How To Make Role Playing Effective And Fun

by Michael D. Hargrove     

Practicing new techniques, new strategies, new word tracks, and our craft in general, is an essential element to our success. One of the best ways to practice using new techniques is through role playing with associates. The interaction with other professionals we work with creates a win/win situation for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, a lot of the sales people I’ve worked with have had an intense aversion to role playing. Their reasons have been varied and, for the most part, invalid. By far, the most common excuse for not role playing I hear is; “I’m terrible at role playing but I’m great when I’m with customers!” Yeah right! Time and time again, it’s been my experience that how we perform in a realistic role play situation is pretty much what we’ll do in the same situation with our customer.

Trying new techniques out on customers is not an effective way to acquire new skills especially once we’ve demonstrated some competency. First off, very few customers will tell us, “Now Michael, that was pretty good but if you just slow down a little bit and then substitute the word ‘but’ with the word ‘and’ or maybe even ‘yes and’, I think it’ll be much more effective on me. Go ahead now, try it again.” The only real feedback customers give us is when they either buy or don’t buy but even lousy sales people get that kind of input.

Additionally, once we’ve experienced a bit of success, we have much less tolerance for the awkwardness and initial failure that comes with trying something new. Think about it, most everything we do well now, at the outset at least, we stunk at. It’s this discomfort of initially faltering that most sales people erroneously blame on the act of role playing itself. Role playing, when done correctly, is designed to give us a nonthreatening, feedback intensive environment in which to stink the joint up.

The only two valid reasons for not role playing that I’ve heard are that; “It’s just not enjoyable” or “It doesn’t work.” When done correctly, however, role playing can be both fun and effective. Actually, it must be both or else no one in their right mind would continue to do it. Here’s how to role play correctly.

There are three parts in an effective role play. They are the Salesperson (the person trying the new skill), the Customer (the person initiating the need for, or reacting to, the new skill), and the Referee (the person observing and giving feedback). Of the three, the most important by far is the Referee. The Ref can also be the Customer but it’s usually more effective when three or more people are working and learning together. The more people we have, the more feedback we’ll get.

When practicing to overcome objections, first determine which technique is going to be rehearsed. Then the Customer states the objection in as realistic a fashion as possible both in words and demeanor. Most customers are not Jabba the Hut, Genghis Khan, or Count Dracula so don’t portray them as such.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t role play extreme conditions simply because they seldom occur. Actually, I’d like us all to become the Navy Seals of sales. I want us to become big, bad, and unstoppable. (While at BUD/S training, it’s hard to imagine any naval instructor saying, “Oh, we don’t really need to train for that particular situation. It hardly ever comes up!”) Eventually, I do believe we will be able to enter any situation knowing that we can handle whatever could come up. What I am suggesting is that in the beginning, or until we get used to the feeling that comes with falling down while trying a new dance step, that we set ourselves up for initial success and practice what we’ll most commonly encounter.

The Salesperson then attempts the new technique. When the Salesperson stumbles (and we will!) don’t allow them to start over or stop or start to make excuses. It’s important that no one breaks character. That discomfort is energy and we can use that energy to propel us ahead. Even though it feels uncomfortable, we need to plod along. We’re going to try it again right away anyhow, and it’ll get better. We need to get used to this feeling as soon as possible so it’ll become less and less a hurdle that keeps us from role playing new strategies. As I’ve said many times before, when we fail enough, it stops hurting. Eventually, we’ll even stop seeing it as failing at all and see it for what it truly is. It’s just the effort required to become the best.

Sometimes, however, we can get hung up on a particular phrase or word. The wrong thing can just seem to keep slipping out of our mouths even with our best intentions. At this point, we can stop the role play, and have the Salesperson simply repeat the replacement phrase or word over and over again. This may take as few as two or three repetitions or as many as nine or ten. Usually, however, when we have the Salesperson try the technique again, we’ve succeeded in overwriting the old pattern with the new one. I’ve seen this work in virtually every role play workshop I’ve facilitated.

Now, the Ref needs to give us the feedback. First, it needs to be as clear and specific as possible. Saying, “The first part was fine.” doesn’t tell us anything. Why was it “fine”? What made it “fine”? The same holds true for things that the Ref feels needs improvement. Why does it need improvement? What can be done to improve it? We all need to keep in mind that this feedback is simply one person’s perception. Just as different customers will react differently to what we do or say, so will our Refs.

Secondly, and probably most important, the feedback needs to be mostly positive. We need to reinforce over and over again what we want repeated. This also allows the Salesperson to be more open to the constructive criticism that we all need to improve.

Once again, if the Ref isn’t specific with their feedback, the role play will be ineffective and we’ll be wasting our time. If the Ref only focuses on what the Salesperson did wrong, it’s not going to be fun and no one will want to play anymore! Besides, it doesn’t take any talent to find fault with someone. How does that saying go? “Any fool can find fault, and most fools do.”

Okay, let’s say we’re trying to learn a ten step process. The Salesperson only gets the first two right and completely blows the remaining eight. The Ref needs to spend a minute or two just on what they did right (the first two steps), then the last 30 seconds or so on one thing they’d like to see improved (maybe step three).

The Salesperson tries it again. Focusing on what they already are doing correctly and just adding the next improvement (step three). Now the Salesperson does the first three steps correctly, but blows the remaining seven. The Ref needs to focus the majority of the feedback on the three steps they did right, being clear and specific as to what made it “right.” Then they need to add the next one or two steps for the Salesperson to try and improve.

A variation to this method would be to only attempt the first two steps. Once they are done correctly, then we can add the third. Once the first three are done correctly, then we can add the fourth, then the fifth, and so on. This building block approach is helpful when we’re learning longer, more elaborate techniques.

On it goes until the Salesperson can do all ten steps adequately. Then all we need to do is continue to practice it, slowly refining, refining, and refining it, until the Salesperson can do it flawlessly. Practice it until it’s no longer a ten step process but simply something that’s become second nature.

Until we have mastered a skill, we should practice it three times to every one time we use it with a customer. Once we own the skill, we should practice it one time to every three times we use it with a customer. This way, not only will we quickly increase our mastered repertoire but we’ll also ensure that our tools evolve right along with us as we evolve. Role playing in this manner should become as much a daily activity as customer follow up or talking to new clients.

Another way to quickly memorize word tracks is to record them, in our own voice, on an audio cassette. Then we simply need to listen to the cassette on the way to work a few times. Behaviorists have determined that we retain about 80% of what we hear on an audio cassette after listening to it six times. Recording and then listening to the cassette in our own voice seems to accelerate this process.

It may, at first blush, seem like a lot of work and maybe it is. But as we get good at practicing our craft, it’ll become as fun as all the other things we already do well in our lives. No matter what else may have happened to our day, at least we got a little better at what we do. That, in itself, makes it worth it!


© Copyright 2013 by Michael D. Hargrove and Bottom Line Underwriters, Inc. All rights reserved. Michael D. Hargrove is the founder and president of Bottom Line Underwriters Inc.

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