Socratic Questions Help Prospects Uncover Truth

Peri Shawn

One of the secrets to sales success goes back some 3,000 years to ancient Greece. The philosopher Socrates used carefully crafted questions to help his students learn more, using knowledge they already had.

Now, many top salespeople use “Socratic questions” to qualify prospects and understand their pains, passions and priorities. These top performers then match their ideas, stories and information to meet the prospects’ buying criteria. Sales success is all in how questions get asked.

As a sales leader, you can give your team members four guidelines for asking Socratic questions:

1. Be general to start
The salesperson’s goal is to get their prospect to share information, so as to provide information that is tailored to the prospect’s pains, passions and priorities.

With this in mind, coach your salespeople to start their questions on a solid foundation – a clear understanding of their prospects’ situation. Starting with general questions helps the salesperson understand the big picture; only after that picture is clear is it wise to select specific themes to drill down into. In role playing during your coaching sessions, coach those team members who “drill down” into topics that don’t interest the prospect to go back to more general topics in order to discover the prospect’s true concerns.

It’s like trying to combine two halves of a jigsaw puzzle. If you try to put them together before both halves are complete, they won’t fit. In the same way, the salesperson needs to fill in all the essential pieces about the prospect’s pains, passions and priorities before sharing stories, ideas or information.

2. Be aware of assumptions
The information gained through general questions will help avoid errors, such as making incorrect assumptions. This is important because erroneous assumptions can break down trust.

If the questions being asked are too assumptive, the prospect may feel that the salesperson isn’t listening, and as a result may not share the information the salesperson needs to help with the buying decision.

Questions such as “How many people are involved in the final decision?” may seem harmless to the salesperson, but may be interpreted as assumptive from the prospect’s perspective. There may not be anyone else involved in the decision – or this may not be the “final” decision.

This brings up another point: coach your salespeople to use the language their prospects use. So, instead of the question above, it might be more effective to start with, “Is there anyone else involved in the decision-making process?” If the answer’s yes, the next question could be, “How many?”

3. Be clear about reasons for asking
Prospects generally appreciate knowing why questions are being asked. This context helps them relax and can build trust.

 So, coach your team members to indicate that they’re asking questions in order to better understand the prospect’s situation, and discover together how the salesperson can be helpful to them. Once they recognize that there is a benefit to them, they’ll be more open in their responses.

4. Be supportive by avoiding “why”
The word “why” can put some people on the defensive. Yet it’s still vital to get information about the prospect’s reasons and thinking.

So rather than ask, “Why did you do it that way?” it’s better to phrase the question as “What made you decide to do it that way?” This subtle change can make a big difference in how the question is perceived by prospects.

Remember that the purpose of questions is not just to gain information, but as Socrates did, use questions to help prospects understand their situation more deeply. This helps move the sales process along, to mutually discover whether and how the salesperson can be a solution to the issues prospects are facing.

Peri Shawn is co-founder of the Coaching and Sales Institute and author of “Preventing Sales Crimes: Coaching Secrets for Sales Leaders.” She helps sales executives and their teams sell more, better, sooner and more often without need to take even a day off for training.  Contact: