Practice makes Perfect: Why Sales Role-Playing Matters

Super Bowl XLIX was an instant classic between the two best teams in the National Football League. It came down to the wire, with an insane catch by the Seattle Seahawks right before an even more insane game-sealing interception by the New England Patriots.

The New England Patriots were Super Bowl champions yet again!

[image source_type=”attachment_id” source_value=”42820″ align=”right” width=”350″ height=”233″ quality=”100″] But what really stuck with me was something that Malcolm Butler – the undrafted rookie cornerback who made the game-ending interception – said the following day on his media rounds. He explained how he was able to make that pivotal play:

“At practice, they had that play. The scout team ran that same play, and I got beat on it. [Coach Bill Belichick] told me, ‘You gotta be on that.’ So memorization and preparation took over and I just said, ‘Jump the route and make the play.”

“I just did my job.”

Butler saw that exact play in practice. He got beat in practice. He took the criticism of why he got beat and internalized instructions from his coaches on what he could have done differently. He honed his craft all season. Finally, all that practice paid off on the biggest play, on the biggest stage.

This lesson – that hours of practice and preparation will pay off when it counts – is something that sales reps and managers should heed. And in sales, practice typically boils down to one exercise:


You Practice like you Play

In sports or in sales, it’s not easy getting young performers to buy into the rigor of practice. Simply put, practice is hard!

It’s a lot of repetitive grinding in the face of criticism. It requires humbling oneself. It’s easy to exert the effort and mental focus required to perform exceptionally when you know the rewards and plaudits are coming – winning the Super Bowl or closing a deal. It’s a lot harder to keep putting in that work when the stands are empty and there are no immediate rewards. As a young Allen Iverson once said, “We’re talking about practice – not a game!” (Cue link to unquestionably the greatest Youtube clip ever).

But that’s totally missing the point.

Natural talent alone won’t help you deliver results when it counts. No, the best players and sales reps put in hundreds of hours of so that when the time comes, all that repetition will have sunk in, and doing the right thing becomes instinctive second nature.

That’s why it is critical to practice like you play. In sports, this means going with the same intensity as you would if a Super Bowl is on the line. In sales, this means role-playing, making sure that as a rep, you’ve seen – and learned how to deal with – every possible scenario and objection that you will face once you get out in the field and on the phones.

How a Sales Roleplay Works

The practicing rep will call or have a sales conversation with someone else on the team who is playing the role of a prospect. The rep will then go through a typical elevator pitch and attempt to get the “roleplayer” to schedule a meeting, or whatever the typical goal of a sales call is for your company.

Reps should treat this exercise as seriously as if they were speaking to a real prospect. The benefits of such a roleplaying exercise include:

  • Allowing the rep to get comfortable speaking on the phone. This is especially important for newer reps who are still onboarding. If they’re not comfortable selling on the phone, they could use a lot of “Um’s” and “Uh’s.” Roleplaying is a good way to get those kinks out. You can’t fake confidence, and a rep who has put in her hours on the practice field will have much more natural confidence when the game starts.
  • Familiarizing themselves with talk tracks. Your team has a talk track that has proven to work, with an effective elevator pitch and value proposition. Your reps should have this down to a T, and to get to that point requires a lot of repetition and practice. This talk track should be firmly embedded in your reps’ minds and selling process.
  • Practicing different objection handling techniques. This is perhaps the most valuable aspect of roleplaying practice. Just as a cornerback might discover different techniques for defending the pass in practice, a rep can uncover different ways to handle the myriad objections they will face. Solving a timing objection isn’t the same as dealing with a pricing objection; the roleplaying practice field is the perfect opportunity to try different parrying tactics.
  • Seeing a wide range of “opponents.” Malcolm Butler knew how to defend that play because he had seen that exact formation and play run in practice before. Your sales reps should have experience with different types of prospects they might encounter on their calls. Have someone play the role of the jerk Sales VP, the uninterested gatekeeper and the powerless low-level sales manager for your rep to handle. By the time they get on the phones, they should be more than comfortable with whatever type of prospect is on the other end.
  • Coaching and learning. Finally, roleplaying exercises are a great way to look at yourself from an outsider’s perspective, the same way NFL players review film of their own plays. Sitting down with a sales coach to break down every aspect of your practice performance will only ensure that your “real” performances are that much better. It’s important to be honest when giving feedback; sugarcoating isn’t going to improve anyone’s performance.
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  • Making mistakes and failing. That’s the beauty of practice; you can make a million mistakes and there aren’t any real consequences…as long as you’re learning from your failures, of course. Get all the misses and mistakes out of your system before the actual game starts.


Of course, sales practice isn’t restricted to roleplaying alone, but it is essential to onboarding and effective for either trying new techniques in a low-risk environment or keeping your skills sharp. Once you’ve seen everything you could possibly see on the practice field and in your roleplaying exercises, the actual game will be that much easier, and your performance that much better.

Take a page out of Malcolm Butler’s practice book and habits, and you too could become a (sales) Super Bowl hero!

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