5 Things You Can Do To Not Hate Role Play For Sales Training in Retail

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Many sales trainers know they need to use role play to practice their retail sales training but shrink from the opportunity. That’s why I’m sharing the reasons for using role-play examples with your sales team as part of my creative ways to increase retail sales. 

What is role-playing?

Role-playing is like doing practice for a play. It’s where a sales manager or trainer impersonates a shopper in a specific customer service situation to take the education taught either online or in a classroom and bring it to life in the real world.

Role play helps take learning from theoretical and nice-to-know into real situations where the learner has to make the connections between what they heard and what they say. Using role-play consistently builds your sales team’s ability to empathize with customers and develop emotional intelligence. Training is emotional like selling itself, just like customer service, which should never be automated.

The more real-world examples they can practice before being presented with those situations on the sales floor, the more their confidence will build in using your sales process.

You use role-playing to make sure the first time a learner says something, it isn’t to a shopper where it could lose a sale. Instead, it allows you to coach and guide them to understand your process better.

Is there a difference between one-on-one and group role-play?

At its most basic form, all role play is just practicing possible scenes of something your crew might experience with a real customer. These times are usually brief and very focused on the learning being practiced.

While you can do this sales coaching one-on-one with you as the trainer playing the role of a customer, your position can often get in the way and make the salesperson feel they are being tested. That’s why I always prefer to role-play between two associates while observing, coaching where appropriate, and then unpacking the exercise.

You can also do role play in a small group setting where you stop and ask someone else to take over the salesperson's role. Or if you are training just managers, you can ask someone in the group to comment on what they just saw and ask them to give feedback. You can then call on another manager to act as their supervisor and comment on how well they did. 

The key is for everyone to stay engaged and feel like it is a real situation.

I was watching the film Uncorked on Netflix last night. It’s the story of how a young man rejects the idea of working in the family barbeque restaurant to pursue becoming a master sommelier in Memphis.

About 2/3 of the way through, a scene opens up with our hero approaching a table where a couple is already seated. He says he knows it is a special event, and they tell him it is their anniversary. He then suggests a Chardonnay from Napa.

When they question his choice of a California wine while they are in France, he quickly pivots to offer one from France. The couple argues with him; he gets flustered and spills their water while we cringe.

The lights come up, and we realize his teacher had been role-playing their customer service training. I love that he turns to the class and acknowledges they are bound to have to deal with angry customers and asks, “What could he have done differently?”

That’s how role-playing works. You commit to the learning coming out of it and see the role-play exercise as a way to prepare and then keep learners from making mistakes. It is a sharing, not a test.

Some people guard themselves at the least mention of role-play as something threatening. That usually happens because the learner does not feel prepared and becomes fearful.

That’s why you first must ensure you have fully trained the sales associate. If you want them to always thank a shopper by name, you better be sure you trained exactly how they find the shopper's name, when to use it, and what to say with examples. Otherwise, you’re holding them accountable for something they never were exposed to. And it can become a colossal waste of time

When you do it right, you are forcing their brain to put into practice what it absorbed through your training. You can begin role-playing with the most basic skills and work up to more complex ones as your learner demonstrates they can do, not just know what to do.

Star Trek: Wrath of Khan used role-playing in the movie's opening scene as a young Kirstie Alley navigates the no-win scenario in the Kobayashi Maru simulator. Only after all hope is lost and she orders the crew to abandon ship does the set open up, and Captain Kirk enters saying, Lights as Spock says, Trainees to the briefing room.

You don’t want this to feel like you are trying to get them to improvise or act; you just want them to practice what they’ve learned. When you first begin using this tool, you want to be clear - to remove as much fear as possible - and reinforce that this is just practice, not a performance.

So many people say they hate role-playing.


They don’t know what to say.

They don’t know how to do it.

They feel uncomfortable.

Most often, it is because they had a bad experience where they were unprepared, where role-play was seen as a test, and they failed.

5 Steps On How To Role Play For Sales Training:

  1. Confirm you have trained your staff on what success looks like.
  2. Create a character and give them a situation.
  3. Write out your instructions to the crew.
  4. Stay focused.
  5. Unpack and praise the learner.

Role-play how to make any customer feel welcome

Role-play can positively impact your team’s ability to make customers feel welcome. That’s because it’s not just the words you choose to greet a stranger but also the body language and positive attitude.

Just because you train someone with the proper greeting doesn’t mean the shopper will feel welcome. That takes practice, or your staff will ask customers some of the stupidest questions.

For new role-players, the first time participating in this make-believe scenario can feel like they are about to be pushed off the high wire at a circus with no net to catch them. 

To make the first time fun, simply have your associate stand in front of a mirror while you tell them who is coming in the door. The more descriptive you can be, the better. A man walking in with a bright green beard. An old couple stooped over their walkers—a pirate. A group of people dressed up like fruit. It doesn’t matter.

Your goal is to get them to have fun with the exercise.

