Fable Friday: How to make role play work as a training tool

One of my clients negotiates payments between their insurance company customers and the health care providers who send the bills. My client makes its money by taking a cut on what they save the payer.  I help their sales team with calling skills and their telephone negotiators with negotiation skills.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedIn one of our sales team workshops we discussed a tactical approach to a delicate conversation, and one of the learners raised her hand and said, “Let’s role play it.” Because I seldom hear this from a workshop participant, I was surprised and pleased.  What I have learned over the years is that the more committed and engaged the employees, the more willing they are to do anything they can to improve. Not everybody hates role play.

In my last post here I talked about the down side of role play, when it doesn’t work. But because it is such a powerful learning tool, let’s balance the scales today and share some best practices that will make it more effective.  Here are three ideas to consider in using role play to train your sales team:

Keep them short—Practice short, realistic scenarios.  There is less discomfort, greater concentration and greater likelihood of retention.  For example, at a sales meeting you’re discussing how to open the on-site call. After various ideas have been shared, say to your team, “You are making an on-site call to a good prospect.  After the introductions when everyone is seated, what’s the first thing you should say?  (Name), you go first.”

Provide expert, relevant feedback—Remember that practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.  This means that whoever is giving the feedback should have some expertise. If you’re the sales manager or the training facilitator, it’s usually you. In the scenario for opening the call above, it’s good to have other team members share their best practices when it’s their turn, but make sure the feedback is on target and provides specific help.  Say, “It helped when you asked the prospect to comment on the agenda you sent. It was a useful way to get him engaged right away.” Don’t say, “You asked a couple of good questions.” See the difference?

For this same reason, short fishbowl role plays, in which each learner practices before the entire group, are preferable to learners working in pairs where the partner may not be competent to provide useful feedback.

Use a structured feedback model to build confidence—My preference is to seek comments from the learner first about what went well, and have others comment specifically on the same topic, to reinforce positive behavior. Only then do I allow the learner to talk about an opportunity for improvement, which allows for self-discovery and commitment and keeps the learner from being daunted by the negative data dump of what he didn’t do well.  “You didn’t ask enough open-ended questions and you forgot to mention the promotion…” Unless I nip this early, there is a tendency for the other team members to overload.  Once the learner acknowledges a key area for her own development, you’re pretty much done with the feedback.

Keep in mind that role play, along with simulation, is the most powerful of all experiential learning tools, so don’t abandon it. Just work harder to use it well.

If you have tips, ideas or practices that work well for you, please feel free to share them in your feedback.  My wife keeps telling me I don’t know everything and of course she is right.

Think Like Your Customer

How useful is role play as a training tool?

One of the brightest consultants I know is Ned Miller of MZ Bierly Consulting.  Ned has a strong background of experience and skill in training and consulting, and is a gifted writer.  We are connected on LinkedIn and I enjoy his posts.

I mentioned to him that I was intrigued by this comment about him on his LI profile:  “While working with Linda Richardson, he developed an aversion to role plays that continues to this day.”

My thinking was that if Ned has reservations about role play, he must have good reason, and since I use role play a lot in my own training programs, I wanted to be sure I had an objective view of when role play is helpful and when it may go wrong.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedSo let me take Ned’s point of view and point out some danger areas, so that as a sales manager or trainer you yourself don’t simply say, “Oh, let’s just have them role play it,” with no thought to the objectives of learning.  (Admit it, you do this too!)

Safety and comfort—There’s no getting around the fact that many people just don’t like role play. As powerful a learning tool as it can be, it does make some people squirm.  From a trainer’s perspective, remember that you have an obligation to provide a safe, comfortable learning environment. People learn best when they are engaged but also relaxed. Consider that frequent role play, especially fishbowl (which I use often) can be difficult for some learners in your group.

Observer competency—Someone must observe the role play for the purpose of providing feedback, because useful feedback is the key element of the learning.  The role player must have help in seeing what was effective and what needs improvement, or you don’t get the desired benefit. But often the observer is a colleague of the role player with the same knowledge and skills and may a) not know what is effective or not, or b) not know how to phrase the feedback to benefit the role player.  How many times have you heard the observers perform a complete audit of the role player, listing everything they thought the role player “did wrong” or left out? That’s not useful feedback.

Facilitator monitoring—I know I can’t hear everything that’s said in every role play of groups of pairs, and usually I’m the best equipped to provide feedback.  I can’t be everywhere at once.  In a recent session I was working a group through an objection handling model, the first step of which is to make a statement of understanding or empathy after the customer objection. Just about all trainers use such a model.  As an example, we used price as the objection. I asked one participant to role play what he would say to a customer who said, “Your price is too high.” His response:  “I completely understand that you might THINK our price is too high…”  My first thought was that this approach showed no understanding or empathy whatsoever, and would probably lead to an argument.  My second thought was that I was glad I got to hear it. Suppose he did the same thing in isolation with a partner. He would have learned nothing.

Next week I’ll give you some ideas on how to use role play effectively and avoid some of these pitfalls. But until then, go have a look at Ned’s profile on LinkedIn.  He’s a pretty sharp guy.

And of course always remember to…

Think Like Your Customer