How To Improve Your Retail Sales With Role Play

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Updated June 19, 2024

Are you looking for ways to improve your store's sales? If you’re trying to grow your retail sales, role-playing is essential to your daily practice.

Retailers who are struggling fall into the trap of thinking their associates can sell without ever practicing a sales process.

Without practice, associates can’t improve.

In this article, I examine sales role-play in five fundamental ways and provide a guide for setting one up with your team.

It is not uncommon to hear people say they hate role play or can’t do it.

That’s nonsense. 

You role-play every time you work with a customer.

The difference is that when you consciously use role-play to turn theoretical learning into a practical use aspect, you must carefully guide the way.

If you’re trying to train new staff to sell your retail products, you must go beyond telling them what to do and instead give them a safe place to practice.

Do you watch the World Series? How do two teams get to a place where they can play at such a high level when so many fail?

Every aspect of play performance was practiced repeatedly, beginning during Spring Training and continuing to batting practice right before Game 7.

The stakes are too high for any player to just wing it.

Nothing is left to chance.

Compare how this relates to professional selling in brick-and-mortar stores.

So much work goes into the right location, the right product selection, and the right merchandising.

Yet where you would think every nanosecond of the selling process would be trained to create an exceptional experience and every step scrutinized for a shopper's reactions, that detail work is totally missing.

Everything is left to chance….and then the retailer blames Amazon.

It’s like the retailer decided to start a baseball team, hired anyone who could come to a game, expected the players to bring their own bats and gloves, and then held them accountable for winning the game.

To improve sales and increase conversions, you must include role-play scenarios in your sales training so employees can practice until they master the concepts.

I was recently at a trade show and went to various booths to see if I could write about their new products.

Almost without exception, each salesperson in the booth was rehearsed on what their product was but was not trained to connect the dots as to why someone would use it, who the best customer was for their product solution, or how to engage passersby.

It was almost like they were saying, we have this cake. It’s made of flour and sugar. It’s great.

They hadn't done any training sessions on the relevance of who would want the cake, how that cake competed against the other bakeries, or what the customer received by buying that cake.

Many brands and stores lack sales enablement. You have to hire better and give them training like my, but that’s only a start…

In baseball, it’s called practicing; in the sales world, we call it role-playing.

It is the one training area many retailers are oblivious to, struggle with, or have given up on.

That's a mistake because the more role-playing scenarios your team has under their belt, the less likely your sales force will sell from their own wallet, give bad customer service, or be stymied by some more margin-improving retail sales techniques like adding on.

How do you set up a role-play activity?

When I do sales training, I begin by talking about the right attitude toward selling and then instructing on body posture and active listening - all with the goal of teaching associates to open their hearts to another person.

I then take one piece of that sales training and have one associate become a shopper so they can role-play how to greet. After each role-play, I unpack what they did right and wrong, and we discuss the sales process. Once they can do that right repeatedly, I give them a week to practice that new behavior into a habit. Each week, I add another skill and have them role-play so they can get quick wins and feel good about their job.

But first, know these basic role-play principles:

The 5 Fundamentals of Sales Role Play

  1. Write it out. Selling role play works best when incremental, so make sure your sales process has step-by-step clarity so it can easily be broken into bite-sized elements. That way, you don't skip over any opportunity as you develop your role-playing scenarios.
  2. Make it fun. This is just play-acting. The stakes are low when it is just you and the employee - provided you've taught them well. But many salespeople will be afraid of making a fool of themselves, so make sure you do the first few exercises away from shoppers. The environment you create should be fun, so if you are trying to teach my Windows of Contact, put on a scuba mask when you are roleplaying so they laugh at the prop but understand the concept. The old saw that "what we learn with pleasure, we never forget" is still true.
  3. Establish goals. Do you want your sales rep to notice a customer's reaction? Say something new? Walk to a certain part of the store? Role-playing works best to isolate one aspect you taught them. Then, develop various scenes that gradually provide harder or more complex situations.
  4. Encourage collaboration. There are no correct selling role-playing ideas. You want as many different examples and role-play scenarios as you have shoppers. Role-playing is a great chance to get your other associates involved with your retail sales training, so encourage them to develop scenarios. Role-play a couple coming into your store after seeing a movie and still chatting about it, a guy just broke his wife's favorite dish, or a young adult is about to go on a job interview. Then have employees come up with other ideas and give them to another employee to role-play with a second associate.
  5. Reconstruct good and bad sales. Once your crew is used to role-playing, unpacking missed or made opportunities is an excellent way for associates to do even better the next time. To make it work, you become the original salesperson, and the original salesperson re-enacts what the shopper said and did in the situation.