Customers decide whether they want to accept your help within eight seconds of entering a store. That’s why the greeting is so important to role-play until your associate feels natural and confident they can open their heart to anyone.

Anything you can do to make them smile as they practice your greeting will go a long way toward making any shopper feel welcome.

Role-play listening and noticing skills

The power of listening without judging and confirming what someone says has never been greater. It is how we create customized interactions based on the psychology of personalization

Here’s an example of how to master listening skills from the role-playing guide in SalesRX, my online retail sales training program:

You could do many variations of this situation. Still, for our exercise, we’ll ensure they can demonstrate they are listening to a shopper and synthesizing what they say before moving on to product selection. 

Instruct the learner. Oprah Winfrey said years ago, “Everybody just wants to be heard.” We ensure that by saying back what we thought we heard. That way, we show we were listening, and they can correct us if we’re wrong.

Write out the character and situation, then give it to an associate in the customer role to read: I really hate how my dog’s hair gets caught up in my carpet. I have a Husky, so she sheds massive amounts of hair all year. I want to replace all of the flooring in my house with laminate, so it’s easier to sweep up. Then, I can also get one of those robot vacuum cleaners to go around cleaning 24/7, so I don’t get buried in fur. I’m not sure exactly what color flooring I want, but I know I want it to look like a hardwood floor.

Instruct the crew: “Today we will use role play to practice active listening, which is the foundation for relationship building. We need our customers to feel heard and valued; active listening will help us do that. It will also ensure we catch important details that we could otherwise overlook if distracted or not listening closely. Missing details can cost us a sale. Mastering active listening is a life skill that will also help you far beyond the sales floor. We’re looking to see how well they can take all of what a customer tells them and their ability to sum it up in a few sentences without asking the customer what they said.”

Say to your associate: “In this sales role-play, (name of your actor associate) will play the shopper and after you ask your qualifying question, they will tell you a story about what brought them into the store today. I want you all to listen closely and be prepared to repeat back what they said in your own words.”

Select where in the sale you want to start. You don’t always have to start at the beginning of the sale. In this case, we’ll assume the shopper was properly greeted, rapport was built, and the associate has now asked, “What’s your project today?” Go.

The associate in the customer role will read out loud what is on the slip of paper.

The associate you are instructing should be able to get the high points and use the process you taught them about summing up. They should say something like, “You’re looking for a laminate surface so you can easily clean up your Husky’s long hair but you don’t know which color. Did I understand you correctly?”

If the associate didn’t get all the details, still praise their efforts before moving on. Praise over punishment increases your learners’ confidence they can get it right the next time.

To finish the exercise, you can call on another associate to add on and fill in what your first salesperson missed. If you are role-playing with only one associate, praise first, then repeat the exercise with another example and let them try again. Your goal is to leave the training feeling they did it and not be afraid. 

To finish the exercise, say, “Today, practice active listening anytime a shopper is talking to you, and then repeat the important details in your own words so they feel heard. I’ll check in with you several times during the day to see how you’re doing and how the customers are responding to you.”

Check for understanding with the crew or the individual by asking, “Who can tell me one thing we discussed today? (wait for answer) Who can tell me one more thing we talked about?” Keep going until they repeat back all your key points.

And let’s not forget virtual retail sales professionals. With so many stores using remote selling, it is a perfect time to use these face-to-face training techniques on their ability to engage the shopper. 

What should you avoid when role-playing?

  • Don’t do this in front of customers. While you want to be on the sales floor, you don’t want employees to feel they are being watched and judged, so stop when customers enter. 
  • Beware of Kill the Leader when a group challenges whoever is leading the exercise and wants to argue about what was said. To avoid this, simply start another one. 
  • Instruct associates in the customer role in more advanced role-play that they are not to try to trip up the associate but not simply tell them whatever is on their role card. You want the associate to use your sales process to find the answers on their own.
  • Only doing role-playing once. Training must be something you do to create a culture of learning, not a checkbox on a sheet as something you did once and then put on a shelf.

    See also, 9 Powerful Tips To Grow Your Retail Sales With Role Play

In Sum

Most retailers have not created a customer service scenario for a trainee because they didn't think it was necessary. If they had a training manual or a video they made, they might have mistakenly felt the person was trained.

But without firsthand knowledge that an employee can have a sales conversation in the manner you want in your store, you are trusting they have a skill that most associates do not and cannot demonstrate.

It’s not enough that someone can complete a video or answer three questions; all that matters is if they can do it on your sales floor without you prompting, begging, or threatening them. That’s the only way to provide personalized experiences and avoid saying the same thing to every customer. 

That's partly why so many legendary brands are going out of business. They got lazy with customer service training and let competitors steal market share.

As the retail apocalypse wears on, you need memorable sales professionals who can execute the basics of engaging a stranger, discovering the shopper, and closing the sale. That takes creative role-playing. 

If you don’t invest in your employees’ basic needs for training and support, the best will simply walk away.

And you will have missed the one thing that can keep you in business, a shopping experience better than any of your competitors. 


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