Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Wisdom of Role Playing (Shhh!, Not So Loud) for Sales Success, Part I

OK, here they are, the dreaded words: role playing. You may be tempted to skip this article because you detest the thought of role playing and dismiss its value as a training technique. Role playing has such a bad reputation that I’ve had clients ask me to refer to it as skill practice on sales training agendas. Based on my experience with thousands of sales professionals, role playing is the training tool most often met with fear and dread.

Just the thought of role playing can cause heart rates to increase and temperatures to rise. I’ve heard salespeople say it can make them do and say things they claim they never would in real life
. Playing roles, many complain, is not real-life. Remarks such as, I don’t like to act, or, it doesn’t happen like this in real life, are common.

I agree that role playing makes sales people nervous, uncomfortable, say strange things, and that it is not real life. That’s why it’s called role playing.

Despite the complaints, it’s remarkable how often sales people who were initially resistant to role playing later comment that they would have liked more role playing. After the training, they admit they like the practice and feedback and that it’s useful to have the opportunity to practice and refine how they will say things during sales calls.

The question then is why should sales people role play? The answer is simple. It’s a fact that you will perform better in real life after you’ve rehearsed.

Let’s look at why and how role play rehearsals can give you a competitive advantage.

Role playing is a process requiring reflection and self-assessment. If designed with the right objectives and with as realistic as possible situations, role playing gives people the opportunity to experience scenarios they may face in the future. As a rehearsal for real encounters, role playing allows sales people to make mistakes in a safe environment. It is an invaluable tool for testing multiple and successful sales strategies.

According to Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes, the brain works by pattern recognition and when it’s in an extremely frightening situation it sorts through a database for a script. Even though sales transactions are not usually considered extremely frightening, the brain responds in a similar way, looking for a memory or script to use in a challenging situation. Ripley further states: Your brain relies on that memory and responds to it much more quickly and fully than words. Rehearsing with role play creates the pattern the brain needs to trigger a successful response.

Think about how and why athletes practice (does practice makes perfect sound familar?). A football team will scout each opponent, learning all they can about their schemes and personnel. In practice, the team will simulate playing their opponent, familiarizing themselves on how to react to different situations until it becomes second nature for game day.
The repetitive nature of athletic training also produces muscle memory, the process of creating increased accuracy through repetition. Similarly, a runner will incorporate speed workouts into their training (running at or faster than their race pace), allowing their muscles, lungs and heart to be accustomed to running at a fast pace. Additionally, many athletes use visualization to mentally rehearse their event. None of this is real life, but an important simulation (role play?) for real life.

Of course, not all role playing is productive and valuable. It has a bad reputation because of how it has been misused as a tool. Sales people dread it because their experience has been that it was used as a method to expose their weaknesses in front of colleagues or management, causing embarrassment and pain. Some managers think this is the right way to learn, but I completely disagree.

In Part II of this article, I will offer guidelines for structuring productive and skill-based developmental role plays.

No comments: