Interview with Larry Williams
Sales tricks, techniques, and exercises are plentiful in the business world, but one training tool has been known as somewhat of a pariah among sales teams.
“People don’t like to role play,” says Larry Williams, principal at the training firm Williams Leslie Group, who has almost 40 years of training and consulting experience in sales and customer service. “They feel like it’s not the ‘real world.’”
The lack of authenticity in role playing may be one reason why sales reps recoil at the term, but that’s not the only thing holding them back.
“It’s easy for reps to feel like they’re being ‘measured and evaluated,’” says Williams. “When role play exercises make employees feel like they’re close to the axe, they tend to retreat, making what could be a valuable educational tool completely useless.”
Regardless of the general dislike among salespeople, role playing exercises are still widely used as training tools. They provide a special kind of education that has proven to be valuable for sales teams.
That value is turning knowledge into a skill, which, for Williams, means best practices become behaviors. “The best way you learn behavior is by doing,” he says.
Role playing affects behavior because it takes what you learn and turns it into a skill through practice. In turn, a sales training becomes more than learning concepts; it becomes about adopting them.
The common pitfalls around role playing are what make it an ineffective tool, not the training itself. Here are a few right (and wrong) ways you can use role playing to help grow your business.
1. Practice Preparation
“The biggest mistake companies make when conducting role playing exercises is not preparing enough,” says Williams. To lead an effective training, companies need to clearly understand the purpose of the exercise and how it’s going to be executed beforehand. To do that, start here.
- Use Past Scenarios – Pick one or two examples of sales you didn’t win, break them down, and decide what worked and what didn’t work in advance. Then, sit with your team and review in the form of a role play exercise. It needs to be “real” (or at least feel real), and be well-crafted beforehand; it is never a good idea for training leaders and participants to “wing it.”
- Coach “Customers” – Sales reps should not play “customers.” Bring in individuals from other departments or outside sources to play the customers in order to get the most authentic results. Make sure you coach customers on the role they are supposed to play. Develop clear guidelines for conduct during the exercise to reduce diverging from the training objectives.
- Create the Right Environment – To lessen nervousness and hesitation, create a positive, somewhat private environment for the role play exercises to take place. Williams recommends conducting the performed scenarios in a private room with a video camera and then critiquing each interaction together as a whole.
2. Minimize Measurement
People are resistant to role play largely because they feel measured or evaluated during the training. To make the training most effective, companies should reduce those feelings as much as possible. Here are a few ways Williams suggests doing that.
- Low-Threat Environment – To create a low-threat environment, it’s important to reduce the presence of “management.” If possible, someone other than sales managers should conduct the role playing exercises. If that isn’t possible, it helps to have managers participate in the exercises themselves as salespeople in the dedicated scenarios. Developing that trust and equality among the participants will encourage walls to break down.
- Only Participants Can Critique – Only allow those who participated as salespeople in the scenarios to join the group critique. If managers who didn’t participate give critiques, players feel evaluated. And if customers share critiques, sales reps can feel like they were set up to fail.
- Beware the “Gotcha” – When participants feel like they were set up to fail, Williams calls it a “gotcha.” He says you can reduce the “gotcha” feeling by eliminating scripts from the scenarios, keeping customers out of critiques, and focusing the training on the learning objectives. Make it clear that the purpose of role playing is learning skills, not correcting them.
- Teams Reduce Threat – If managers are directly involved, it can help reduce perceived threat if participants are divided into teams, instead of working as individuals. This makes the training feel more like a learning exercise, and less like a personal evaluation.
3. Rely on Relevance
If there are skills to be learned, there is never a bad time to employ role play training. However, some companies might find it more appropriate and effective during certain times than others. Here are a few ways you can make sure your sales team gets the most out of this type of training.
- The Right Time – “Training is most effective if a company has established a new business initiative or changed direction that will require new skills,” says Williams. Role playing exercises are aimed at developing behaviors, so having important behaviors to learn makes the process more rewarding.
- Redemption – Williams recommends holding two role plays close together. Role playing allows sales reps to “try on” different skills and behaviors. “If you do role playing and someone hasn’t performed very well, you’ve got to give them a second chance to redeem themselves,” says Williams. The more opportunities to try on the different learning objectives, the more successful the training will be.
- Follow Up – After a few days of role playing, follow up with sales reps and reevaluate the skills they’ve learned. Managers should schedule a day in the field with them or monitor their sales calls with a focus on observing how the learning objectives are being executed, and then offer further feedback and coaching where necessary.
- Involve Everyone – Williams is strict about everyone participating in role playing. If star players are left out, it intensifies the feeling of evaluation among those asked to perform. He has even found that sometimes it’s those who resist participating the most that get the most out of the training.
“When you look at developing competencies, there’s a knowledge base and a skill base… This incorporates both,” says Williams.
Although a somewhat disdained practice, the benefits of a well-executed role play training are clear. Not only do participants receive an adequate education about the skills they need to know to succeed in the field, but they also get to try them on and (hopefully) adopt them as second-nature behaviors.
Just make sure you know what you’re doing first. “The devil,” Williams says, “is in the execution.”