5 Tips to Master the Art of Role-Play

How Role-Play Can Help Your Salespeople

Roleplay in Retail
••• Matthew Hudson

The most powerful and effective tool in the training and development of your retail salespeople is role-playing. Whether you're working on selling skills, service skills or product knowledge, role-play can be an effective tool in changing a salesperson's behavior. 

Role-Play As a Training Tool 

Role-play is probably the least popular training tool for retail salespeople. But here's the truth: Everyone role-plays.

You either role-play with a manager in a learning environment, or you can role-play with the customer. The difference is that one of these methods costs you money and one earns you money as a retail store owner. 

Role-playing in a controlled environment allows you to check for understanding with your salespeople. They'll always say yes if you ask them if they "got it" after training. Role-playing lets you see for yourself if they truly did get it. The principle of primacy, one of the principles of learning, says that people remember what they heard first. This means that if they see and learn the right way, that's what they'll remember. If they see and learn the wrong way, they'll remember that. So if they're allowed to "practice" new selling skills on a customer, the chances that they'll do it incorrectly are really high. And that's what they'll remember, so all your hard work and effort go to waste.


It's important to set the stage for the employee when you're role-playing. Let him know that it's a safe environment. Communicate why you're asking him to role-play. No one likes change and you're effectively asking him to change so you can anticipate some apprehension.

Role-play is a pressure-cooker environment.

You'll hear your salespeople say "But I'm so much better with customers! Of course they are—the customer doesn't know they're doing it wrong! 

Put the salesperson at ease and assure him that the purpose of role-playing isn't to catch him doing something wrong but to teach him to do it right. Encourage him by sharing your personal thoughts on role-playing, such as how you get nervous when asked to role-play in front of your peers, too. When possible, role-play with just you and the salesperson, not in front of the whole store. Millennials tend to be more at ease in front of the group, but your veterans probably won't be. 

Tips to Master the Art of Role-Play 

Here are 5 tips to master the art of role-playing in your stores:

  • Start small. Don't try to address the entire sales process at once. Focus on one part of the process. This allows you to drill down and focus on a specific skill. If you try and do too much, you'll overwhelm the learner and your effectiveness starts to go down. For example, role-play just greeting a customer. The other benefit of keeping things "small" is that it's less intimidating for the salesperson. He doesn't have as much to remember and there are fewer chances for it to go wrong 
  • Be specific. Give feedback on their performance after the role-play, and be specific. Avoid blanket phrases like, "You did a really good job." Instead, tell him exactly what you liked or didn't like. You might say, "I really liked how you used my name." This gives clear direction to the learner and ensures that your feedback is heard and received. It also dramatically increases the learning since affirmation calls attention to a specific skill. 
  • Be real. Too many managers think their role is to try to trip up the salesperson. In fact, this detracts from learning. Be real. Act like a real customer. Role-play the majority, not the minority — as the customer that most typically comes into your store, not the one who visits once or twice a month. If your salespeople are ready for the majority, your sales will go up much faster than if you focus on the minority. 
  • Be equal. This one might sound funny, but the principle is simple: Treat every employee in your store equally. This doesn't mean you have to treat them the same. If you have a veteran salesperson who is a top performer, you would handle this person's role-play differently than a rookie that just started two months ago. The key is that both need you to role-play with them. Don't make the mistake of believing that role-play is only for the rookie.  
  • Use video. Record the role-play when possible. This allows the salesperson to see exactly what you're referring too as you give feedback. Make sure you delete the video when you're done and promise them it will not end up on Twitter, Instagram or social media. The video is for you and the salesperson only—no one else. 

The Bottom Line 

The most important aspect of role-playing is that you follow up. Watch your salespeople on the floor and listen to find out if they're using the new skills or simply selling in the old way. The true test is when the salesperson thinks no one is watching. If he's using the new skills, make sure you praise and encourage him. What gets rewarded gets repeated

Having a culture of role-playing in your retail store is a tremendous advantage over your competition. Employees feel a strong sense of accountability to the training and new skills because they know you're watching them, both during the training and after. The immediate repetition and practice coupled with the accountability of performing the skill is the best way to change behavior. It also gives you the chance to praise and encourage the employee, which is always a plus for performance.