Oct 25, 2022  |  By Em Ascano, Head of Operations and Education Development

The Problem with Sales Role Playing and What to Do Instead

Decades of learning science research have taught us that the two most effective learning methods known to date are: Spaced practice which refers to learning that occurs over multiple sessions at different points in time and retrieval practice, which is attempting to recall that information from memory.

This is also applicable for Sales training. For sales reps, much of their success comes from knowing the information needed to effectively sell, and being able to seamlessly recall it while talking with a potential customer. 

The most common way to practice is through sales role playing, However, this outdated practice is widely disliked by sales reps. More often than not, trying to get reps to do a role-play is like pulling teeth. Because role-plays require participants to "play" a role,  you'll hear complaints that it's inauthentic, ineffective, and downright miserable.

As a result, (in addition to eliciting groans) sales role-plays cause a lot of friction, low participation, and poor results. Fortunately, there are ways to use the power of role playing without actually making reps do a role-play.. 

Learn how to set up quick virtual practice sessions (no role playing required). Download the Upduo Playbook. 

Sales role playing does have its benefits…

Our human brains are wired to forget information easier than to remember it. Without practice, we’ll forget 75% of what we learn within 6 days. Role playing is often seen as an excellent complement to learning management systems, which are too passive to be effective for teaching. 

Why role-play? It allows people to apply sales techniques and scripted pitches to real-life simulations, helping the information stick. The more we rehearse and practice during role playing, the better. Plus, many companies practice role playing in a physical way—talking with your hands, pointing at products and picking them up—and movement has been proven to help boost learning. 

But it’s hard to get participation

There are a lot of different reasons why someone wouldn’t want to role play in order to practice and improve their sales skills:

  • It feels awkward and unnatural 
  • The pressure to “act” and “perform” distracts from the practice itself
  • It’s hard to take it seriously
  • Sales reps are scripted, but customers aren’t and it’s hard to come up with realistic customer responses on the fly
  • Conversations can easily go off track 

In frontline sales roles, where employees are greener, turnover is high, and customer interactions can be challenging, it’s nearly impossible to drum up much excitement for role playing. 

After 40 years in sales, I have never met a sales professional tell me that they improved their selling skills with role play training exercises. What I have also witnessed is that, unfortunately, when the sales rep shares their disgruntled feelings about this type of training, their sales manager’s reaction is that the sales rep is either not prepared, or they believe the rep is nervous because they know they are not very good at what they sell. In most cases that is just not true. - Michael Kempa, Sales Trainer and Consultant

In an industry plagued by 60-80% employee turnover, it's not wise to add fuel to the fire and force reps to role play. 

What to do instead

As the saying goes, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need a way to keep the good things about role playing—the applied learning, the practice, and the real-life simulations—while removing the bad things, namely the awkward pressure to be a stellar actor.

Taking the awkward acting out is an important start, but it’s not the whole solution. Practice sessions are hard to schedule, organize, manage, and measure, so we need to fix that too.

Here’s how:

1. Talk about sales scenarios instead of acting them out

Instead of making your sales reps act, allow them to talk out a situation. For example, if you want them to learn how to overcome objections better, you can have two reps brainstorm some best practices when overcoming objections. 

Have them take turns sharing their own experiences. This reinforces their on-the-ground learning and transfers that learning to their partner. With Upduo, it’s easy to offer virtual practice sessions that are just 5-10 minutes long. 

2. Provide quick and easy access to practice sessions

Continuous practice is the key to retention and mastery. We like to call this the R”reinforcement curve”. Without regular practice, sales reps will struggle to learn new products and techniques. but most role playing sessions are offered infrequently, if at all. 

It’s time to change that and guarantee participation by making practice sessions easy to access. Upduo offers instant pairing via our mobile app, so you don’t have to worry about scheduling sessions. 

With Upduo, you can algorithmically match reps who are online with any other rep in your organization, anywhere in the country. If you don’t employ enough sales reps for the algorithmic matching (at least 2,000), then you can simply set designated practice windows, such as 8-10am and 1pm to 3pm every day, so that you can ensure that enough reps will be online to get paired together. 

3. Craft practice session prompts based on business goals

Role playing sessions can easily go off track, especially without clearly articulated goals. Make sure that you’re crafting session prompts that will keep conversations worthwhile. You should write prompts that will improve specific business metrics. 

For example, if you want to increase sales for a certain product or service, you could create a few different prompts to aid in this goal:

  • Practicing top features and benefits
  • Discussing lesser-known features, and which customers are likely to care about them
  • Brainstorming how to overcome objections based on a competitors’ lower pricing 

4. Pair up experienced and inexperienced sellers

It’s also wise to pair up sellers based on their experience level. If you’re using Upduo, you can categorize your staff to make it easy for our system to pair people up accordingly. 

When you connect junior and senior sellers together, you proactively ensure knowledge transfer so that new sellers can be activated quicker. This can also make the conversations more fruitful and interesting, as at least one person on the call will have experiences to share.

You can set up different pairing schemas for different conversation types, so that you can pair people up together in a way that matches the situation. 

5. Measure results and collect feedback on your new practice methodology

And lastly, you need to actually measure the learning that is taking place. With basic role playing, that’s not really possible. While it is important to track participation, how can you also measure learning and growth toward your goals?

With Upduo, you and your team have the tools and data to effectively track employee retention, total sales volume, and specific product sales – and how they are correlated to an employee’s practice sessions. 

Lastly, make sure to collect feedback, because the employee experience matters. Most likely, you’ll hear that reps far and away prefer these natural conversations to role playing. 

Learn how to set up quick virtual practice sessions (no role playing required). Download the Upduo Playbook