Taking the ‘lame’ out of sales role play

That individuals fail or flourish as a consequence of inherited characteristics is a central tenet of Darwinian theory.

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Inevitably, Darwin’s theories have been increasingly misappropriated and applied to arguments that lie well beyond the scope of the great naturalist’s vision. In the business world, the capacity of some executives to rise above the pack is often wrongly attributed to “inherent talent” that is somehow passed down through the gene pool. There is of course no evidence to support this proposition. Our contention is a simpler one, namely that the real determinant of success, whether in business, on the sporting field or elsewhere, is overwhelmingly the quality and quantity of practice an individual undertakes.

For instance, noted advocate for the power of practice, Hungarian psychologist László Polgár asserted before his three children were born that they would become chess champions. Through a fierce training regime and countless hours of practice he established an environment in which the three children could master the game. They subsequently became three of the best players ever. Likewise, as David Beckham, who learnt to take free-kicks as a kid in East London, put it: “my secret is practice. I always believed that if you want to achieve anything you have to work, work and then work some more.” 

Exactly the same thinking can and should be applied in the realm of sales coaching. In our opinion, sales role play is one of the most effective practice-oriented techniques for equipping sales reps for champion outcomes.

Much maligned by many of those who are asked to perform them, perhaps because of the awkwardness some people have when playing make-believe or by the way the role play has been set up, the humble sales role play actually represents an amazing opportunity to put technique into action. It is an opportunity for reps to demonstrate their selling skills to their managers and in return to receive constructive feedback. Role plays are one of the few areas where sales people can afford to make mistakes. Provided you learn from those misses there aren’t any real consequences. The role play is the rep’s big chance to get mistakes out of their system long before the real customer-facing game begins.



Role play represents an opportunity for reps to practice their handling of a range of different situations in a safe environment. As such, it can seriously build confidence and is a great opportunity to exercise the vocal chords and get comfortable speaking about your product and its value on the phone or face-to-face.


When built into a sales training program as a regular discipline, role play represents a great opportunity to hone technique. It allows the rep to fully familiarise with the flow and order of their presentation, ironing out “um’s” and “you knows” that pepper the delivery of those who are not adequately versed in their pitch. The role play gives the rep an opportunity to fine tune their delivery and nuance the structure and order of their argument, so when it is delivered in a real world scenario it is clear, captivating and credible.

Objection handling: 

The practice scenario is a crucial chance to develop with your colleagues a series of increasingly robust set responses to a wide range of potential objections. Objections can easily derail the unprepared rep, so repeatedly encountering them in the role-play environment gives the rep an opportunity to normalise them and to progressively improve upon their come back for each. And who better to test this out on than colleagues who have faced the same objections time and again? NB: For more on overcoming the common pricing objection, read this


Role play is an excellent way to develop mental fortitude and quick thinking. A listening as well as a delivery exercise, it gives you a chance to exercise your most powerful muscle by repeatedly forcing you to think on your feet. Through regular practice you are ever able to control the discourse and to achieve your sales meeting objectives. 


So whilst the role play clearly has an important part to play in the training schedule, it goes without saying that its effectiveness is very much down to how it is built into the program. Here’s six tips for ensuring role play success:


As with so many professional undertakings, success is often dictated by the buy in it receives from participants. Role play as we have stated can be awkward and downright excruciating if it is not set up solidly. Make sure to discuss with participating reps the positive developmental impacts it can have and how, if embraced, it can and will improve their sales results. Make it clear to participants that there are no right or wrong answers and that the role play will be conducted in a safe and positive environment. Clearly outline the benefits we have detailed above and you’re well on the way.


Don’t just view role play as something for the newly hired rep. This is a mistake far too many sales organisations make. As with all areas of endeavour, the more you practice the better you’ll get. So make role play a regular item on the diary and get all levels of experience involved. It is never too late for the veteran rep to further refine their game. Bad habits inevitably creep in, and one of the best ways for them to remedy this is off the back of well-considered role play feedback.


As you should for a real-world presentation, allow the role playing sales rep time to prepare for the exercise. Make sure they have a clear understanding of the brief and have the same intelligence on the sales prospect as they might expect to have in a real world scenario. This will add to the authenticity of the role play and will provide a framework that’ll go a long way to preventing the exercise becoming stilted.

Avoid the fish-bowl: 

Some people may beg to differ, but we advocate making the role play as positive an experience as possible. One way to make this the case is to limit the number of people witnessing the role play. Having the fish-bowl effect of role playing in front of an entire sales unit can be a real turn off for the participant and can quickly breed negativity amongst participants and witnesses alike. Keeping numbers to a bare minimum will make the scenario much closer to a real world sales meeting, reduce pressure and create an effective sales culture. This helps the role play take on a more natural air and helps the rep in training build familiarisation with the situations they are likely to face in the outside world.

Realistic scenarios: 

Authenticity is king when it comes to role play. The more realistic the scenario the better, so get some of your most seasoned reps to devise a number of the most common prospect personas, situations and challenges they face. Not only will this add some spice to the exercise it will also position them to provide stronger feedback as they will know exactly what works and what to avoid in those cases. Moreover, if they are scenarios they have commonly faced, you can rest assured that they’ll be the types of meetings the rest of the team can expect to encounter.

Good Feedback: 

With well-considered feedback that emphasises the positives over the negatives, the role play can serve as a highly motivating experience, and one that no amount of training manual exposure can top. Feedback is arguably more important than the role play itself, working as it does as a means for sharing best practice wisdom amongst colleagues. If you record the role play you also create a great opportunity to focus on the finer details of the performance without having to take a stop-start approach to the exercise. We recommend giving the role player the opportunity to review the footage and encourage them to provide self-assessment as well. 

Take out: Practice is hard, but it is what marks out winners from the also rans. Natural “talent” alone won’t help you deliver sales results when it really counts. Take it from us, the champion sales reps are those that put in hour upon hour of practice so when the real game starts they perform like naturals and can bend it like Beckham. There are no shortcuts – practice makes perfect.

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