Using The Socratic Selling Method

by Michael D. Hargrove     

Can you guess what the most common complaint about sales people is, from both customers and sales managers alike?

It’s this; sales people simply talk too much. And since most of us do indeed talk too much, what do you think the second most frequent complaint we hear about sales people would be? It’s this; we don’t listen. In light of the first, this second complaint seems logical, doesn’t it?

One simple way to combat both of these short comings is to integrate the Socratic Selling Method into our transactions. No, this isn’t some new, wiz-bang, 21st century revolution to the selling profession. As a matter of fact, we can trace its origins all the way back to 400 BC! That’s when Socrates, the soldier and famous philosopher from Athens, first introduced the art of collaborative debate or asking easily answered questions to help someone come to a logical conclusion. I like to call it the art of letting the other guy have your way.

Most of us learned early on in our selling careers that the person asking the questions has control. It’s just that most of us only take the time to learn questions that help us land the customer on a particular unit (one that is in stock, of course) and close the deal. These are questions that our customers perceive as only serving us, not them. With Socratic questioning, each question draws us and our customer closer. WE get a better understanding of how best to serve our customer. THEY get a feeling of being valued and understood. WE BOTH join our strengths in a collaborative effort to satisfy their transportation needs. The result is a less stressful, much less combative, and much shorter (time wise) transaction.

Here’s what’s involved;

First, we need to open the transaction with what’s called a “Socratic opener”. Typically, this occurs right after our greeting and it gives notice our intention of serving our customer’s needs and not ours. If they mention a model they are interested in, we say, “Mr. and Mrs. Customer, I’m fully prepared to discuss the ___________ with you, so first let me get your perspective on it, that way we can focus our time together on the things that interest you the most.”

If they don’t have a particular model in mind, or maybe they’re looking for a preowned unit, we can modify it this way, “Mr. and Mrs. Customer, I’m fully prepared to help you make the best choice, the one that’s right for you. So, first let me get your feelings about your driving habits, and that way we can focus our time together on the things that interest you the most.”

By announcing we are “prepared,” we demonstrate that we are responsible and competent. By acting responsibly, we begin the building of our own credibility. By inviting our customer to tell us what is important to them, we show them that we value their time and their input. We also begin the transaction in a collaborative manner. By stating we want to focus the time spent together on what they think is important, we give our customer the control most buyers long for. We also tell them that we won’t be wasting their time.

Next, we need to help them put more of their information out on the table by using Socratic probes. Socratic probes are nothing more than easily answered questions. “Tell me more…”, or “What else should I know about…”, or “Why is that important to you?”, or “How will you be using…”, or “What else would help me understand…”, or “Could you please expound upon…”. These questions are also very easy for us to ask. As long as we have the front part of the question committed to memory, the rest of the question just sort of asks itself based on what our customer has already told us.

Another important aspect of encouraging our customers to share their wants, needs, fears, and goals is that, once they do, our solutions will be more credible. Now our suggestions will be much more appealing because they have been tailored specifically to them. By allowing our customer to do the majority of the talking, we also get to pace two of their most basic human needs. We get a chance to help them feel valued and understood.

Another benefit of Socratic probes is creating urgency. Often in our field, salespeople still use time of the month, sales quotas, or expiring incentives to create urgency. What most salespeople do not realize is that many of their customers perceive these “reasons” as only benefiting the dealership and salesperson (“Do I really have to care about your sales quotas to get a good deal?”) or, even worse, as artificial sales ploys (“How long have you guys had rebates now? Twenty years? Isn’t it mysterious how they always seem to be ‘just about to end’ right about the time I decide to buy a car?”). The customer goes along with them, of course, as they do with most other dated sales practices, as simply something they have to put up with to buy a car.

We can use Socratic probes to create truly relevant urgency. We can ask: “Why now?”, or “You said you weren’t in a hurry, right? That’s interesting. So what made you visit a dealership at this time?”, or “What makes this urgent?”, or “What made you get started today?”. This is information we can use later to help create real urgency that is relevant to our customer. These are our customer’s reasons to do business based on our customer’s needs. Now to create urgency, we only have to remind our customer about what THEY said was urgent enough to make them set foot on a car lot.

