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Five simple steps to effective role-playing

I received a panicked call from a salesperson last week. Carol's annual sales meeting was fast approaching and she and her fellow sellers were being asked to participate in two days of role-playing with company executives. While positioned as a "learning experience," Carol knew better; this was a test. Carol and her co-workers would be judged on their knowledge and performance: Could they accurately represent their product, articulate each selling point and confidently move to close-within an artificial, high-pressure scenario?

Could you?

Under these circumstances, what choice does Carol (and other sellers like her) have than to summon up all of her acting ability (dating back to the 3rd grade class play), and put on the role that she thinks is expected of her. The role that she thinks a really super-seller might portray. A role that has little or no resemblance to Carol on an actual sales call.

Role-playing can be an extremely valuable sales tool, but too many organizations use it as Carol's company does, as an opportunity to judge sellers on their ability to extol company virtues. If that is the purpose, fine. Just don't call it role-playing. Effective role-playing is an opportunity to gain insights about our client's motivation and needs, as well as learning new ways of handling objections and stalls from our peers. Often the solution to a problem we have been struggling with is available from the person in the next cubicle.

In acting, role-playing is a rehearsal tool -- not a performance. It's a chance for the actor to "try on" different aspects of his character and explore relationships with his scene partner-without judgment. Good directors foster an environment of acceptance and experimentation during rehearsal. There is no "right or wrong" in rehearsal because the introduction of judgment inhibits the creativity and spontaneity necessary for the actor to make exciting new discoveries about himself and others.

As a salesperson and an actor, applying the steps of role-playing as used in the rehearsal process helped me to step into my client's shoes and gain a better understanding of their circumstances so that I could more effectively address and anticipate their needs. Here are five simple steps that can help you do the same:

5 Steps for Effective Role-Playing:

1. Be specific. Choose a real client or prospect as your subject. Avoid broad generalizations, which rarely spark insight. Imagine you are speaking with a real human being with unique feelings, thoughts and needs. Not a composite of every client you've ever known.

2. Step into your client's shoes. What do you know about their circumstances, both personal and professional? Ask yourself, "What would ‘I' do if ‘I' were really in this situation? Given ‘my' circumstances, what would ‘I' like to hear from a salesperson?" Through personal identification you can start to truthfully discover how you-and in turn your client-might think, feel and act in their circumstances.

3. Forget what you know about your product/service. That's right. Forget it. Decision-makers are deluged with facts and figures from dozens-maybe hundreds-of salespeople. Assume you are starting with a blank slate as it will be closer to the truth than not. (Which is why role-playing with other company employees is usually ineffective-they know too much.)

4. Create a safe environment. In order to truly experiment and take risks, salespeople, like actors, need to know they are not being judged. As a manager, let your team know that the purpose is to learn from each other. Save the tests for another day. As a seller, make the case for using role-playing as the learning tool it was intended to be.

5. Hire a coach to facilitate. Role-playing with other salespeople ("Okay Bob, you be the client and I'll be the seller") is rarely successful as the questions and answers are often leading, even when unintended. In addition, the mere presence of a manager in the room can inhibit spontaneity and exploration. A coach can facilitate and provide a summary of useful findings without putting anyone on the spot.

Using the above information, Carol is now prepared to sell her CEO on the benefits of using role-playing as a rehearsal tool to learn more about clients and prospects and share valuable solutions with fellow sellers. Are you?

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Julie Hansen

Julie Hansen, is a sales presentation expert and speaker who helps sales and business executives deliver winning presentations and demonstrations. She is the author of the new book Sales Presentations for Dummies (Wiley) available this fall and ACT Like a Sales Pro (CareerPress). Julie is the founder of Performance Sales and Training and her techniques for leveraging proven performance skills from film, stage and improv in sales and business have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM and Oracle as well as local Colorado companies.  Learn more about workshops and keynotes at  PerformanceSalesandTraining.com, start a sales conversation at Julie@actingforsales.com  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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