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Posted: May 17, 2013

Best of CoBiz: Role-play for sales results

The importance of casting and direction

Julie Hansen

Role-playing. With the exception of cold-calling, is there a pair of words salespeople dread more? While management may call it a "learning experience," most salespeople know better. Role-playing is a test of their knowledge and their ability to articulate selling points, handle objections and move to close-under the close scrutiny of a manager noting each fumbled sell line or mishandled objection and a group of peers, happy to sit back and watch someone else in the hot seat.

The scenario is not unlike a new actor being thrust into the spotlight without knowing the play, his lines or his scene partner while the director and audience watch expectantly. A learning experience for sellers? Yes, learning to hate role-playing!

Traditional role-playing is a missed opportunity to gain a better understanding of our client's motivation, needs and challenges. Actors use role-playing as a time to get to know their character, explore relationships with their scene partner, uncover subtext and clarify intentions-without fear of judgment. Applying a rehearsal-based model to role-playing in sales allows us to get in touch with the deeper emotions, desires or fears that may be driving buyers' actions, allowing us to more accurately target our message.

Steeping role-playing in the fundamentals of the actor's rehearsal process changes it from an anxiety-producing exercise to please management into a creative problem-solving tool. A real learning experience. Rehearsal-based role-playing allows sellers to let down their guard and benefit from the group experience.

The basic flaw in sales role-playing lies in the casting and the direction. In order to maximize its effectiveness, follow this simple "cast" breakdown:

The Cast:

1. The Director, played by the sales manager or a facilitator:
Good directors foster a safe environment of acceptance and experimentation during rehearsal. There is no "right or wrong" in rehearsal because judgment inhibits the creativity and spontaneity necessary to make discoveries about ourselves and others. In order to truly experiment and take risks, salespeople, like actors, need to know they are free to explore without fear of being judged. Often it is impossible for sellers to allow themselves to make mistakes in front of the person they report to, in which case, a facilitator can be very beneficial.

2. The Client, played by a salesperson or actor:
Choose an actual client or prospect that you know something about personally and professionally. Avoid broad generalizations, which rarely spark insight. Imagine you are a specific individual with a unique set of circumstances, feelings, and needs, not a general composite of your client list.

Identify your chosen client's circumstances. Do they drive to work or take the bus? Are they satisfied or dissatisfied with their job? Are they motivated by ambition, money or service? An actor leaves no stone unturned in his efforts to form a complete picture of his character.

Step into your client's shoes. Ask yourself, "What would "I" do if "I" were really in this situation? Through personal identification you can start to truthfully discover how you-and in turn your client-might think, feel and act within their given circumstances.

3. The Salesperson, played by...a salesperson:
Assume your client knows nothing about your product or service. Before you scream that you've been calling on them for a year and presented a dozen proposals, remember that decision makers are deluged with facts and figures from dozens-maybe hundreds-of salespeople. In addition, by starting with a blank canvas you may discover some false assumptions you are making which may be keeping you from progressing with a particular client.

Most importantly, stay in the moment and react as you would-not as you think you should. You'll learn a great deal more about yourself and your client if you keep it real. And, you're more likely to receive valuable insight from your peers that will help you with specific challenges.

Once sellers have experienced the benefits of rehearsal-based role-playing they may no longer find excuses to leave the building during a sales meeting. While this newfound understanding of your clients, greater awareness of their behaviors and access to a wider choice of solutions may not improve your chances of winning an Oscar, it will greatly improve your chances of winning the business. 

Julie Hansen helps sales and business executives differentiate their solution and deliver winning presentations by leveraging proven performance skills from film, stage and improv.  The founder of Performance Sales and Training, Julie’s techniques have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM, Oracle, SAP and local Colorado companies to gain a competitive selling edge.  Julie is an international speaker, sales trainer and the author of ACT Like a Sales Pro!  Learn more about workshops and keynotes at, start a sales conversation at  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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