Major buying decisions are made emotionally first and then we’ll grab whatever logic is available at the time to justify the emotional decision we’ve already made. We can get a handle on what our customers are feeling by asking questions like: “What worries you the most about this?”, or “I can tell you’re frustrated by this, how come?”, or “What do you want to avoid this time?”, or “Why is this important to you?”, or “How will this affect you and your family?”, or “How does that make you feel?”.

I suppose now would be a good time to remind ourselves that in order for these questions to have their desired effect, we need to listen to what our customer is telling us. The skill of Active Listening is one that most sales people ignore and is one of the skill sets that separates the good sales person from the truly excellent sales professional.

The four elements to Active Listening are: 1) Attentive Body Language (head nods, eye contact, smiling, etc.) 2) Verbal Attends (small grunts like “uh huh”, “okay”, “sure”, “I see”, etc.) 3) Leading Questions (open-ended questions that encourage them to talk more) and 4) Restate(paraphrasing back what our customer has said to us).

Active Listening is NOT simply waiting for our turn to talk. It’s NOT interrupting them to show that we already know what they are talking about. It’s NOT interrupting them to interject how our product or service satisfies the need they just shared with us. It’s not anything more than simply allowing our customer to completely share with us their story, then playing that story back to them, and gaining clarification or confirmation by asking: “Do I have it right?”, or “Did I hear you correctly?”, or “Am I getting the picture?”, or “How’s that sound?”, or “Did I miss anything?”.

We continue to ask the questions we’ve all been taught while landing them on a specific unit, performing a good feature/benefit presentation (only now building value in those things they told us they place value in), and going on a demonstration ride (only now allowing them to take specific mental ownership).

Then we can advance the decision making process by asking easily answered questions like: “If you were to go ahead with this, how would you like your insurance agent updated with the new vehicle info?”, or “If you decided to proceed, when would you like the ___________ installed?”, or “If you were shown three compelling reasons to do business with a particular dealership, would you be willing to at least keep an open mind?”, or “On a scale of one to ten, ten meaning you love it and are ready to own it, one meaning you hate it and wouldn’t even take it if it were given to you, where would you say you are?”, then, “What would have to occur to make it a ten?”.

In these questions we reduce the pressure by using conditional words like: if, were to, and would. We also reduce the pressure by eliminating words like: us, I, me, and we. We can make them even easier to answer by excluding our product brand or dealership name and by refraining from the use of words like: now, or today. When they answer us, we can assume the “us”, “our product”, “our dealership”, and “today”. Besides, we’ll have plenty of time to be “more concrete” later on if the need arises.

In the negotiations, our goal is to keep the process one of collaboration and not one of confrontation. We can start by stating their interests through summarizing what our customer has told us concerning their wants, needs, time urgency, and feelings. We get their clarification or confirmation by asking: “Did I get it right?”, or “How’s that sound?”, or “Did I miss anything?”. Then we make our proposal based on what they’ve told us, making sure we tie the recommendations to benefits and tailor them to our customer. We then seek their approval by asking: “What’s your feelings about this?”.

If an objection comes up, we can give them an answer tailored specifically to them by what they have stated to us already. If a tailored answer isn’t clear to us, we can get clarification by helping our customer think it through by asking: “Why is that important to you?”, or “Why is that important right now?”, or “Why do you ask?”, or “What is it you’re wanting to discuss?”.

If they make a counter offer that is not acceptable, we can preserve the collaborative environment by 1) stating again their interests (their wants, needs, time urgency, and feelings), 2) restating their position (whatever their counter offer is), 3) saying, “It’s important to me that you understand why what you’re asking is a bit more than they are able to do.” 4) giving the reasons why we can’t do what they are asking, 5) saying, “May I share with you a solution I think will be acceptable to everyone?”, and 6) making a counter proposal.

As with any new skill, the Socratic Selling Method requires lots of practice and refining to our vocabulary, personality, and philosophy of doing business. Making the sales transaction one of collaboration and not one of confrontation is possible when we engage our customers in the process. By asking easily answered questions, we not only gain insight into what our customer’s dominant buying motives are, but we also help our customers feel valued and understood. By taking the extra time to get to know and engage our customer, we actually dramatically speed up the buying process.

We’ve all heard this before, “Our customers don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.” Socratic Selling gives us the opportunity to demonstrate to our clients that we really are different and that we actually do care.


© Copyright 2013 by Michael D. Hargrove and Bottom Line Underwriters, Inc. All rights reserved. Michael D. Hargrove is the founder and president of Bottom Line Underwriters Inc.

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