How To Avoid Blowing Important Client Meetings

Susan was pursuing a huge deal for her company. This was the kind of deal that had the potential to double their business overnight. When the customer started applying pricing pressure, Susan responded in a confrontational way. As the two started arguing, Susan knew the deal was lost. After all, this was not the right way to start a business relationship. Susan blew it. The deal was lost. After licking her wounds for a while, Susan called me for advice. I asked her how often she and her colleagues practiced high-pressure business conversations. Susan said, “We hate doing role play! It doesn’t work for us.” She asked me to explain how role play can help business success.

The Importance Of Practice For Mastery

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted research that showed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master complex tasks. Customer interactions, in case you didn’t know it, fall into the category of complex tasks. In order to reach 10,000 hours, Gladwell shares that you can get there with twenty hours a week every week for ten years. Top performers in music and sports share something in common. They practiced at least three hours per day (which gets you to that twenty hour per week target). Unfortunately, when I speak with executives and sales professionals, the most common answer for how much time they devote to practice is ZERO.

Where Role Plays Go Wrong

I often ask groups for a show of hands of who absolutely LOVES to practice by role playing. Across thousands of individuals, I’ve only seen a few hands go up. When I ask professionals why they don’t take the time to practice, I get legitimate answers:

  • “My colleague always plays the role of a customer who is such a jerk that we’d just walk away from the deal. They won’t even answer a simple question to start the exercise.”
  • “My co-worker always plays the same character. The role play is very helpful, provided that I am calling on my COLLEAGUE. Otherwise, without any variety, I get thrown off track since my partner gives the same answers every time we practice.”
  • “The person playing the customer changes personalities more than Sally Field did in Sybil (a 1976 movie about a girl with multiple personality disorder). They are a moving target.”
  • “We go through the motions, but aren’t sure if we are accomplishing anything.”
  • “We just don’t have time.” (Okay – this last one is just a lame excuse. It’s ironic that top athletes and musicians have time, but you don’t.)

If you are faced with these same challenges, then no wonder you avoid role playing with your colleagues. Unfortunately, though, these excuses only put you at a disadvantage. However, without practice, you might be building muscle memory around behaviors that might negatively impact your success.

A New Metaphor To Gain Competitive Advantage And Mastery

Consider a new approach to use instead of old-school role play that everyone hates. In theater and performance art, one of the most effective frameworks is Improvisation, or Improv. There are several rules in Improv, but the central theme holds that your job is to make your partner look good. That means that you are constantly looking to support your partner, not defeat them. This approach aligns quite well with the buyer/seller collaboration we addressed in Same Side Selling.

Often, during my workshops and keynote addresses, I’ll demonstrate live, unrehearsed business conversations with a member of the audience. I’m flattered when participants franticly take notes of the exact wording I used. It’s not a great secret. Rather, I just have had a ton of practice, and a formula and discipline for doing so. So can you.

Formula For Same Side Improv

In the interest of full disclosure, we created Same Side Improv, a fun and highly interactive way to help teams rehearse important conversations to end up on the Same Side with the customer. You don’t need the Same Side Improv game to succeed. All you need is the following formula to help you practice role playing:


There are three Improv participants: The Salesperson, Customer, and Observer.

The Customer shares the following details:

ABOUT their company; their ROLE in the project; the SITUATION (e.g., have solution, seeking solution, or open to something compelling), HOW you MET (e.g., referral from customer or partner, inbound contact, cold-call).

Then the customer picks two attributes they don’t disclose until the end. We call those SECRETS. They might include parameters like a) Seeking the cheapest solution; or b) They’ll lose their job if they don’t solve the issue.

The salesperson’s goal is to collect four critical pieces of information to determine if the opportunity is a good fit.

Each Improv round is a minimum of five minutes and a maximum of ten minutes followed by a feedback loop. At the start of the feedback loop, the salesperson can guess which SECRETS the customer was holding.

If you follow this pattern, in just one hour, each participant will experience three Improv scenarios. Most groups do this exercise once per week during lunch. The observer can eat their lunch while they take notes.


Within a few weeks of starting with weekly Improv sessions, participants share they are dramatically more comfortable and successful with client interactions. There are two major outcomes: 1) Participants have said, “The meeting happened exactly the way we rehearsed it. Everything that came up was easy for us to discuss.” That outcome was not surprising. 2) This next result surprised me: “Within minutes in my client meeting, I could tell which SECRET cards they were holding.” Though I was thrilled at this discovery, it was an unanticipated outcome. See, the actual client doesn’t have cards. The participants were developing mastery uncovering facts about the client’s situation that were previously undetected.

It’s Your Turn

Will this provide a shortcut to the 10,000 hour formula? Probably not. However, if your competition is not practicing at all, and your team practices for merely one hour per week, you might well be on your way to tremendous success. And, if you want to call that Mastery, I’m OK with that.

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