On July 10th, Value Selling Associates hosted their monthly sales training webinar on Deliberately asking good questions. If you are interested, you can listen to the event on demand (without registration) on their site. VSA President and CEO Julie Thomas opened the event by describing the Socratic method, a problem solving approach that involves asking a series of questions to arrive at an answer.
The connection between the Socrates’ philosophy and the modern sales process is the idea that it is possible to be regarded as wise without having all the answers. In other words, you can ask a lot of questions and still be perceived as knowledgeable.
There are obvious benefits to the approach known as ‘Socratic Selling’. The more questions they ask, the more talking we do, the more information they collect – allowing the supplier to craft a proposal that more closely meets the goals and objectives of the buying organization. On the other hand, not all products and services lend themselves to this method. Transactional, price-driven category decisions don’t require a supplier to impress us with their deep thoughts – just to have the information we need to compare options and make an informed choice.
Tim J. Smith, Ph.D., and Chief Editor of the Wigleaf Journal (dedicated to Sales, Marketing, and Entrepreneurship), wrote a piece on this topic called ‘Pedantic or Socratic?’ where he compares two approaches to demonstrating wisdom in sales: one where the sales person effectively ‘tells’ the buyer what they need, and one where the sales person leads the buyer to a desired conclusion with a carefully crafted set of questions. Both can be effective in the right circumstances.
Pedantic selling approaches are easy to recognize: presentations full of details about features and functionality that clearly communicate availability, pricing and benefits.
This approach works perfectly well with traditionally purchased indirect categories like office supplies or janitorial services. There are no deep dynamics to uncover, just an office full of professionals that want to have pens on hand and clean workspaces.
Socratic selling, also called consultative selling, are focused on uncovering information about the buyers motivations and needs, both to inform the sales team and to help the buyer better understand their own position.
When a category is associated with a change in strategy or will enable operational change, deeper probing is in order for both sales and procurement.
Knowing the Difference
Many sales organizations are trying to move to more Socratic or consultative models, because they believe that such an approach will result in increased trust, longer contracts and larger deals. Regardless of the prospective size of your purchase, you are likely to encounter some open-ended questions early in the sales/buying process as the supplier rep works to ‘qualify’ the deal: to figure out if and when it may happen, and how large the opportunity is.
As you get further through the process, however, a Socratic sales approach can actually be a red flag. Is the sales person trying to build a foundation on which they can either up sell you or secure a longer contract? If the questions being asked seem to repeatedly lead you from the product or service you are focused on to a complimentary offering, beware of how it affects your buying intentions. Determine up front whether your category is likely to be relationship-based and don’t let anything short of a full internal team meeting change your course.
But if your purchase is strategic in nature, and if it will require the long-term cooperation of the solution partner you select, learn to appreciate and benefit from a Socratic sales person. Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can about what your organization really needs and what will ultimately motivate an award decision and a solution choice. Just remember that you don’t have to answer all of the questions out loud to benefit from them being asked…