All Articles Leadership Management Better sales probing with Socratic questions

Better sales probing with Socratic questions

5 min read


What’s the most important skill for a salesperson? Some sales managers say it’s negotiating, and some think it’s closing. However, some of the most successful managers say it’s the ability to seek information that can help the salesperson create an on-target proposal.

Regrettably, many salespeople are more focused on trotting out a product’s features and benefits than they are on learning what a customer is thinking. Is this what some of your salespeople might be doing?

Most salespeople talk too much. We at Communispond teach that the salesperson should talk only 20% of the time during a sales call and give the customer the rest. The salesperson’s time should be used to ask questions that help prospects clarify their needs. Handled properly, the questions should prompt prospects to question their assumptions and consider alternatives they haven’t thought about before.

The process is called Socratic questioning. It was proposed by Socrates 2,400 years ago, when he taught students to ask a series of easily answered questions during a dialogue with another person about a philosophical issue so they can come to an agreement on it. The process works as well during a sales call.

For example, when a customer says the price is too high, most salespeople don’t ask what the customer means. They try instead to justify the price. Using Socratic selling, they would ask a question such as “Why do you say that?” to learn what the customer means.

They might learn that maybe the customer’s cash flow won’t allow the sale to go through this quarter. Maybe the customer doesn’t need all of the product’s bells and whistles. Maybe the customer is assuming the purchase will require ancillary costs that don’t exist — perhaps costs for employee training, shipping or warehousing. A salesperson won’t know what the customer means unless the salesperson asks.

Useful questions can be framed in these ways: “Tell me more about …” or “Give me an example of …” or “What else would help me get a better understanding of …” The word “why” might be the most powerful word that can be used in selling. Questions such as these will provide useful information and, better yet, help the customer think about what’s being offered and get a better understanding of it.

It’s important for the salesperson to listen closely to the customer’s answers. Many fail to do that because they’re busy thinking of what they’ll say next. They should listen with eyes as well as ears because body language can convey hidden meanings. Successful salespeople confirm that they understand what the customer is saying by paraphrasing it. If the salesperson isn’t clear about what the customer means, it’s best to ask for clarification instead of potentially derailing the conversation.

Let’s say, for example, the customer asks whether the company customizes products. The salesperson shouldn’t launch into a discussion about the advantages of customizing; perhaps the customer wants an off-the-shelf solution and was thinking out loud.

The salesperson should always understand how the prospect will be affected if the sale goes through. A question such as “How does this affect you?” can provide the answer. It’s also important to understand how the customer feels about what the salesperson is saying throughout the call. A simple question such as “How does that sound?” can be appropriate at any time.

The customer might tell the salesperson the company’s budget for the purchase is at a certain level. Some salespeople try to reconfigure their proposal to meet that figure. They would be better off asking a question such as “How was the budget determined?”

Socratic questioning can be especially productive toward the close of a sale. The salesperson should ask a series of “suppose” questions that are comfortable to answer because they don’t push for commitment; for example, “If you were to go ahead, how do you see this project being implemented?” The key word is “if” because it allows the customer to envision starting up the project without feeling pressured.

Asking a question rather than making a statement also is useful when a customer makes a counteroffer that the salesperson can’t accept. Rather than counter the counteroffer, the salesperson can ask, “Would you like to discuss what I think might work really well?” The customer rarely will say no.

Salespeople sometimes view selling as a game in which they try to overwhelm the customer. With the Socratic method, the salesperson partners with the customer. Some salespeople regard selling as an effort to “overcome objections.” However, when a customer gives the salesperson information to create a proposal that fits the bill, there won’t be a reason for objections.

Socratic questions follow logically from information that the customer has given. They’re not asked at random with the hope of discovering an opening. They establish trust, and they build on that trust to create a successful sale.

The Socratic method is both ages old and as current as this morning’s news cycle. It’s a powerful way to sell.

Bill Rosenthal is CEO of Communispond, which provides skills training in communication and selling. Clients include more than 350 Fortune 500 companies. Rosenthal writes for Harvard Business Review, Forbes and Chief Executive magazine. Check out Communispond for free access to articles, white papers, videocasts and audiocasts on all aspects of selling and communication and free e-newsletters on both subjects. You can contact Rosenthal by e-mail and read his blog.