How role-playing can level up your customer interactions

Mark Eggers, 7 min read

How role-playing can level up your customer interactions

This is the third step in my FOREfront method series. You can catch the overview here, first step here, and the second step here.

We’re up to the “R” in FOREfront which stands for “role-play”. We’ve all role-played before - from playing dress-ups as kids to the always awkward ice-breaker games - role-play is a part of life. It can be an awkward part of life, but it can also be a very useful, rewarding part as well. Today I’m going to go over how to do role-play right, and how it can be used to level up your customer service game.

First off, what is “role-play” and why is it important?

“Role-play” encapsulates any time you step into another person’s shoes, and act as them for a little while. In a customer service context, the person whose shoes you’re stepping into are your own, but it’s you in a critical context: customer interactions.

You might think, ‘Mark, don’t be silly. I don’t need to practice being myself, I am myself.’ And you’d be right. But I’m not telling you to practice being yourself, I’m telling you to practice responding to customers. Because customers are unpredictable, varied, and will throw 30 new things at you every hour. So you’ve got to be able to keep up, to adapt, and respond to anything and everything they’ve got for you, in an authentic way.

Your ability to respond to any and every customer interaction calmly and effectively is the difference between customers turning into recurring revenue for your business . And the best way to ensure you’ve got the skills to delight the customer each and every time is to practice, or in other words: role-play.

Role-play is invaluable to customer service for three reasons:

  1. It provides an opportunity to teach: By the time a staff member is interacting with a customer, it’s too late. Role-playing sessions allow you to see how your team responds to various situations in a safe space that won’t jeopardise your brand, get ahead of the curve and solve problems before they begin.
  2. You can give immediate feedback: Role-play allows us to learn from our mistakes, without the real world consequences. role-play sessions are opportunities to workshop different scenarios and potential responses, and from there, figure out the best way to respond.
  3. It embeds natural behaviours: Hypothetically, you could write out a (often cheezy sounding) script for your staff to read from. But when someone is face-to-face with a customer, they don’t have time to read from a script. role-playing allows us to practice and embed natural behaviours, so you don’t need a script at all.  Your customers will notice the authenticity!

Implementing role-play

If you read my previous FOREfront article, you’ll know how important it is to foster a culture of customer obsession in your business. Well, part of fostering a customer-obsessed culture is implementing customer-service role-play sessions from someone’s very first few weeks at work.

If you’ve read the article you’ll also know that customer obsession isn’t a one-and-done exercise. Rather, customer service obsession is a perpetual exercise. So it’s not enough to run a role play session once; it needs to be a regular, repeated exercise.

At Yarno we run monthly role-playing sessions. While it can be a little awkward for first timers, it’s amazing to watch someone grow more confident and sometimes, even start to have a bit of fun with it!

Some important interactions to role-play include:

  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Responding to objections
  • Complaints handling

However, these will vary between businesses. A good place to start is to ask what common interactions your staff have with customers, and where they can go wrong. From there, role-playing sessions can be structured to practice these situations, and overcome common problems.

Before the session: pre-work and pre-reading

At Yarno, we have a rule: meetings are for discussion and collaboration, not for reading or imparting information. Before a meeting, we send out any necessary pre-reading or information, so that the meeting can be as constructive and collaborative as possible. You don’t need other people present to read through the material.

With that in mind, before organising a role-play session, I recommend sending out your scenarios beforehand. Ensure that everyone takes the time to read through them, so that the session isn’t about explaining and guessing, it’s about working through the scenarios, and getting feedback.

The pre-reading doesn’t need to be long or dense - you just need to include enough detail so that everyone knows what to expect. This also means that if something isn’t clear, they’ll have their questions locked and loaded and you can clarify any misunderstandings at the start.

As I mentioned above, the content of your role-play sessions depends entirely on your business. For example, at Yarno our support team often deals with customers who are having trouble with their password, so they can’t log in. It’s an important issue, so we might send out the following scenario:

Scenario: Somebody has called the Yarno support phone. They’re angry. “Your stupid system won’t let me log in even though I keep entering my password! It keeps telling me it’s wrong but I know it’s right!!”

To deal with this scenario, we would use the Acknowledge, Align, Assure (“AAA”) framework, which I’ve written about before. It’s a simple three-step framework that allows you to turn any customer interaction (even a hostile one like the one above) into a delightful customer experience. So, in my pre-reading for this role-play session, I would include the scenario above, and some information on the AAA framework, and say that we’re going to role-play customer interactions using the AAA framework.

Then, I’d give everyone a day or so to let the information percolate, before jumping right in.

The session itself

If you’ve followed my advice above, before you get to the session, everyone participating should have read over the scenarios. If they’re diligent (or trying to impress you), they may even have practiced a little bit by themselves.

Running a role-play session is pretty simple. Get everyone together, and assign roles. You might find people a bit reluctant to put their hand up for a role to start, but over time, as they get used to, and comfortable role-playing, you might even find they enjoy it. One rule we have at Yarno is that newcomers don’t have to jump in straight away - they can hold off till next session (though some people choose to get their hands dirty from day one!).To continue the scenario above, you’d need to find someone to play the customer, and someone to play the service assistant. Then, you simply let them loose and observe.

Giving immediate feedback

While it can be a bit daunting, the biggest advantage of a role-play session is allowing the team to give immediate feedback on the role-players. There’s a knack to giving feedback, so you might even want to run a role-play session on how to give feedback first, to ensure that the feedback given is actually constructive and doesn’t result in hurt feelings or animosity. We actually run monthly feedback sessions at Yarno, to avoid this problem.

When done right, feedback is invaluable. I’ve said it a thousand times: if you don’t know, you can’t grow. When we run role-play sessions, we invite everyone involved to give feedback. However, you might find that it’s best to have one or a few designated feedback givers, it’s whatever works for you and your team. What’s most important is that feedback is given,  because you can’t do it right if you don’t know you’re doing it wrong. And doing it as a group means that you can all workshop responses to each scenario, meaning that even those not cast in a role will learn and improve off the back of the session.

Below is a look at how we run feedback role-play sessions at Yarno. Our MD, Lachy, shares the scenarios with us prior to the session via Miro, and then during the session we workshop and discuss each scenario. We then break each scenario down into Behaviour, Impact, whether or not feedback should be given, what explanation there could be for the behaviour (“seek to understand”), and through what channel feedback should be given. Everything is documented so we can refer back to it when we need.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

If you want to get the most out of role-play, it needs to be repeated. We are creatures of habit. Repetition allows us to embed practices. When you do something enough times, it becomes a habit. When something is a habit, you don’t have to think about it; it’s just what you do. Meaning that your staff won’t be caught out in the middle of an interaction wondering what to do or say; they’ll respond naturally and thoughtfully without a slip-up, every single time.

Wrap up

Once you lean into it, role-play isn’t awkward, it’s useful. Role-playing scenarios means you can learn from your mistakes, without the real world consequences. And, once you practice something enough, it becomes embedded in your daily habits. You’ll find that role-play sessions really level up your customer service game, so much that your customers rave about you, and keep coming back.

Mark Eggers

Mark heads up the Sales team at Yarno. He loves to chat, which is fortunate because he’s very good at it. He's our digital Swiss Army Knife, always armed with a solution to any problem.

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