• Role-playing prepares sales reps to execute in front of customers, giving managers confidence that the rep is conversation-ready and can articulate the value proposition
  • Sales enablement practitioners should reevaluate role-playing exercises and ensure sales leaders partner with reps to provide actionable coaching tips
  • Leverage role-playing beyond onboarding, incorporating it into ongoing learning around company changes and product launches to optimize continued rep adaptability to new sales motions

I took up golf this summer. Those who play can probably relate when I say that I love the game — and I hate the game. I love when I connect with the ball and feel like a pro. I hate when I slice and lose my golf ball in the trees. Good form is what I want. So, before I picked up any bad habits, I decided I needed a coach.

First we focused on fundamentals: how to hold my club to start. It wasn’t until the third week that my coach video-recorded my swings and adjusted my grip, arms, and overall swing. We reviewed the videos. He drew lines and made notations. I practiced. I’m far from pro status, but at least I felt ready to get on a course.

Then I had an aha moment at work: I was speaking to a client about her sales learning programs, and she mentioned that her sales reps hate role-playing exercises. Her experience isn’t unique. Forrester SiriusDecisions research indicates that out of 14 methods of learning delivery, high-performing reps rank role-playing in person and via video their number 8 and number 11 preferences, respectively. Simply put, they’re not big fans.

I get it. When I first met my golf coach, I just wanted him to tell me how to fix my slice. I didn’t really want to practice, but that’s not how it works. My coach broke down the fundamentals. I practiced. He incorporated some complexity. I practiced. He recorded me putting it all together and we studied the video for adjustments. We did all this before I got on the course.

Here’s the “aha”: Typically, sales reps just want someone to give them the information they need to “get on the course.” They’ll figure out later how it fits into their customer interactions. But then we’re risking a rep practicing on a prospect or customer, bad habits and all!

Maybe the role-playing isn’t the issue. Maybe sales enablement practitioners need to reevaluate their fundamentals. Here are some observations I’ve made that we can use to deconstruct role-playing exercises:

  • Let’s see your swing. Like in golf, there are so many motions to consider in any customer interaction. I can’t imagine my coach placing a ball on a tee and saying “swing” without first teaching me the basics. Yet, many role-playing exercises do just that. We have reps role-play an entire prospecting conversation. Why not break down the interaction into specific areas they can build on? Depending on the rep’s skill set, let’s try an opener, or a closing and asking for next steps — or let’s talk about objections. Build on the basics. Role-plays should focus on one or two objectives. Asking reps to execute on more than that will be unmanageable.
  • Take note of sand traps and water hazards. Every golf course is unique. When designating a “pretend company” for role-playing, have your reps build a realistic “course” with multiple decision-makers to sell to who have their own agendas and objectives. Your reps should create a role-play in which they interact with each decision-maker and target their message accordingly. Provide feedback on each course hazard — did the rep consider competitors, changes in the market, or known objections? Focus on key objectives and help reps put together a whole bag of clubs they can use.
  • Watch the pros. Even Tiger Woods misses a putt now and again, but when he’s on, he’s fun to watch. We can learn from both missed putts and fantastic drives. Create a library of role-plays — buyer personas, typical objections, openers, closings, conducting a demo — broken down into realistic, digestible scenarios and make the videos available to all reps. Include the constructive coaching notes. Just like beginning golfers scouring YouTube videos for putting tips, reps will get a lot of information on what might work for them in any given scenario and may even see some common mistakes they can correct.
  • Partner with a good caddy. Caddies do so much more than lug around golfers’ clubs. They provide advice on shots, know their partner’s game, and have deep local course knowledge. In sales, reps and managers must partner. Managers provide the advice. Reps get out there and execute. The key role of the manager is to help reps build their skills.

The desired outcome for role-playing is knowing your reps can execute effectively in front of customers. Role-playing shows managers that reps are prepared for conversations, can speak the language of the buyer, and can articulate the value proposition.

Don’t use role-playing for onboarding exercises only. Your company will inevitably change what even seasoned reps are being asked to do, so they will need to role-play to ensure they understand and can incorporate these changes. Continue to work with sales leaders to build out more scenarios and have their reps record the interactions. Critical to your program’s success is making sure leaders are providing actionable coaching tips.

Even the best reps need to practice. Enabling them to do so will get them into top-selling form — and keep them there.