You, as the manager, have to be up for the challenge and open to failure yourself, as sometimes there is nothing you can add. This exercise allows both of you to look for alternate ways to engage the shopper. Remember, it isn't about being right or wrong as much as it's about exploring options.

When coaching your staff, the goal is for your salespeople to show they understand your retail sales process and how to keep the conversation going. After your role-play, you both can unpack what went right and what could have been done better. This way, you train their brains to look for alternatives and not shut down.

One caveat: Beware of 'kill the leader.' When you ask associates to role-play, make sure they don't try every single time to trip up the sales presentation of the associate acting as the salesperson. It will just dishearten the learner and unleash a meanness in your training.

That said, as they get more comfortable with their performance during role-play, instruct your actors not to be pushovers but to be a bit off-putting or demanding. When they seem like they have your process down pat, make sure when the salesperson asks for the sale, your actor says No.

Role-playing never gets old…check out this video recap:

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Here are a few pitfalls of role play:

  • You might be uncomfortable playing out a made-up scenario. 
  • You might be intimidated by the idea that other associates can give feedback. 
  • And yes, some of your associates are bound to try to either trip up the person doing the role-play by asking or doing something outrageous, or they may try to make it all a joke.

But those are not reasons to avoid role play. They’re just excuses.

That’s why you must ensure your scenarios are tight, short, and only used to accomplish one thing – ideally one-on-one and not in a group. Tell them you’d rather they make mistakes in front of each other than in front of shoppers; this is just practice. You’re not trying to win over the other person. You do the role-play, we discuss, and then move on. Keep role-play short, maybe just 2-3 minutes per person.

9 Tips To Grow Your Retail Sales With Role Play:

  1. Tell your associates, “We’re here to improve our skills, not perform for applause.”
  2. Have the manager or trainer do the first one, so everyone sees everyone does this.
  3. Take it seriously. As you do more advanced role-plays, it may be easy to scoff at the exercise (the shopper is holding a stuffed alligator, for example), but the process you taught should still be used. You want associates to see the process, not the situation.
  4. Everyone is learning, so don’t try to trip them up.
  5. Have a beginning situation written out and tell the learner when the role play will end, for example, when the shopper says, “I’ll take it.”    
  6. Keep the role-play to one or two skills, not an entire sales process, until every step is fully understood and you can see them demonstrate each step as they build their confidence.
  7. One advantage of role-playing is that the learner has to deal with different situations, things the shopper says, and distractions. The key to learning is seeing them react consistently, not saying the same thing repeatedly.
  8. Unpack what happened. Ask the learner what they would do differently, how they felt it went, and how they think the shopper felt.
  9. If you are unpacking it as a group, give the ground rule to say not what you would have done better but to ask questions like, “Did you notice when they stopped listening to you?” “Did you hear her say, ‘But I also want?’” Also, if doing it in a group, ask what they saw that they could improve in their own interactions.

In Sum

Rejection is expected in selling, and more advanced retail sales role-playing can help even your newest part-timer learn how to welcome it.

Your goal in role-playing is to take the inexperienced clerk asking and answering questions to an associate excellent at professional selling in your store. Understanding role play will be difficult if you don't have a clear step-by-step sales process.

That's why before you jump on board with these role-playing games, you should explore my online retail sales training program The clear instruction and bite-sized lessons have helped one retailer increase business by 25%, another increase average check by 50%, and a regional franchisee had a record three stores named best in the history of 1600 locations.

One final role-play tip for the sales manager: When the scene is over, ask the associate what skills they could have improved before you give feedback.

That's where the real learning takes place - not you telling them but them connecting the dots and coming to the learning from a new place.

From that, they can handle almost any sales objections or sales competition. Use these tips and fundamentals of retail sales role-play to hit your sales out of the park.

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