Each week, sales reps have high-stakes meetings, and top athletes have high-stakes games. Prior to each meeting, top reps review the players who are likely to be in the meeting. Prior to each match, athletes review the opposing players for strengths and weaknesses. Sales professionals will set goals for the meeting and how they might achieve them. Sports teams establish a game plan that sets out the keys for success.

Each week, top athletes practice for several hours for each hour of actual game time. Sales professionals: Not so much.

Favorite Excuses

Could you imagine your favorite sports hero making these excuses?

"I don't have time to practice."

"Practice is embarrassing. My teammates might see me make a mistake."

"I'm good already. I don't need to practice. I'm better off winging it when it counts."

When business professionals make these excuses, I laugh. Let me address them one at a time:

"I don't have time." This simply means that practice and training is not a priority. You have time for anything that you make a priority.

"Practice is embarrassing." I guess if you are going to make a mistake, you'd rather it be with a big client in a situation where you lose a big sale and hurt your reputation. At least you didn't feel awkward with your co-worker.

"I'm good already." Does the best free-throw shooter practice less or more than others? How about the best musician or singer? In every field, the best hone their skills - selling is not an exception.

Practice Productively

Though I poke fun at the excuses, after working with many organizations and sales professionals, the problem with role play for most teams is that it lacks purpose, structure, and feedback guidance. Let me share the same concepts I employed to create the Same Side Improv card game. You can be successful following these principles on your own.


In each round, you need three characters: Customer, salesperson, and observer. The goal is simply for the salesperson to determine if there is a good fit, in which you have a potential solution to an important challenge for the customer. I use the term "improv" to remind you that the goal is cooperative in nature (at least early in the process). This practice, like athletic practice, will reinforce your skills and build your muscle memory.


Include variability. Make the customer's role, how you met, and their motivations variable each round. Though we use a card deck, you can use any creative scenario you desire to mix things up. Half of our deck includes "secrets" that customers rarely share. They include attributes such as, "You are trying to get free information," or, "You are facing budgetary pressure." Create real-world scenarios that change from round to round.

Ten minutes tends to be a good amount of time to engage a solid conversation. The goal is to evaluate if the client has an issue worth solving, and whether or not you can help.

Guidance for Feedback

After each round, the observer first shares what you felt the salesperson did well. Then the customer offers feedback. Each person can then offer one (and only one) suggestion on what could have been better.

If done properly, you'll find that role play or improvisation leads to laughter while building skills and team comradery. When you get in front of a live client and they say the exact same thing as you had rehearsed, don't bust out laughing. Instead, just know that you are prepared to hit their curve ball the same way a highly-trained athlete prepares for their performance.

It's Your Turn

How do you use role play to refine skills within your organization?