How to Do Role Plays that Totally Suck

By Jeremy Watkin

I’ve worked in a variety of contact center environments and managed contact center teams for a couple of decades at this point. I’ve successfully helped to train scores of new hires — many of whom became fully proficient and remained with the company for years. Never considering myself to be an expert in training I’ve often wondered if some new hires achieved full proficiency in spite of me.

Don’t believe me? Take role playing for example. Role playing is a training technique where one poses as a customer so that a new hire can practice a customer service skill in a completely safe, demo environment. Sounds good in theory, right? Well, it’s more difficult than it looks.

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So here are three ways that I’ve learned (from experience, unfortunately) to make sure your role plays are ineffective, inefficient, and totally suck:

Just wing it, improv style

In one of my first attempts at role play, I was training our outsourced team and I envisioned role plays being this sort of improv setting where two people could perfectly act out a customer service scenario off the top of their heads. But here’s the deal — I stink at acting and have zero clue about improv techniques. Needless to say, the attempts fell short.

In hindsight, I wish I had scripted a scenario for the person posing as the customer to read and then had the trainee using their systems and tools to try to solve the issue. I also wish we had practiced the role play multiple times. This leads me to my next story.

Really put agents on the spot

In a more recent experience, I joined a video call with a team where I was posing as the customer and my job was to “grill” one of the agents on the call. In an attempt to help the agent use all of their knowledge and skills I may have laid it on a bit too thick and the agent began crying. Being asked to “perform” in front of their colleagues and direct supervisor proved to be a lot of pressure.

In another scenario, I was Head of Quality at an outsourcer and shadowed a contact center agent. Some contact centers might call this “side jacking” where you listen in on a customer service call. In this case, the agent was demonstrating their ability to respond to a customer by email. I didn’t anticipate that the agent would completely freeze up, unable to respond to the customer with any efficiency whatsoever. It’s as if she forgot how to type and I felt so bad.

In both of these situations, I wish I had created a totally safe environment where the agent could practice their skills without feeling like they had to perform in front of their peers. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, especially when they are still just learning the material.

Further reading: The Miracle Cure for Reducing Attrition: Increase Agent Confidence

A few role plays should be plenty

You know this technique. Everybody pair up and practice the type of interaction you just learned in classroom training. You pretend to be the customer and I’ll be the agent while I practice this one specific type of interaction. Then we’ll switch roles.

There are a number of issues with this classic training technique. First, trainers can only observe one pair at a time so it’s difficult to know who understands the process and who is just going through the motions.

Second, and probably more importantly, there’s usually little or no variation in the practice interactions so agents don’t really develop a deep understanding of the issue or what to do if the call doesn’t follow a very specific path. This also means they’re likely to forget how to handle that type of interaction by the time they get to the floor.

Because real-world situations never deviate from our scripted scenarios, right?

A better way forward

As I reflect on these attempts at role playing that left a lot to be desired, there are keys to ensuring that your role plays successfully help contact center agents become proficient at their jobs. Consider these:

Script your role plays – By scripting your role play to follow a specific issue type, you can train the agent first on the knowledge and skills required to handle that issue and then give them multiple chances to practice. There shouldn’t be much improvisation involved but bonus points can be awarded if the agent inserts a bit of their own personality.

Have fun – It’s OK to have fun. I’m not sure you need to go so far as flushing a toilet or talking in a funny accent but make sure the focus remains on becoming proficient at supporting customers.

Create a safe space – Learning a new role and new skills can be a daunting task. I know I’ve worried that I wasn’t proving my value fast enough after starting a new role. Recognize that even your most savvy new hire may not quite be ready to perform in front of their colleagues. Consider virtual settings that allow agents to practice and have their work evaluated — whether it’s responding to support tickets as an internal note without sending to a customer or using a generative AI tool like ServiceSIM to practice chatting with customers.

Let agents practice until they’re comfortable – Helping customers is difficult, stressful and dynamic, requiring a deep understanding of products, services, policies, and problem-solving techniques. So don’t put everyone through just a couple of role plays and call it good. Instead, let agents practice until they feel comfortable managing emotions, resolving conflicts, and maintaining professionalism under pressure. Mastery comes through repeated exposure to diverse scenarios that allow agents to develop adaptable skills and intuitive responses.

Learn more about how ServiceSim is revolutionizing agent training (and making practice calls suck less) at

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