Dress Rehearsal: How Role-play Prepares Employees for the Sales Floor

A middle-aged man enters a mall-based J.B. Robinson Jewelers in Florence, Ky., at 3 p.m. on a Thursday and heads straight to a wall case of gold pendants. He asks the salesperson, a 17-year-old part-timer named Kate Peterson, to show him an opal and yellow gold pendant. Peterson removes it from the case and lays it on a display pad. As she stands there silently, the customer glances at the piece, asks to see a few others, then leaves. Peterson hasn’t said a word. A moment later, her boss appears. “What just happened?” he asks.

“I couldn’t talk,” recalls Peterson today, visualizing the employer who intimidated her into abject muteness. “I was terrified. I thought I had met God.”

Her boss was Larry Robinson, a well-known role-play expert in the jewelry industry and owner of the chain at the time. Instead of reprimanding her, Robinson challenged her-“Now you’re the customer, and I’m the salesperson”-and they proceeded to role-play. Robinson asked whom the pendant was for and what the occasion was. He queried Peterson about the recipient’s interests and deftly inquired into the relationship between her and the recipient. “Larry taught me to carry on conversations with customers,” says Peterson, a co-founder of Performance Concepts in Plainfield, N.J. “I made up my end of the role-play as we went along, but not him. The words came so naturally.”

Role-play as a training technique is just as valuable today as it was when Peterson was a novice sales associate. By acting out characters in particular situations, employees learn how to eliminate on-the-job shyness, prevent intimidation, extract personal information from shoppers, handle irate customers, overcome objections, retain product knowledge, and understand company policy. Role-play is the “dress rehearsal before the performance,” says Lane Roberds, manager of B.C. Clark Jewelers in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Rehearsing also helps employees eliminate “verbal fillers,” those cumbersome “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows” that can creep into our speech when we’re uncertain what to say. Role-play gives employees the opportunity to practice when there isn’t much at stake (except, perhaps, an employee’s ego).

Role-play, however, is not the easiest type of training to do. Some employees are reluctant to participate because the thought of acting in front of an audience-even a tiny group-makes them nervous. And to be effective, the technique requires dedicated time on at least a weekly basis, which represents a significant investment.

But the benefits gained from using role-play training are worth the time and effort, say its advocates. Those benefits include greater employee confidence, increased employee comfort on the floor, and noticeable increases in sales as tracked by individual sales associate.

Joe Romano, president of Scull & Co., a training and consulting group in North Bergen, N.J., embraced role-play only a few years ago, after watching a pair of industrial psychologists use it to illustrate points during a leadership seminar for retail jewelers. Romano now uses the method as much as possible when conducting training sessions. “Clients retain more during role-play than in note-taking,” he says.

Accentuate the positives. For 10 years, Jay Lell, director of education for the American Gem Society in Las Vegas, Nev., has endorsed the use of role-play in training. He suggests conducting the exercise in groups of three, with one person acting as an observer to provide feedback to the two “actors.” But allow each participant to play each role, he says. He advises an hour of practice-before your store opens-twice a month.

“Define employees’ goals for them at the start of the exercise,” Lell suggests. An opening scenario might require employees to “interview” a customer. The next scenario might involve showing merchandise to him. Give associates specific directions, Lell advises. He offers this example: “Ask employees to reveal two positives about a necklace a customer is considering for his wife’s birthday.” Write feedback on prepared “feedback sheets” or videotape the sessions for critiquing.

Twelve years ago, during a training session on selling better-quality diamonds, Lell learned that fewer than 1% of women own a 2-ct. or larger diamond. That little-known fact-courtesy of the Diamond Promotion Service-struck a chord with the ambitious group of jewelry sales associates. The next day, one of them mentioned it to a gentleman with whom he was conversing in front of the diamond case. The man grew silent for a moment, then said: “I’ll take that 2.25-ct. diamond ring in the case. I’d like to treat my wife.” Lell’s colleague made a $25,000 sale that day.

Make it a game. Mary Beth Kroh, assistant manager of Hamilton Jewelers, Princeton, N.J., sets aside 30 to 45 minutes each week-before the store opens-to let 14 sales associates act out relevant scenarios. In groups of three, staffers create dialogue based on an idea from Kroh, then critique each other afterwards. Once a year, she trains the same employees at a nearby country club. For five consecutive 9-hour days, staffers review product knowledge, company policy, and sales tactics. One hour of each day is dedicated to role-playing. When asked how long she’s been using role-play, Kroh says: “Forever. It’s what works.”

