It's plain old theatre folks. Some like it; some don't. While we cannot defuse false anger (Nancy circa 1990), there are those who like to role play and feel it's one of the more successful techniques in customer service training.

I'm not a big fan of role playing. (More coming on that with a Regis Philben story when I appeared on his show.) However, there are those who are and I do want to give you some ideas for those that do enjoy role playing in their training.

The process involves the trainer presenting the role play scenario and asking for volunteers to play the roles. (Volunteers meaning YOU.) The trainer provides the ground rules. Then selected trainees act out the scenario and the entire class analyzes the role playing.

Consider two approaches:

In the first, the players can attempt to think, speak, and behave like someone else. Being an irate customer is a natural role play for customer service training. This can teach the trainees to identify with other people and their problems, and to appreciate different perspectives. But again, it's very difficult to defuse false anger.

In the second approach, the players are themselves and report a particularly frustrating experience they have had as customers. This makes is more 'real.'

While role playing can be conducted in pairs or small subgroups, the procedures are quite effective when staged in front of the entire class. (Yes, scary if they're not use to, but get a life.) All trainees can normally, therefore, find ways to handle the roles. Alternative solutions can be tried which reflect company policies and various methods of dealing with customers.

To enhance role playing, use probing questions during the analysis of the scenario to guide trainees to arrive at workable solutions:

How well can you predict the reactions of the irate customers?

How else might the situation be managed?

What are effective approaches you have used?

In summary, what have we learned from this?

A ready list of subjects about customer problems from which the players can choose for role playing and discussion is helpful. Here are a few both in-person and on the phone.

  • The store employee has just told you the item you want is out of stock. That's all they said. Play the scene out.
  • In calling a company, you're trying to reach a human being and all you get is the automated attendant. Finally, someone answers. You want to know why you were not able to reach a human more quickly.
  • You're trying to purchase an item and the person assisting you only gives one-word answers.
  • You need someone to help you. After waiting in line for several minutes, you see that the clerk is fiddling with some paperwork, ignoring you. When asked if you could be helped, you're told to "hang on a sec. I'll be right with you."

If these role playing scenarios seem close to home, it's because most of us have experienced them. It brings everyday occurrences to the customer service training class. It's a way of making the training realistic.

Role playing demands some skill and practice on the part of the trainer. Deft handling of participants is needed. But you'll feel an enormous sense of accomplishment when you get an attendee, who may not have wanted to role play, up in front and being excited about pretending to be a customer!

There are those who might refuse or feel uncomfortable about role playing. If that's so, they may feel odd about handling a service 'experience' as well. Just saying.

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Nancy Friedman , president of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training, is a featured keynote speaker and subject matter expert on customer service and communications skills at franchise, association and corporate meetings. She has appeared on OPRAH, Today Show, CNN, FOX News, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning and hundreds of other radio and TV shows. She has been published in the Wall Street Journal with her column, "Don't Strike Out with Your Customers." Nancy is the author of eight books on sales, communications skills and customer service. She is the spokesperson in the popular Telephone Doctor customer service training programs.

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