I just landed $300K in funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Human Factors Group – historically a very difficult customer. The customer actually gave me $75K more than what I’d asked for... Dr. Ann Speed
Cognitive Psychologist – Sandia National Laboratories


Should your Business Development Training include Role Play Exercises?

How do you train the people who are responsible for New Business Development in your firm? Do you do the training yourself? Bring in a professional Business Development Trainer? Or try some sort of on-the-job approach, sending newer people along on visits to clients and prospective clients with experienced rainmakers? In all these scenarios, the issue of whether to do role play exercises is an important one.

Most people hate role plays.

But without them, how do you get your associates to practice having the kinds of conversations that can lead to actual, billable work?

And without practice, won’t they make their mistakes in front of actual prospects, who then perhaps won’t choose to work with your firm because their interest wasn’t cultivated and developed properly?

5 thoughts on this important subject: 

1.    There is a BODY OF KNOWLEDGE of what’s working, now, in selling professional services. You should be familiar with this data. If you haven’t had sales training in years, your own skills are out of date. Learning the facts about what’s working in selling, without hearing how those facts are used in sales conversations decreases the chances that you or your associates will change your behavior.

My personal experience is that it is very difficult to read all the sales research that’s available. And if you also try to read everything that’s being written on topics that relate to business development – such as information on what causes people to trust, how to make time for selling, gender differences in communication – it’s nearly impossible to read it all. I do this for a living, and I struggle to keep up! Anyone who does something ELSE for a living, but who wants to stay current on business development skills is setting themselves an impossible task! 

You can learn the principles of good selling, but without practicing how to use those principles in business development-type conversations, you’re going nowhere. An experienced and talented sales trainer can engage your associates in role plays by asking them to play the prospect, while the trainer plays the services professional (the seller). Often people are willing to throw their toughest sales challenges at a trainer – especially when they are protected by the assurance that no matter what they say, they cannot be wrong (because they are the prospect). They can even end the conversation!  

Once people have engaged in role plays by playing the prospect, typically someone – often the sales leader – will volunteer to be the seller. Since at this point we’ve already learned an up-to-date set of sales principles, we can then view their selling effort in the context of the new learning and break it down: what principles that we’ve been learning were present in this conversation?

2.    Don’t confuse service- or product-training with sales training. Of course it’s crucial that your associates understand what your firm can do for its clients. But that’s not the same as knowing how to structure a conversation with someone who might actually spend money to purchase your firm’s services. 

Understanding what your firm can do for people is essential, but by no means assures you of success in business development. Selling is NOT just talking about what you can do, it’s understanding what your potential client may need – even when he or she is unaware of what’s possible! Engaging a prospect is more challenging now than ever before, and it’s important to know how to challenge prospects, and then to develop their interest, in what you and your firm can do. That’s not the same as spouting off about your services or track record! Role plays are great for illustrating the principles of how best to structure conversations with buyers.

3.    Think seriously about whether accomplished rainmakers in your firm can teach others how to sell. Many of these people cannot, themselves, articulate what they actually do to bring in clients and new revenue. And among those who CAN articulate what they do, most are too busy doing their rainmaking to develop a course about how to do what they do! There’s a difference between being able to DO and being able to TEACH. To teach selling, you want someone who can do BOTH well, and who can illustrate with role play examples.

It’s difficult to interview a successful salesperson and learn their skills. Even if inexperienced business developers could travel with successful rainmakers, observing meetings with prospective clients, the chances aren’t good that the inexperienced person could replicate all of what they’ve seen. Selling is at least partly a matter of personality. But contemporary selling is founded on some solid, basic principles that your associates need to learn. The good news is that, once you have a common “business development language” it’s easier to grasp what a successful rainmaker is doing that’s working! Using role plays, an experienced and talented sales trainer can showcase a rainmaker’s skills, and then help others to understand the principles that underlie the rainmaker’s approach. 

4.    To make effective selling principles come alive, consider bringing in a sales training expert to structure the learning and the role plays, and expect a VERY CLEAR ROI. Keep track of the cost of the sales training effort, and then watch what happens in dollars of new revenue coming in the door of your firm after it. If you see a bump in new revenue, that’s good. But ideally you should see a sustained higher level of sales results.

Look for an experienced sales expert who works primarily with those who sell their services, and ask for references whom you can call on your own. Ask those references for their experience … did their people learn how to use the selling skills in actual conversations? And be sure to inquire about their ROI on the sales training effort. Our company’s experience is that the ROI is typically about 2,000% in Year 1. That means that, one year after working with me, the vast majority of clients have $2,000 in new profits (not new revenue) for every dollar they spent in hiring me.

5.   Do something rather than doing nothing. People don’t learn to sell by osmosis – accelerate your results by getting a little business development training and role play practice, then assess your results and, if they’re strong, do a bit more.

Often the second training is to push the selling skills down lower in the organization. Even new recruits can be the “eyes and ears” of the firm, identifying possible sales opportunities by networking (effective networking is also best illustrated by role plays!), and turning those opportunities over to the partners to be closed. When they’re sales-aware, more junior people are also better able to identify cross-selling opportunities to current clients, as they tend to be with the clients more on a day-to-day basis. If they’ve had role play practice, they are more likely to have business development-type conversations on the job.
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