I confess that I have never taken a Socratic Selling Skills Seminar. Who knows, maybe I should. They even have a Socrates Society at the Aspen Institute. I only know what I see as a communication coach - in myself and others. When we sell - we tend to talk too much, question too haphazardly, listen too little and miss too much.
I too have erred in this regard. Every time I meet someone, it's an opportunity to sell them on what I do for a living. Every time I push information, I kick myself afterwards. Every time I ask a few questions and shut up and listen, I pat myself on the back because I managed to pull information. It helps me target my message to their needs.
First off, we all sell and we're all actors.
We each go out everyday into the world and sell ourselves, our companies, our ideas, our products, our services, our skills, or our points of view.
Like actors, we also make people believe. We are not merely transferring information to the people we talk to, we are transferring belief.
The question is this. How do we do that best, pushing or pulling? I vote pull - with both hands!!
Now, if it's a 'dog and pony' show type meeting like a bakeoff for an investment banking deal, by all means give them the dog and pony by pushing information. If it's not, try the pull approach.
I roleplay client situations with salespeople all the time. I play the client. When we debrief the situation, I usually ask them to turn the message on its head to hear what that sounds like or I ask them to front the whole message with an open ended or high gain question for their prospective client.
Let's say the practice scenario involves a wealthy individual looking for a new money manager. Sound familiar?
What if the person pitching that prospect started with the ending instead of running though their professional resume or the firm's qualifications - namely what the prospect would experience with them as one of their clients and how that experience differs from the client experiences they may have had up to that point?
Could it work? Perhaps. The point is - it's worth trying it out in the practice arena to see what it sounds like and feels like. One of my jobs as a communication coach is to help people challenge their thinking to come up with options. Developing options is a worthwhile pursuit for salespeople or any communicator. It helps you design a better game plan.
I once asked a very successful manager who runs a sales desk how research analysts could make better morning calls when addressing the sales force. He said, "easy - lead with your conclusion". Try it once in a while. It's refreshing. Why take your audience on a long meandering verbal walk through the Forbidden Forest when all they want to know is - does Harry Potter die in the end?Now finally to the pull vs. push. Isn't that the title of this post?
I also ask the person pitching that prospect to consider asking a question at the outset to draw the prospect out. A short open-ended or high gain question fronted by a simple reporter word - who, what, where, when, why or how. It helps:
- uncover previously unknown information
- open a door that was otherwise closed
- open up a line of inquiry or advocacy
- spark an extended conversation
- build a human connection
Most importantly, the salesperson can now target all of their well-prepared information to their prospect's needs. They may also get a glimpse 'behind the curtain' into a prospect's motivations, concerns, hopes, fears, and dreams.
Now, does every prospect open up like a gushing guest on Oprah or Dr. Phil? No, of course not. Yet the 'lead with a question' approach can get you much more than you thought you would. Sometimes the prospect opens up an avenue the size of Broadway to drive your points home if you simply ask a question like, "how are you feeling about things?"
Let's say the prospect responds with something like "Well, I haven't been very happy with the performance of my fixed income investments". Some salespeople would jump all over that opening and say "well that's actually one of the reasons why I came here today - our fixed income investments have out-performed in the last year."
What if the salesperson resisted that impulse and simply followed up with "why?"
Perhaps the prospect might respond by saying "because my current investment advisor didn't listen to me." The salesperson could even dig a bit further (as we all do in normal conversation) and say "how could that happen?" The prospect might even open up a bit more and say, "because he's a jackass!"
Now we're getting somewhere. All of a sudden the traffic on Broadway is clearing up bigtime.
Before you sell that prospect on fixed income investments, you now know why. You have a clearer glimpse into the prospect's motivation and you are better enabled to take advantage of the opening and serve the needs of your prospective client.
Bottom line - think of your next conversation - with a prospect, a board of directors, a client, a training class, your children, a group of new hires, or the PTA. What if you framed your entire conversation or talk around a few simple open ended or high gain questions? Isn't that better than going off blind throwing information at them to see what sticks. If they don't want to play along you'll know and you can always revert to the old "I'll be brilliant for 45 minutes and then you get to ask me questions" routine. If they do play along, you get an opening.
REMINDER - KEEP YOUR QUESTIONS OPEN AND SHORT! We tend to get stuck in close ended or leading questions or we overframe open ended questions with all sorts of qualifiers. The best questions in the English language (in my opinion) tend to be only four to eight words (i.e. "what do you think?" or "how did that happen?" or "where do you think it went wrong?") and they always start with who, what, where, when, why or how.
Now some people say that's OK one on one but you can't have a conversation with 200 people in an auditorium. I say, why not?
Many times I'll walk up in front of a room an ask an audience "by a show of hands, how many of you experience some level of nervousness or anxiety before you speak in public?" You will get hands raised on that one - guaranteed. Then I follow up and ask a few individuals, "how do you handle that?" After I get 3 or 4 responses I'll try to find the thread among them and use it to begin my talk. I haven't started a presentation - I've started a conversation - with 50 or 200 or 2000 people. Later on, I can also use this conversation to say "remember what Mary said about using anxiety as an asset..."
I contend (and so do a lot of people who are smarter than I am) that we all prefer to talk first and listen second. Try reversing that order and try not to jump all over the first response you get. Play reporter and follow up. When you are finally prepared to speak, you will be in a much stronger position to target your thoughts and be more helpful to the other person. At the very least, challenge your thinking as you gameplan a sales call or a speech or a talk or an interview or a meeting. Either flip your message on it's head and hear what that sounds like or start the whole deal with a question.
If you go with a question, the royalty checks still go to Socrates. And if you can't find him, find the best salesperson you know. They do this stuff every single day of their lives.