Pedantic or Socratic?


Tim J. Smith, PhD
Founder and CEO, Wiglaf Pricing

Published October 5, 2005

Are you pedantic or socratic when you sell? Which should you be? How do you go from one to the other? Or, for that matter, what’s the difference?

While the terms pedantic and socratic arise most often in discussions about teaching methodologies, they also play a pivotal role when exploring sales methodologies. Salespeople can be pedantic in their interaction with prospects, or they can be socratic. Both approaches can communicate the same types and quantity of information. As far as sales is concerned, best approach depends on they type of offering provided. Although the skill sets required for one approach are different from those of the other, the core issues that they address derive from the same information.

What’s the difference?

The key difference between pedantic selling and Socratic selling lies in whether the salesperson is telling or asking the prospect something.

Pedantic sales methodologies rely on leading the prospect to a buying decision by telling them a body of information. In pedantic selling, the salesperson is sharing information with the prospect to enable their decision making process. Aspects of a pedantic selling approaches include:

  • Call scripts with detailed descriptions of the offering,
  • Presentations designed to state the key aspects of the offering, or
  • Informational statements about availability, features & benefits, and price

Socratic sales methodologies rely on leading the prospect to a buying decision by asking them a series of well designed questions. In socratic selling, the salesperson is uncovering the position of the prospect and guiding the prospect’s concerns to drive their purchasing decision. Aspects of a socratic selling approaches include call scripts that have a series of questions that follow a topic setting informational statement. Likewise, questions about challenges or opportunities the prospect faces, benefits that they seek, and the value that they will derive from addressing these challenges, or opportunities are all socratic aspects of selling.

Which is better?

Salespeople steeped in consultative selling will quickly jump to the side of socratic selling, but this is more of a reflection of the types of things they sell than it is a blanket dictum. The key determinant is really a function of whether the offering represents more of a change agent or a business input.

For well-understood or routinely purchased items, pedantic selling works just fine. Just think about it from the buyer’s perspective. If someone comes to you selling staples, the key thing you would want to know is what size they are, where to get them, and how much they cost. You probably wouldn’t need to know the lengthy history of the staple, its specific design, or its metal composition in order to make a decision.

People make purchasing decisions about business inputs like the above example all the time, and there is good money in selling these kinds of items. In making the purchase decision on routine business inputs, the requirements are already pretty well defined by the buyer and the value proposition is pretty well understood. The key decision criteria for making a purchase in these types of markets revolve around how well the offering meets the requirements. To communicate these points, pedantic approaches are efficient and usually sufficient, to drive the decision. Just tell them how it will meet their requirements.

But many business markets revolve around poorly understood, infrequently purchased, truly novel, or highly engineered offerings. When they are purchased, change agent offerings create the opportunity to change the prospect’s business. The change may take place in their operations, organizational structure, market opportunities, and/or financial model. It will mean either doing or using something different than they have in the past. Driving change within a prospect’s business is a different challenge from supplying to a well defined need.

Change agent offerings require a different type of selling approach than routinely purchased business inputs. They require an approach that enables the prospect to change the way that they think. While telling a person a set of facts may be useful in communicating a perspective, it is usually poor way to change their perspective. You have to first uncover them and then unsettle them in order to change them. Unsettling questions that go to the core of their perspective are usually more effective at changing perspectives than lecturing the prospect on the better perspective. Asking questions to discover and change their perspective is the essence of socratic approaches to selling. Just ask them questions that lead to the obvious conclusion to purchase.

Usually, as you move up the value scale where the buying decision has greater effects and is accompanied with greater uncertainty, the decision will represent more of an opportunity to change than it will be a routine decision. As such, sales methodologies steeped in the socratic approach perform better than those focused on the pedantic as the dollar value of the offering increases. It is for this reason that SPIN Selling by Rackman, Strategic Selling by Miller Heiman, and High-Value Selling taught at The Wiglaf Institute all rely on the socratic method.

How Do We Go from Pedantic to Socratic?

