Role-Playing: Making Your Formal Sales Training Programs More Effective

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from sales training expert Dave Stein, co-founder of ES Research, Inc.

Too often companies invest significantly in a major sales training program only to see little improvement. Again and again sales managers say, “sales training programs are a waste; my people just do what they’ve always done sixty days later.” Of course, one mistake many companies make is to treat sales training as an event rather than a ongoing process.

There is one trend ESR is happy to see: The growing appreciation among sales managers that reinforcement is a critical part of learning. It’s what extends the experience of learning long enough for new behaviors and habits to take hold. One age-old reinforcement tool — role-playing — is making a real difference for some salespeople facing the challenge of adopting those new behaviors and building those new habits in the midst of their difficult selling environments. Role-playing with your sales teams shortly after the formal training has taken place can be a game changer.

If your sales training partner offers role-playing as part of their approach, you’re probably in good shape. Avail yourself of what they have. If not, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands.

Even as competitive as they may be, peer pressure and performance anxiety can strike much more fear in some salespeople than presenting to customers. For this reason alone, understand that strong performance in role playing situations generally translates well to customer situations. Role-playing is not a simple undertaking, but if you heed the following six principals, you’ll be encouraged by the results. (If you’ve adopted ESR’s approach to hiring salespeople, they will have gone through two role-playing/simulation exercises as a prerequisite for being hired into the position they now hold.)

1) Be Prepared to Invest Management Time

Involve your sales management and marketing/brand teams in playing the role of the customer. This requires researching the customer so that your sales reps are challenged with realistic questions and objections. Hopefully, you’ve developed buyer personas to support this approach. Have your group develop a schedule that devotes at least two hours per week over three months after training has taken place. Consider the customer preparation “homework” aside from regular responsibilities.

2) Sales Reps Need to Do Some Real Homework

Since you don’t want to sacrifice valuable selling time, you’ll want to lay out at least three rounds of work all to be done outside of the normal work day:

  1. Initial call role-play: Review web site and pertinent materials to conduct a customer needs assessment.
  2. Solution proposal role-play: Develop a presentation (perhaps a PowerPoint) that aligns with needs.
  3. Negotiation/Close role-play: At a minimum, be prepared to handle customer objections. Of course, targeted negotiation skills training should have its own reinforcement including exercises and role-plays.

3) Be Prepared for Multiple Tries and Multiple Rounds

Some of your reps — the veterans and those with less self-confidence — may object to these exercises. It may not go smoothly in the beginning, either. Nonetheless, you’ll need to stress the importance of sharing best practices and how each team member can help each other. Reps get to be critics too. That may get the reluctant ones on board.

4) Be Guided by Your Sales Team in Terms of Pace of Progress

With a full commitment level, you’ll see that your reps have a real desire to be successful. Many sales managers indicated that it took two or three times before some reps felt comfortable and ready to move ahead. Be patient and follow their lead.

5) Consider a Third Party Coach Only After Reaching an Initial Comfort Level in the First Round

These exercises are intimidating enough initially, so there is no need to add additional pressure. When comfortable though, a third party can often provide a needed objective point of view as those on the brand may be just “too close to it”.

6) Bolster Your Own Observations with Customer Feedback

Keep embracing the new culture you are working to establish. Employ your coaching process with your team when you’re on calls with them. If the situation warrants, go the extra step and talk to your customers about the increasing effectiveness among members of your team. Most sales managers we talk to leverage positive customer feedback to reinforce the value of role playing.

photo by: Simon Blackley

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