A Socratic Approach to Successful Selling

Published: Apr 10, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Meet the motor-mouth salesperson: He can rattle off a list of the product's features, give you a real education about its development, expound on the wide range of delivery options offered, provide names and titles of all the satisfied customers—and never stop to ask what the customer actually needs.

Why has this become an all-too-common way of selling? Sometimes because the salesperson believes selling is a contest between buyer and seller; that the buyer is an opponent who must be manipulated. Some salespeople believe in their product too fervently. Others are insecure and find delivering a monologue easier than having an actual conversation. Whatever the reason, talking too much and listening too little is counterproductive and can derail the sales process.

Each sales situation is unique, but one constant remains: the customer should have more air time than the salesperson—the customer should speak 80% of the time, the salesperson only 20%. So how should the salesperson best use those precious minutes?

We recommend our Socratic Selling training program. Here’s how it works:

Enter Socrates
Socrates first developed his method some 2,500 years ago in ancient Athens. The philosopher/teacher taught his students to create a productive dialog by asking a series of easily answered questions. Little by little, the questions prompt the other person to question his assumptions, consider alternatives and, ultimately, reach a logical conclusion.

Practiced today, this strategy helps the salesperson and customer work together to create innovative ways to meet the customer's needs. By collaborating, they define both the selling proposition and a winning proposal. The process uses the Q&A format at every stage of the meeting.

After the greeting and small talk that opens the meeting, the salesperson asks a question that helps identify the customer's priorities. The question can be asked this way: “I've been thinking about what you said when we made this appointment and I have some ideas, but I'd like to know what’s on your mind these days so we can focus on that.”

The customer's concerns might be altogether different from what he had said previously. Given the chance to express them, he might describe a more pressing need that represents a better sales opportunity. Whether or not this happens, the question must be asked. It is the customer, not the salesperson, who should define the starting point for the conversation. This Socratic opener assures the customer that the salesperson respects his time and judgment and intends to deliver value.

Keep On Asking
As the meeting progresses, the salesperson keeps asking open-ended questions. This encourages the customer to think out loud, examine the implications of his conclusions, and continue to provide useful information.

The salesperson should ask the customer:

  • What are your challenges and opportunities?
  • What will success look like?
  • How urgent is the need?
  • What is standing in the way of meeting your goals?

The salesperson should ask himself:

  • What are the personal implications for the customer?
  • What are the possible solutions?
  • What are the obstacles to implementing the solutions?
  • What has already been tried and with what results?
  • Has a budget been established?
  • Is this a real sales opportunity, or is the company exercising due diligence?
  • How does this customer fit into the big picture and who else has to be sold on the solution?

There is so much to be learned, but the customer has allocated only 20 minutes for the meeting. Not a problem, Socratic sellers often find. Confident that the meeting is producing results, the customer will ignore the clock. The process continues. The information keeps flowing. Ideas develop, are evaluated, refined, and accepted. The customer owns the decisions and it is unnecessary for the salesperson to keep providing assurance. In any situation, the sale moves forward only when the customer—not the salesperson—has the floor.

This kind of questioning is markedly different from the intrusive, manipulative method used by other salespeople. Socratic questions follow logically from information that has been given. They are not asked at random with the hope of discovering an opening. They establish trust and then build on that trust.

Listening with Full Understanding
Selling with the Socratic Method requires the sales person to listen with both ears, the head, and the heart. Misunderstandings can happen all too easily. An example: The customer likes everything about the car being offered except for the "awful" beige upholstery. Unfortunately, only two cars of that model are in the showroom, both upholstered in beige.

“Why do you feel it's awful?” the savvy salesperson asks.

“Because beige velour quickly shows dirt,” the customer replies.

Luckily, the other car’s beige is in leather. The sale is made because the salesperson asked why. “Why” may be the most powerful word in selling. Unless the salesperson keeps asking for the reasons behind a customer's conclusions, the sale can get off track. Socratic sellers constantly ask if they understand the customer correctly: “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. I want to be sure I’m following you. Is that it? Do I have it right?”

The salesperson then encourages the customer to expand on what he is saying: “Tell me more.” “For example?” “What happened then?” “What else should I know?” Other questions help identify personal motivators: “How does that affect you?” “How do you feel about that?”

Sometimes the customer may feel uneasy about talking personally and express discomfort only with body language. The salesperson must then listen with the eyes as well.

Moving the Sale to a Close
Now it’s crunch time. The salesperson has made a general recommendation, probed fully to understand the customer's reaction, and is ready to offer a solution. Asking a series of "suppose" questions will be useful here. The questions will test the probability of the solution's acceptance without putting the customer on the spot. Here the critical words are "if" and “would”: “If you were to begin this project, where would you see it beginning?” “Would this work if…?”

At this point the customer might ask for concessions. Socratic questions will be useful here as well: “Why is this important to you?” “How was that budget allocation determined?” Fully understanding the reasons behind the request for a concession will help the salesperson establish a good tradeoff strategy. Asking yet another question will help smooth the way for his counteroffer: “Would you like to hear another way to meet that need?” The answer will certainly be "yes," but by asking the question the salesperson has furthered the spirit of cooperation that brought the sale this far. The sale closes. Socrates lives on.