building rapport with clients. This approach works for some prospects, but you’ve had a few complaints when she’s miscalculated someone’s personality.

Your overarching objective in a role-play scenario could be, “Secure a presentation in front of the decision-makers,” but you can elaborate on that goal by saying, “In this situation, I want you to handle objections and secure a presentation with decision-makers while using safe-for-work humor.”

Notice that Lucy’s objectives are now threefold: first, to handle objections; second, to “sell the meeting”; and third, to make sure her humor is work-appropriate. This approach has the advantage of modeling for her the importance of preparing for objections before the sales call and tactfully encouraging her to modify her behavior in a non-confrontational way – in addition to the end goal of a sale.

Construct Detailed, Realistic Scenarios to Provide More Value

Frequently, role-playing scenario details are kept to minimal sketches of characters and selling environments. But if you present more detailed, rich situations that reflect the rep’s daily encounters, you can help your team members realize how much preparation they need to do prior to conversations with clients. For Lucy, your role-play situation can look something like this:

“You’ve been talking to John, a purchaser for Sky Diamonds, for a few weeks. In discovery and other research, you’ve learned that Sky Diamonds is a regional jewelry retailer looking to expand its offerings by buying pink spinel, lotus garnet and rhodochrosite gemstones after Pantone named living coral its 2019 ‘Color of the Year.’ Sky Diamonds is weighing whether to use a smaller firm that specializes in precision-cut bespoke gems like us or a large company that outsources the cutting to overseas factories. John and the rest of the procurement team are concerned about the significant price difference between high-quality options and the mass-produced stones of bigger rivals.”

This scenario provides several key pieces of information that Lucy can use to formulate her strategy:

  • Why Sky Diamonds wants to add to its inventory (to capitalize on anticipated increase in demand for jewelry matching Pantone’s Color of the Year).
  • The options the prospect is considering (high-quality stones from smaller providers or cheap ones from bigger firms).
  • The primary objection the potential client has to her company’s offerings (the price point, potentially related to Sky Diamonds’ size and budget).

This scenario also demonstrates for Lucy the importance of extensive research and discovery so she can prepare for a smooth sales conversation that, hopefully, leads to her reaching the end objective.

Allow Reps to Take Ownership of the Feedback

It might be tempting to give feedback by saying, “You need to do X instead of Y” or even, “Try doing this instead of that.” However, the best way to deliver constructive criticism is to couch it in terms of, “What do you think about making this change?” or, “What else could you say in this situation that might be more effective?”

This tactic gives sales reps a stake in the behavior change process by inviting their input, making them think about the suggestions or both. It fosters a coaching environment that’s collaborative and judgment-free, rather than top-down and one-directional. It also minimizes the chance for confrontation.

When you have reps engage in the role-play again, ask for only one or two adjustments. Even if there’s multiple errors, restricting the changes allows you to concentrate on the most severe issues and makes long-lasting behavioral change far more likely. Trying to correct everything in one go may be overwhelming and cause sales reps to either shut down or be ineffective at changing their methods, because there’s too many things to keep track of.

Long-term, beneficial changes in sales reps’ processes are achievable through role-playing exercises. To achieve them, however, you’ll need to be specific and detailed in both goals and situations, let sales reps have multiple attempts, and limit your required changes to a manageable number.