Ready to Role (-Play)

By Malcolm Fleschner

Properly executed, a sales training program should be informative, entertaining and invigorating for all participants. And one of the most effective tools trainers use to accomplish this goal is role-playing. Yet some pharmaceutical salespeople remain unconvinced about the power of role-playing. “It’s not realistic enough,” “I don’t see the point” and “I feel silly pretending to be on a real call” are a few of the objections trainers are likely to hear prior to a role-playing exercise.

But as Jamie St. Peter, senior vice president of the North Carolina-based Corporate Training Consultants, Inc. (, points out, role-playing is perhaps the most powerful training tool available to help teach pharmaceutical salespeople how to take all the detailed product and disease state information they’ve learned in other modules and apply it to real-life situations in the field. One approach she suggests for making role-plays work is to involve the participants in the development process. “The more information and structure you place around role-play, the more your reps will get out of it,” St. Peter says. “Provide realistic scenarios for reps to utilize during the exercise and make sure all participants know their roles for the activity. Often representatives complain that the scenarios they’re given often don’t reflect realistic situations in their own territories. Consequently, it can be even more effective (and require less preparation time on the facilitator’s part) to allow participants the opportunity to create their own scenarios at the beginning of a role-play session. This encourages reps to take ownership of the activity because they are empowered to make it about situations that matter to them.”

One of the primary selling points of role-playing is that it’s much more fun for participants than most classroom-style training. St. Peter agrees, but cautions against letting the entertainment aspect overshadow your primary goal: education. “We use an analogy that fun is like nitroglycerin – when in the hands of someone who understands how to use it, it can be a very powerful substance and enhance your efforts,” St. Peter says. “However, if used by someone inexperienced, it can blow up in your face. So, it is important to not let the ‘fun’ of an activity take away from the learning. A well-designed activity will serve as a catalyst and enhance learning. When designing an activity, focus first on the learning objectives, and then identify a fun activity to facilitate the learning.”

Once the role-playing exercise is finished, a training class should be ready to head back into the classroom for another session, right? Not quite. To get the most out of a role-play, St. Peter says, participants should spend a period of time afterwards answering specific, targeted questions about what went well, what didn’t go well and strategies for improvement. Some examples of good post-mortem questions she suggests posing to drug reps include:

  • Would someone like to brag on a colleague? (This is a good icebreaker to get representatives to start opening up.)
  • For those of you playing the physician, tell me some good questions that representatives asked you during the call. How did you feel when asked those questions? Why?
  • If you could have a “do-over” for the role-play, what would you do differently and why?
  • What information did you learn about your “physician” during the role-play?
  • For those of you playing the “physician,” did you feel your needs were addressed during the call?
  • Lastly, based upon the role-play, how likely are you to prescribe product X?

Everyone agrees that to succeed, pharmaceutical salespeople have to know their products and disease state cold. But they also need fundamental people skills, the ability to think quickly on their feet and a facility with a range of personality types. As St. Peter points out, role-playing provides an ideal, safe atmosphere for pharmaceutical reps to explore and expand on these “softer” skills before trying them out where it counts – face to face with a physician.

“Sales is a dynamic business and reps are always being given new information about their product, new ideas and new tools for selling,” she says. “Often, they are overflowing with facts. I think we can all agree that the customer is not the person we want to try this stuff out on for the first time! Through role-playing, representatives are able to get everything clear in their minds in advance. And when they do meet with their customers, they walk into that customer’s office knowing that they’re ready to flawlessly execute the call, completely prepared to meet any objections doctors might throw their way.”