Try the Socratic approach

October 1, 1999
Kevin Daley
Kevin Daley

Kevin Daley is founder and chairman of New York-based communications skills training company Communispond Inc. (www.communispond.com), which created and provides the “Socratic Selling” training program and serves a wide range of companies in pharmaceuticals and other industries.

Pharmaceutical Representative

Classic tips for earning a customer's trust.

Pharmaceutical representatives face a unique set of challenges. Gone are the days when you could simply discuss product benefits with a customer and leave feeling that the job was done. Today, regulatory constraints, industry consolidation, committee-dominated buying and complex products have made it more important to have real dialogue with customers – the type of conversation in which the customer truly opens up, discusses needs, discloses how the buying decision will be made, identifies your competition and demonstrates confidence in you.

The best way you can get a customer to engage in this type of dialog is to take the Socratic approach. Modeled after the teachings of the ancient philosopher Socrates, the Socratic approach is a method of communication that addresses the buyer's needs and emotional state while eliciting the information the salesperson needs to advance the sales process.

Using the approach

There are five steps to making Socratic selling work for you: show respect, listen more than you talk, repeat what you have heard, ask questions and discuss benefits and solutions.

Show respect. The first way to show respect is to let the buyer set the agenda and do the initial talking. Doing that lets the buyer know it's his or her meeting, and his or her concerns are of the greatest importance.

Respect the buyer's intelligence by asking questions that indicate that you're there to learn and understand. A respectful demeanor goes a long way toward easing the buyer's fear of looking bad to his or her peers and superiors.

Listen more than you talk. Listen to what the buyer has to say about his or her situation and past attempts to deal with it. Listening tells the buyer that you understand his or her circumstances are unique and it shows that you will respond with solutions that fit the circumstances. Listening also communicates that you're interested in the buyer's needs and are not just trying to rush him or her into a sale.

Repeat what you have understood the buyer to say. Repeating back some of the buyer's points in your own words lets the buyer know you've been listening. It also provides an opportunity to elaborate or correct any wrong impressions. When buyers feel understood, they tend to open up. Their trust in you increases, and they start telling you their pressure, demands, constraints and expectations.

Ask questions to draw out the full story. Your questions should follow directly from what the buyer has just said. Questions that do not relate to what the buyer has said, or that presume a level of trust that has not been established, raise red flags in a buyer's mind. Intelligent and responsive questions promote trust.

Use a provisional and conditional approach when you talk about benefits and solutions. For example, the close, "In your opinion, how would product x work for you?" carries no threat. What you propose is entirely in line with the buyer's needs because you've listened carefully. If there's a reason why your proposal isn't satisfactory, you're going to hear it now because the buyer knows you will listen. PR