Sales role plays: Let the experts take the stage
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Sales role plays: Let the experts take the stage

Any experienced sales manager has probably resorted to the time-honored tradition of the role-play in their sales meetings.

You know how it goes: A couple of reluctant salespeople are dragged up in front of the group to practice a skill you want your people to refine — the elevator pitch, the telephone cold call, the on-point discovery question. They self-consciously stumble through it, then leave the “stage” with wry grins and a visible sense of relief.

And what, exactly, has been learned? Probably not much. Your role-players were so focused on themselves — on saying the right things in front of the group and not looking ridiculous to more experienced colleagues who were watching — that they didn’t have the bandwidth to think about the skill they were supposed to be improving.

Does this mean role-playing is a technique you should drop from your training repertoire? Not at all. But, according to behavioral research, you might want to reverse the positions of the audience and the actors.

Switch it up

The tendency is to take less-experienced reps and drop them into the role-play, on the assumption that they’ll benefit most because they’ve got the most to learn. Then the old hands in the audience can critique their performance.

But research led by a team of university professors in Munich, Germany, tells us that’s backwards. The German researchers set up an experiment where 200 medical students learned doctor-patient communication skills through role-playing, and, separately, from watching a role-play. The students’ knowledge of the target skills was tested before and after each exercise, and the researchers found they learned more from watching than from role-playing.

We already saw why: Inexperienced role-players aren’t thinking about the material you want them to learn. They’re usually overwhelmed with performance anxiety. But if they watch a role play done by folks who know what they’re doing and aren’t nervous about it, they will think about the material and how they should apply it.

Conclusion: For a better learning experience, have your best salespeople do the role play while their greener colleagues observe.

Why do role plays at all?

But, you may be asking, why not just skip the whole role-play deal and have your top people explain to the others how they deploy their sales skills?

Here’s why: Top salespeople usually can’t explain what they do that makes them successful. And they aren’t alone. Experts in any domain have the same problem.

Research done at Stanford University shows how it works. The researchers had experts in electronic circuitry try to explain a wiring problem to a group of novices, students with little knowledge of physics or electronics. Separately, novices were asked to explain the wiring problem to other novices. The researchers found that learners made more mistakes, and took longer to finish the wiring task when they were instructed by experts rather than by fellow novices. Why? The researchers found that the experts tended to use abstract instead of concrete language — for example, they would describe a circuit as “open” rather than pointing out that one specific wire hadn’t been connected with another.

What the research describes is sometimes called the curse of knowledge, or the curse of expertise. Experts have a hard time transferring their knowledge to non-experts because they literally think differently. They’re looking at the big picture, so they tend to communicate in abstractions. But novices need to hear about the specifics. Your less experienced salespeople need to hear exactly what language experienced reps use in specific situations.

Making best use of resources

Obviously, you want to transfer as much knowledge as you can from your veterans, those reps who have been to the wars and repeatedly come back with colors flying and order books filled. You’re wasting resources — and maybe letting your newbies wilt on the vine — if you don’t make that happen.

These research studies tell us that the best way to unlock that storehouse of accumulated expertise is to put your experienced reps up in front of the group and have them reenact the people skills that they’ve mastered over time. Don’t expect them to explain their success, because they probably can’t. Just let them show it.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module, “How to Get More of Your Reps Selling Like Your Top Reps,” based on the following two research studies:

  1. Hinds, P.J., et al. (2001). Bothered by abstraction: The effect of expertise on knowledge transfer and subsequent knowledge performance. J Applied Psych 86, 1232-43.
  2. Stegmann, K. et al. (2012). Vicarious learning during simulations. Medical Education 46(10), 1001-8.

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