Socrates Makes a Sales Call

Published on March 10, 2009

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To jumpstart stalled sales, try employing a really old-school approach.

Here’s a quick quiz. Can you spot what’s wrong in the following dialogue between two hypothetical sales professionals?

Salesperson: I saw the prospect who’s interested in the new equipment earlier today.

Sales Executive: How’d it go?

Salesperson : He told me the price is too high.

Sales Executive: What did you say?

Salesperson : Well, I told him the equipment’s rated highest in quality, we offer 24/7 service, we’ve got features nobody else has. I went through the whole presentation.

As you no doubt noticed, there’s something seriously askew here. The salesperson was twitching to get into the product’s benefits without bothering to ask what the customer meant by "the price is too high."

Did the customer mean the price of the particular model being offered was too high? That the cost of maintenance would exceed the total budget? That recruiting and training an equipment operator would break the deal? That the company’s cash flow won’t allow a lump-sum payment? The salesperson didn’t know because he didn’t ask.

This leads to an obvious question: Are your own salespeople neglecting to ask the questions that move a sale forward? If they are, try telling them what Socrates would do on a sales call.

The ancient Greek philosopher taught his students to ask a series of logical questions that make the other person question his assumptions. Applied to a sales call, this strategy persuades prospects to open up, examine all the consequences of their positions and work with the salesperson to identify the proposal that will win the sale.

The process is called Socratic selling, and its bedrock principle is getting the customer to talk for 80% of the meeting. Admittedly, that’s a challenging goal for many salespeople. The few minutes with the customer that they worked so hard to schedule are precious, and they’ve got so much they want to say.

They’re better off beginning by asking a question about what’s on the customer’s mind. By way of example: "Ms. Jones, I’m prepared to talk about _____, which we discussed on the phone. If you could give me your thoughts about that, we can focus the meeting on what interests you."

Note the use of the word "thoughts" in this case, the alternates of which would be "outlook," "ideas," "viewpoint" and "perspective." These are all mind words that encourage communication. They’re the opposite of gut words like "problems," "concerns" and "needs," which can trigger a response like, "I didn’t say I needed anything." Note also that the opening question wasn’t something like "Tell me about your business." Asking this could prompt a discussion about company history that’s unconnected to the business of the moment.

The aim here is to have the customer define the starting point for the dialogue that follows. Once the customer has done this, the salesperson keeps asking Socratic questions: "Tell me more about;" "Give me an example of;" "What else should I know about;" "What else would help me get a better understanding of;" "Why." That last example is of particular note; the word "why" may be the most powerful word in selling.

Questions like these will provide useful information and, better yet, help the customer think. The salesperson can support the thinking process by encouraging the customer to examine the implications of the pieces of information learned.

Some inexperienced salespeople don’t listen very carefully to what the customer’s saying because they’re concentrating on what they’ll say next. Others ask questions intended to show how smart they are. Yet others interrupt the flow of information by saying something like, "I know I read it in The Wall Street Journal." And there are those who conclude their offering doesn’t meet the customer’s needs completely and try to minimize the importance of one or more of the customer’s specs.

There are salespeople who get impatient with the customer’s slowness in responding, unaware that the customer is still sizing up the salesperson. It’s particularly important to let the customer vent about a current supplier’s failures and not jump in with assurance that this time it’ll be better. Customers feeling pain about an unhappy supplier can be asked a question like: "How tough a position does this put you in?" The answer will help identify the customer’s personal motivators and demonstrate concern for them.

The salesperson must listen to the customer’s answers with ears and eyes as well, because body language can speak volumes. To keep the dialogue productive, it’s important to assure the customer that the salesperson understands everything that was said. This can be done by playing back what was learned paraphrasing rather than parroting the information. It’s particularly important to play back understanding of the customer’s feelings.

If the purpose of a customer’s question isn’t clear, it’s useful for the salesperson to respond with a question of his own, like "I’m wondering, why do you ask that?" Doing so can prevent the sales call from derailing. For example, say a customer asks an employee training provider if the company customizes its training programs, and the salesperson answers, "Absolutely no two companies’ needs are alike. We adapt our programs to fit the situation." Then suppose the customer replies, "I’m glad you told me that, because we want a program that’s been proven effective." The salesperson never got a chance to say the company provides both custom and non-custom programs.

Socratic questioning can be especially productive toward the close of the sale. At this point the salesperson asks a series of “suppose” questions that are comfortable for the customer to answer, because they don’t push for a commitment. One such example: “If you were to go ahead with a maintenance program, when would you begin?" A key word here is "if," which allows the customer to envision the start-up of a program without feeling pressured. Another is "you," rather than "we," which makes the customer the focus of the discussion instead of the seller. For the same reason, the company name isn’t cited.

Asking a question rather than making a statement is also useful when a customer makes a counteroffer that the salesperson must refuse. Rather than counter the counteroffer, the salesperson asks, "Would you like to discuss what I think might work?" Rarely does the customer turn down that suggestion.

Salespeople sometimes view selling as a game in which they try to overwhelm the customer’s superior power. With the Socratic method, the salesperson partners with the customer, using that power to benefit both parties. Some salespeople regard selling as an effort to "overcome objections." But when the customer helps to create the proposal, there is no reason for objections.

About the Author

Dale Klamfoth is vice president and managing director of Communispond, Inc. (www.communispond.com), which provides businesses with training and coaching in selling, presentations and communications.

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