Socrates … Oh Oh!

Socratic MethodYou can relax. Asking questions was the principal method of the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates. The essence of selling is based on questioning customers and prospects to learn their needs. Socrates used questions for teaching and to stimulate critical thinking, so some may think the resemblance between a sales meeting and a Socratic debate is superficial. But the more you think about it, the deeper you find the connection to be.

The so-called Socratic Method eliminates contradictory or erroneous beliefs by questioning or challenging them. As erroneous and contradictory beliefs are eliminated by the questions and answers, better beliefs that are not contradictions replace them. The questioner uses logic and fact to help that person understand the basis of a belief. Serious scholars of Socrates would probably be a bit dismayed by the idea that Socrates is used as a model for sales training. For many people, the only questioning they have ever heard in a sales encounter is, “What do I have to do to put you in this new car today?”

Sales training must be designed to help salespeople train themselves out of selfishness and manipulation, because selfishness and manipulation are ultimately self-defeating. Over the long-term, for most organizations and the people who are trying to build careers in that organization, exploitative selling techniques are not profitable. Buyers who feel they have been taken advantage of are not repeat buyers, and there are few businesses that can build a future without repeat sales. So the philosophy of using the Socratic Method is based on the concept of “doing well by doing good.”

Ideally, the Socratic salesperson, like Socrates himself, makes a commitment to the welfare of others. Socrates took this commitment as far as it could possibly go. He questioned others so relentlessly that the powerful interests in his society considered him dangerous and put him on trial for corrupting Athenian youth. They found him guilty and sentenced him to commit suicide with poison. Few of us would be willing to drink ground up hemlock in furtherance of our sales careers. We don’t need to train sales professionals to question as relentlessly as Socrates. But we must train them to employ questioning to help people.

The intent is to put the customer, rather than the seller, at the center of the selling process. It is analogous to the way Socrates put the student at the center of the teaching process. That perspective alone is may well be the most important part of your next sales training meeting.

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James E. McClain is the author of Successful Career Development: A Game Plan, the book upon which some of our training programs are based. He has over 30 years' experience as a corporate HR executive, small business owner with ongoing experience in career development and as a college instructor. His educational background includes a B.S. and Masters degrees Education and Certification in Financial Planning. Our promise is that "you can pay more for training but you can not buy better training." The mission is to deliver the most effective and cost effective training and development programs.

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