Using Role Play to Develop “Muscle Memory”

An article written by Bill Jacobs

Many golfers often feel glory or frustration after an enduring round of 18 holes and having had a recent experience on the golf course, I can speak for many golfers who find the game difficult. So why is that? Personally, I have only been able to eke out 8 rounds this year and although some of you are envious of this accomplishment, most of the low handicap golfers have played this much golf every two weeks. Here in lies the foundation of the trainer’s message… those who perform well, PRACTICE.

As trainers, we can relate to practice since we preach the practice message to everyone who graces our training halls. Under the premise that the more an art or skill is performed, the higher the proficiency, we can begin to evaluate how we perform training. Many of the same training methods, which were deployed in the past 10 to 15 years to train Pharmaceutical and Biotech representatives, have not changed significantly. Think about your own training… Do you have Phase I and Phase II training? Do you invite a physician (thought leader) to speak to the class? Do you spend 80% of live training in a classroom setting? These approaches are not new and most companies currently use all or part of these training methods. Since the majority of trainers are currently using these methods, we have rarely questioned the effectiveness or need to run these didactic programs. Consider these two questions are: “Are we serious about changing how we currently train?” and “Does the training include enough simulation?”

First, “Are we serious about changing how we currently train?” is a question that is typically outside the comfort zone for most trainers. In most cases, the reason(s) for not changing what we do as trainers far outweigh the pain of change. It takes training managers with incredible amounts of intestinal fortitude to make changes from the status quo. Change also takes effort and hours which most trainers have maxed out due to staff limitations, budget cuts, and the limited number of hours in a day. Change also requires review by legal and regulatory committees and medical associates who need to (and I think enjoy) scrutinize every “i” and “t” in your recommendations.
The response to the second question “Does it include enough simulation?” depends on how you define enough. I always thought we did enough role-play when I was a head of the training department. I was wrong. So what is enough? I believe enough is defined as the amount of training it will take in order to change a behaviour. If you liken the “art of selling” to a sport or art, how much time would you spend in classroom versus hands-on? Using golf as the analogy, how much time did you spend in the classroom to learn how to golf? How many PowerPoint slides did you see? And did they invite Tiger Woods to speak during a golf clinic? This sarcasm will be appreciated by some, realizing that the parallel is not that far off. Nothing will take the place of important knowledge training, testing and other core principles of training. Therefore, these basic tools are necessary but the time allocation needs to be rebalanced. If we are serious about representatives learning a skill, simulation should increase in importance. This can only happen if something else is reduced from the agenda (this will be covered in a future article). Don’t be afraid to challenge old principles and remove live training items from the agenda. The best way to find out if you have a removable item is to ask why… Why do we do this? If you cannot come up with a reason which will change sales representative performance or effectiveness, work to remove it.

Trainers agree that sales call simulation is the best way to become proficient or even master a behaviour; most are not aware of the new tools available. Time is money, and one-on-one role-play is expensive in all industries. In the Pharmaceutical and Biotech industries we are no different in the performance goals that we have for our associates. We need to quickly and effectively generate results from new associates who have little to a vast amount of experience. The ROI we look for in training programs should be linked to greater outcomes. The focus in selecting a solution should include metrics, and the ability to improve the consistency of the message. Look internally for solutions and focus on the outcome that simulation works and will create, what a representative in a class I was training called, muscle memory.

With many tools available to deliver message consistency of message you need to look for the one which offers the greatest return. The focus should be to ensure you are not using a tool which reinforces a “slice” or poor behaviour. Simply recording the voice or video without feedback can reinforce bad behaviour. Tools should also include the ability to give immediate feedback and allow for a “do over.” How many times do we give feedback after a role-play and then have them practice it again, immediately? There should be a cost-effective component which enhances the most important tool you have, the live role-play.

Lastly, the most expensive tool is one that you do not use. Ensure the tools you deploy are user friendly, increase effectiveness and can enhance the learning environment. All of these decisions rest squarely in the hands of the future leaders in the training industry. Developing a strategic training strategy requires risk taking, teamwork and leadership. The next time you tee off remember, the best PRACTICE.

Bill Jacobs is the co-founder of ASERT-llc and founder of and former Senior Manager, Aventis Oncology Training.