Sales role-playing exercises are particularly effective for those learning consultative selling in which the path to the sale is revealed through a process of questioning. This approach to selling requires the sales professional to be adept at exploring the customer’s needs, surfacing underlying challenges, and understanding core value drivers. All of these practices require conversational skills that must be learned by doing.
Role play, however, offers more than a way to get accustomed to the stress of selling. It also helps learners solidify their understanding of effective selling behaviors by elaborating on the “why” behind their actions.
In role-playing exercises, team members must do more than ask questions of the mock customer — they must also answer the question of why they took the approach they did in the conversation. This practice, called elaborative interrogation, requires the participants to form an explanation for a fact they’ve learned. The value of this approach is reflected in research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, which found that an elaborative interrogation group of learners had an accuracy of 72% compared to just 37% in the non-interrogation control group.
Creating this kind of learning environment means having a set of consultative role-playing exercises ready for participants. Here, we offer three role-playing exercises that have helped sales professionals across dozens of Fortune 500 companies. We have selected each of these role plays because they represent a range of scenarios likely to emerge across the buyer’s journey.
Finding the Sale: The Core of a Consultative Approach
The customer’s access to information, more stakeholders, and decreasing loyalty have all created ambiguity for sellers trying to distill the customer’s primary challenges. Overcoming these hurdles means engaging in a consultative approach. Doing so means preparing with role-playing exercises that aim to uncover the customer’s bottom-line need. In these exercises, sales professionals must demonstrate three key capabilities:
1. Avoid Seller-centric Behaviors
Sellers need to understand the person in the other chair. Doing so means forming an accurate diagnosis of their problem. This insight builds credibility that fosters trust. These steps are critical in earning the right to ask the incisive questions that bring about a dialogue. In an increasingly digital world, this connection offers real value. The customer must be at the center of all decisions.
2. Leverage Insights Gained through Questioning
Sales professionals must ask incisive questions during the role play. In doing so, they will educate the potential customer by helping connect the dots with the line that traces to the solution. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the stature of the business challenges. Unhappy customers need solutions. However, getting a full survey of the land avoids the false positivity that can catch both parties by surprise.
3. Build to Decisive Momentum
Sales professionals must guide the person playing the role of the customer through the dialogue by eliciting feedback. Sales professionals must get a sense of how well they understand the solutions. This periodic checking helps move the buyer to the next step.
Expanding the Sale: Enhanced Service
Success in selling often comes from exploring the customer’s broader needs. That is, existing customers represent strong opportunities to expand previous sales. The most effective way to do this during role-play is by training service professionals to adopt a new mindset. In doing so, the service professional becomes a sales rep because they seek ways to address the customer’s concerns by delivering unexpected value in the form of an expanded product or service. This approach means engaging in a three-part role-play exercise:
1. Foster Self-awareness
Self-awareness is about recognizing one’s own emotional tendencies and how they impact the customer. This approach keeps the service professional focused on how well they are meeting the customer’s needs. To understand how well they are meeting needs, the sales professional must continuously ask questions in the role play.
2. Engage in Active Listening
The path to the sale can be found in the customer’s words. The information they share eventually reveals core needs. Therefore, practicing active listening is critical because it is a way to remain focused on the customer’s responses. In contrast, passive listening is merely listening without understanding.
3. Avoid Anchoring
Anchoring is the act of relying on too little information. In this case, the sales professional risks jumping to a solution without a complete understanding of the customer’s challenge or goal. Uprooting anchors means having an open mindset in which all solutions are on the table.
Negotiation: Addressing the Customer’s Demands
The negotiation phase of selling is a high-stakes setting. The sales professional has invested weeks or even months to reach this point. All of those efforts begin to feel like sunk costs when unsuccessful negotiations threaten the sale. Under this pressure, sales professionals can easily succumb to the misstep of making a concession when confronted with the customer’s demands. Here, learners should engage in the role-playing exercise of controlling. Doing so means focusing on three skills:
1. Neutrally Acknowledge the Customer’s Demand
Sales professionals must signal that they have heard the customer’s demand. Doing so does not require agreement, it only requires labeling. In his book Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss, the former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI explains, “Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it.” By acknowledging the customer’s demand, the sales professional earns the right to ask additional questions to surface the unmet need.
2. Uncover the Need
In the role-play exercise, the sales professional should demonstrate listening skills that allow the customer to elaborate on their needs. The more the customer talks, the more information they reveal. This information will become critical to understanding the variety of ways in which the need can be met.
3. Shape Perceptions of Value
Sales professionals shape perceptions of value when they focus the customer on what they will gain by reaching an agreement and what they will lose by falling short. Creating this influence is important because it makes the customer more receptive to trade later.
Equipping a sales team with the sales training that translates to real-world scenarios means engaging in role play. This approach works because it goes further than merely asking sales reps what they think they should do. Instead, role playing requires them to show the trainer what they plan to do.