Kroh, a one-time amateur thespian, enjoys the spotlight and tries to get employees excited about role-play. “We make it a game,” she says. Staffers find out how to probe customers for shopping information and learn to rattle off product features quickly and effortlessly.

“Enhancements have been the best subject to practice role-play with,” says Kroh. Once employees understand that rubies are routinely heat-treated, they’re comfortable telling a customer. The day after reviewing disclosure during a role-play exercise, one of Kroh’s staffers sold a $15,000 ruby ring. “The customer said she bought the piece because the salesperson was honest, said the stone was heat-treated, and wasn’t awkward about saying so,” Kroh says.

Building confidence. For the past six years, from February to October, Roberds has dedicated three Saturdays out of each month to train 45 salespeople. For an hour and a quarter, the group reviews product knowledge, customer service, and coworker communication skills. Fifteen minutes of each session are devoted to role-play. Roberds poses situations to teams of two and tells them to improvise the conversations. (Example: A customer has brought the same watch in for repair on three separate occasions within a month.) The rest of the group observes, offering criticisms afterwards. Sessions are conducted offsite to avoid distractions. “It’s definitely a confidence-builder for the staff,” Roberds says of his training sessions.

Follow the script. Romano uses role-play twice a year at leadership retreats held in Short Hills, N.J., for two and a half days to instruct jewelers on succession planning and leadership skills. He uses four to six people per group, half “performing” and the other half critiquing. Each group member performs all the roles. In total, seven and a half hours are dedicated to role-play during the retreat.

Romano typically hands out succession worksheets to be filled out by participants. He critiques their responses, but when it’s time to role-play, he hands them scripts, written by him and his team. “We feel the exercise is more effective when the goal and conversation are mapped out,” Romano says.

He recommends that retailers conduct role-play in stores and use real product for props. He acknowledges that adhering to a strict training schedule is tough for jewelers and suggests squeezing in role-play time when it’s slow in the store.

Coaxing Cowardly Staffers

To overcome objections from reluctant staffers, remind them that role-play is not a test but a learning experience, and that mastering the technique will increase their salaries. Here are some other tips to encourage the dramatically challenged:

  • You go first. Have a manager, such as yourself, act in the first scenario. It lets employees see how it’s done before they have to try it, shows you’re a good sport, and proves your commitment.

  • Make it fun. Tell staffers it’s a game. Games are fun, and role-play is no different.

  • Vary group size. Role-play in groups of two as well as three. Perform the scenarios in front of small groups some of the time and in front of the whole staff other times. Know what puts people at ease.

  • Put staffers where they’re comfortable. If they like colored gemstones, suggest a scenario involving emeralds.

  • Go one-on-one. Some “nervous Nellies” might associate this exercise with previous bad experiences. Pull them aside and practice in private.

  • Ask for volunteers. Never force anyone to participate. (But see below.)

  • Put your role-play policy in writing. During interviews, let job candidates know that role-play training is a condition of employment.

What A Good Facilitator Does

Facilitators-usually store managers or owners-oversee role-play activities. They might suggest methods for sales associates to talk their way out of awkward scenarios, handle obnoxious “customers,” or stay on course to meet goals. To be a good facilitator, follow these tips:

  • Ask questions. Queries such as “What does this mean?” or “Why did that happen?” provide insights that transcend the role-playing activity itself.

  • Coach, don’t criticize. Say “What could you have done differently?” instead of “That was wrong.”

  • Define goals prior to role-play activities. Know what the goals are and tell them to participants. One goal might be improving customer service skills. Another might be learning to sell high-ticket items.

  • Make staffers comfortable. Offer choices for roles and scenarios to be acted out, smile, give praise, and even provide refreshments. Sales are about making people comfortable.

Games People Play

The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) is a resource for employers with learning and performance issues. ASTD publishes books, videos, and training aids, some for as little as $10 a copy. Titles include “Alternatives to Lecture,” “Get Results from Simulation and Role-play,” “Improve Your Communication and Speaking Skills,” and “Theatre-Based Training.” For more information, call (800) 628-2783 or visit ASTD’s Web site at www.astd.org.