Why is it that Socrates is regarded as one of the greatest teachers of all time? Did he understand the importance of engaging his students into the problem solving? Was it his amazing ability to have the students take ownership of the problem by creating their own solution? Did his guidance with questions lead the students to their own conclusions? Did Socrates understand that when a student took ownership of the problem and the resolution, they were more likely to understand and retain that knowledge?
Socrates understood the importance of “questioning to understand.” His method of teaching by asking questions is referred to as the “Socratian Method” of educating. He knew the importance of asking the right questions at the right time. If a student took ownership of the problem and investigated the situation thoroughly, they would lead themselves to the best decision. As professional sales people, we can take a lesson from Socrates. When we engage with our prospects or clients in the early phases of the sales process, we must question to understand. Then, once we understand, we can also question to help the prospect understand their situation more completely. By helping a prospect fully understand their situation and alternative solutions, you are adding value. This will create prospect ownership of the problem and the solution. If your product or service is an appropriate tool for filling their need, the resolution will be a closed sale.
Question to Understand
When first engaged with a prospect, you are still qualifying the prospect’s situation and their true needs. It is important that both buyer and seller understand the need before they can move towards a solution. In most cases, the prospect is going to understand the problem and the need much more thoroughly than the sales person. In fact, in many situations the buyer will hand a “bill of goods” to the sales person and tell them, “This is what we need. I need to get prices on all of this.” You’ve heard the comparisons of sales consultants diagnosing their prospects’ ailments, much like a doctor diagnoses a patient. How often do you think a patient diagnoses themselves properly before seeing the doctor? Regardless of the self-diagnosis, does the doctor still go through a questioning and evaluation process of their own? Of course they do. You should be doing the same as a salesperson. If you get a “bill of goods” from a prospect, make sure you question to understand the customers real need. As the doctor you need to make sure that the prescription they just handed you to price will truly serve their need.
Question to Illuminate and Educate
Have you ever asked someone a question that starts out like this, “Have you thought about trying….” And the response you get is something like this, “Hmmm, I didn’t think about that.” As a sales professional you need to create value for your customers during the sales process. If you are the professional providing products or services to fill customer needs, then we’ve got to assume that you have seen this problem many times before. As much as you may want to jump right in and prescribe a solution at the first sign of the all to common ailment, don’t. You need to ask enough questions first to confirm that you truly do understand the problem. Once you understand the problem, you need to educate the prospect on the magnitude and ramifications they can experience if their problem goes unresolved.
Seller: “So you said that your sales group is not able to check inventories prior to taking an order when they are with a customer, correct?”
Buyer: “Yes, that’s correct. The customers get very irritated when we take their order and then we have to call back to ask if we can substitute something else since we are all out of what they ordered.”
Seller: “Do you think that your salespeople are losing deals to competitors that are able to check inventories before they place an order?”
Buyer: “I know that is true.”
Seller: “Is this affecting your order fulfillment group when they have to constantly make phone calls back to customers? I would imagine it is affecting their productivity, correct?”
Buyer: “Absolutely! Our Ops manager has put in requests to add two more resources to his team because he can’t keep up with the amount of work they are doing.”
Seller: “So it sounds like your Operations Manager has a key interest in solving this problem too. It sounds like the magnitude of this problem may be touching many different groups within your company. Do you agree?”
Buyer: “I guess you’re right. This problem is more than just my problem.”
This salesperson asked questions to educate his prospect that he is not alone in this problem. This problem is affecting the entire company and it needs some immediate exposure.
Question to Create Ownership
Nothing ever feels so good as a solution that you find on your own. When you own a problem and you find a solution, you feel a sense of accomplishment. And, you won’t likely forget the experience. Socrates knew that if a student could come to the correct conclusion on their own (maybe with a little guidance from the instructor), they would remember the solution and retain the information much more so than if he simply lectured to all the students. By taking ownership of the problem, the students would seek out the solution. A true sales professional follows this same process with a prospect. You can have your prospect take ownership of the problem by asking one simple question after the problem has been illuminated, “How are you going to fix this problem?” This is a powerful question. It makes the prospect think about the problem and the possible solutions. Many times the response you hear is, “That’s why you’re here. I need you to tell me how to solve the problem.” How many times has a salesperson longed to hear those words. You have just been invited to deliver your prescription. If you’ve done all of your questioning right up to this point, the prescription should be the easy part.
One last question for you, “Now do you understand the power of proper questioning in the sales process?” Socrates would be proud.
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