Role Plays in Practice

A look at how telephone based role playing can be a valuable tool for training customer service and sales employees.
Why, when every trainer is convinced of the efficacy of role play, do learners resist it as part of their learning?

When learners hear "role play", they imagine role playing with a co-worker, typically with their colleagues and supervisor looking on - it´s uncomfortable, embarrassing, impossible to suspend disbelief, and learners hate it.

A role playing experience should mirror a real world experience. If your customer service or sales employees work on the phone, it makes sense for role playing to occur on the phone. But it is most important that you choose the right role players, carefully craft the role play scenarios, give feedback from a customers point of view and coach using the language you have established in your learning materials.

Whether you outsource your role playing or do it in-house here are some tips for making it work.

Selecting Role Players
An effective role player needs a variety of skills, the most important is the ability to be in the role play and observe it at the same time - ie. Assess the skills while participating in the role play. As well, a role player needs to be able to: create realistic characters/customers, improvise realistic sales/service situations, portray a range of emotions, provide constructive, behavior-based feedback, and seamlessly direct the role play to include specific learning objectives.

It´s common just to pick two learners and ask them to role play a situation. This is not nearly as effective as having a trained person leading the role play. We hire professional actors as role players because actors intuitively have the skills I described above. Our staff also has related experience in psychology/coaching/ counselling/directing and teaching.

One of the courses we offer to one of our clients in the financial services industry is "Informing the Client of the Credit Decision". Our role players have the ability to actually cry when they hear that they have been turned down for a loan. The situation is so realistic that learners actually forget they are involved in a learning situation and are able to practice their skills in a safe structured environment.

If you are doing this in-house you may not be hiring actors, but you should be looking for the same traits: the ability to carry off a role and an understanding of the human condition.

Developing the Scenarios and Training the Role Players
Rather than just telling your role players, "play a customer" or "play a sales prospect", it is important to set up specific characters, with specific issues. This way learners get to experience and work through variety situations and the kinds of realistic scenarios they are likely to encounter.

Role players need to know enough about the business situation that they can carry off a realistic conversation. For example, if they are playing a sales prospect for industrial lubricants, then they need to be able to answer the questions the trainee sales rep has about their equipment.

Normally, we spend a lot of time developing the characters and scenarios for a training program. We take our clients through an extensive interview process, asking them about their typical customers, or most common problems. We also use the client´s own training materials (be it self-study or classroom led) to develop evaluation criteria.

Don´t just perform one role play with participants. I typically use five different scenarios for participants - from dealing with an "easy-to-deal-with customer", to dealing with a very difficult customer. If possible use different role players for each scenario. Using several people during the role play will help participants get a better feel for different customers and learn what type of customer "pushes their buttons". For example, one scenario we developed for a Sales course featured a customer who was cold, uncommunicative and arrogant. Many learners who had exceptional skills and handled the other customers extremely well, could not handle this customer type - one learner actually hung up in the middle of the role play!

Each scenario should have clear evaluation objectives. Objectives usually include both hard and soft skills. It´s typical for us to develop a list of forty or fifty evaluation criteria to cover things that should happen during a specific role play.

Tracking Results and Giving Feedback
It´s good to document how the participant performed in each role play. My employees use a system whereby comments about the participants´ performance are entered into an database (this can be accessed by participants after the sessions so they can see how they did), so the next role player working with the participant will know what was done well and what needs additional practice.

Each session should end with five to ten minutes of feedback and coaching. Feedback is always given from the customers´ point of view; coaching is couched in the language of the client´s own learning materials.

It´s important to make sure the learners feel good at the end of every call. This can be done by separating motivational and formative feedback. By the end of call, the participant should feel confident he or she will do better during the next call. You should also see clear improvement from one call to the next, if you are not, your training is not working.

Create A Safe Environment
Many times, employees are afraid their performance results will get back to their employers. This makes for a very difficult atmosphere, which inhibits learning. Make your role play experience a safe one - that is, let the participant know he or she can make mistakes without being penalized for those mistakes. Role play is about practice. We´ve had participants admit that they weren´t listening to "the customer". They would never be so honest if they thought this comment might get back to their manager. In role play training, it´s very important that participants feel comfortable enough to be honest with the role players training them.

Role plays can be much more effective then just a simulated conversation with another employee or a trainer. When role plays are customized to meet the needs of each employee, learners are likely to get more out of the experience. As I said earlier, since customer service and sales employees generally perform their tasks via telephone, their training should be done via telephone as well. Hiring actors to be "customers" instead of having co-workers or trainers do the job will also enhance the learning experience.

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