To go from pedantic selling to socratic selling is a bit of an art. It requires the salesperson to change their own perspective first. They must see themselves less as the Preacher and “holder of the most wonderful offering in the world and all I have to do is tell them about it” and more as a Columbo, the bumbling detective, or Socrates, the philosopher who couldn’t stop asking questions that threatened the status quo. As Columbo the detective, the salesperson will uncover and detect a prospect’s position in an non-threatening manner. As Socrates the philosopher, the salesperson will change their perspective by forcing questions that the prospect hadn’t fully considered.

Columbo like questions can be used to uncover process issues. Each goes to the issue of who and what needs to be managed in the sales process. Some of them detect the prospect’s likeliness to purchase or the need to change their perspectives. Example Columbo quesitons include:

  • Who’s budget does the offering come out of?
  • Who else is affected by the offering?
  • Are they receptive to the offering?
  • Where does this sit on your priority scale?

Columbo like questions can also be used to change a low-level of interest into a buying level of interest during the qualifying stage of the sales process. Profiling and challenge/opportunity oriented questions fit well in this category. Profiling questions uncover how well the prospect fits your ideal target customer profile and target market. Profiling questions can be used to prepare your prospect for an expression of how your company exists to serve companies specifically like the prospects. Profiling questions might inquire into the industry, company size, geography, or business orientation. Challenge or opportunity questions uncover whether the prospect perceives that they have an issue that you might be able to address with your offering.

Socratic like questions work well at changing perspectives One approach to create socratic questions is to change feature and benefit statements into questions about the challenges and opportunities that the offering addresses. For example, if a benefit of the offering is that it enables the company to accomplish objectives faster or with less labor, instead of stating this objective, ask them first if they want to do it faster or with less labor. If a benefit of the offering is that it allows them to accomplish objectives at a lower cost, ask them about the monetary effect of doing things the current way. Most strategic and financial business benefits of an offer can be posed as a question rather than a claim. Once these questions uncover a perspective that can be addressed through the offering, then the prospect will be interested to learn how the features lead to the desired benefits.

The range of means to ask questions is broad. The above are just a few example categories, and they can be expanded. The better questions are ones that go to the issue of matching your offering to the right prospective buyers or those that raise the issues that you intend to address with your change-agent offering.

Acknowledging the Dead Horse

As the story goes, a family has a dead horse in the middle of their living room. The family horse had died a while back and no-one had the heart to bury it or the strength to move it. It had been there so long that the family no longer thought it strange to have a dead horse in the living room. It became a part of the living room. In fact, they no longer noticed it. One day, a friend comes by and says “Why does it stink in here? Why do you have a dead horse in the living room?” And, at that moment, the family notices the dead horse and asks the friend to help them remove it.

Sales is like that sometimes. We identify stinking and rotting dead horses that limit prospect’s achievements, then offer to help remove it. But, they have to notice it and want to remove it. To get them to that position, questions work better than statements.

If you’re selling a change agent offering, prospects may not care what you have to say initially. They are likely to care to share what they have to say, and questions provide the forum for them to do that. Once they have discovered the size of the issue, then they might be interested to hear what a salesperson has to say.

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About The Author

Tim J. Smith, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Wiglaf Pricing, an Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Economics at DePaul University, and the author of Pricing Done Right (Wiley 2016) and Pricing Strategy (Cengage 2012). At Wiglaf Pricing, Tim leads client engagements. Smith’s popular business book, Pricing Done Right: The Pricing Framework Proven Successful by the World’s Most Profitable Companies, was noted by Dennis Stone, CEO of Overhead Door Corp, as "Essential reading… While many books cover the concepts of pricing, Pricing Done Right goes the additional step of applying the concepts in the real world." Tim’s textbook, Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures, has been described by independent reviewers as “the most comprehensive pricing strategy book” on the market. As well as serving as the Academic Advisor to the Professional Pricing Society’s Certified Pricing Professional program, Tim is a member of the American Marketing Association and American Physical Society. He holds a BS in Physics and Chemistry from Southern Methodist University, a BA in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University, a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago, and an MBA with high honors in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago GSB.