The Sandler Selling System: How to Lead the Sales Dance

The Dock Team
December 30, 2021
June 6, 2024

In a world of CRMs, email automation, and lead scoring, it’s hard to believe that a 50-year-old sales methodology still has merit. 

The Sandler sales methodology has stayed relevant for one reason: it emphasizes qualifying prospects, not selling to them.

Buyers love it because their needs are listened to. Sellers love it because they can stop wasting time on buyers who aren’t a fit. Sales managers love it because they can forecast their pipeline more accurately.

This article will walk you through the popular Sandler Selling System to help you decide if it’s a fit for your organization.

Disclaimer: Dock has no affiliation with Sandler. We're just fans of Sandler and wanted to share commentary around this sales methodology. Sandler has a great team who can help you set up sales training at your company. Check out Sandler's website here.

What is the Sandler Selling System?

The Sandler Selling System, first developed in 1967 by David Sandler, is a popular sales methodology that emphasizes qualifying buyers rather than persuading them to buy a product.

The Sandler sales method is a consultative selling approach. The salesperson’s goal is to establish an open dialogue to build trust and understand the prospect’s pain points, budget, and decision-making process. Then, they can either disqualify the buyer or guide them to the right solution.

The Sandler Selling System is a seven-step process broken into three larger phases:

  1. Build and sustain the relationship
  2. Qualify the opportunity
  3. Close the sale

The system is designed on the belief that people love to buy, but hate to be sold to. 

Traditional sales methods pitted sellers and buyers against each other. The seller used high-pressure tactics on the buyer, luring them in with “facts”, flashy demos, and psychology-based sales tricks—i.e., the used car salesman approach.

But when buyers feel like they’re being sold to, they put their defenses up. They feign interest, try to find out what you know, look for reasons not to buy, negotiate on price, and look for alternative solutions.

The negotiation becomes a battleground where no one wins.

David Sandler called this the “buyer-seller dance," where a buyer’s system is at work against the seller’s system. The Sandler Selling System was designed to lead the dance—without deception.

Under this approach, salespeople take the role of a helpful dance partner rather than an aggressive invader. It was a groundbreaking approach that reframed a sale as a business meeting between two equal parties. 

The Sandler Selling System is based on a strong assumption: the buyer is already highly motivated.

David Sandler believed that if you have something worth buying, you shouldn’t have to knock down the door—buyers should invite you in. Closing a sale is just about listening enough to know you’ve found the right buyer (in many ways, Sandler was a precursor to the inbound sales approach).

The Sandler Selling System follows three guiding principles:

  1. Selling is a noble profession: Selling isn’t a game of deception. Buyers and sellers have to have respect for each other.
  2. Buyers must be qualified: The buyer has to qualify for the seller’s time—not the other way around. You have to avoid chasing people who won’t buy.
  3. You have to follow a consistent methodology: Sellers have to know where they are in the sales process to have a clear idea of what happens next.

Ultimately, the Sandler Selling System is about spending less time trying to sell to everyone and spending more time on building relationships and making it easier to buy through buyer enablement.

How does the Sandler method help sales reps?

The benefits to the buyer are obvious: a less pushy sales process and getting a solution that matches their needs.

But what’s in it for the salesperson?

According to Sandler Training (the owners of the methodology), 88% of sales professionals said their sales strategy improved and 50% more salespeople hit their sales quotas than those who don’t follow the Sandler methodology.

The main reason for these sales bumps: the gift of time. 

Because so much emphasis is placed on early qualification, no “convincing” takes place. If a buyer isn’t a fit, move on to another deal. 

This has plenty of benefits for your sales figures:

  • Bigger deal sizes - more relevant buyers mean higher average sales
  • Bigger margins - buyers who see your value will pay more for your product
  • Shorter sales cycles - identifying blockers early shortens the selling process
  • Improved forecasting - qualification increases the accuracy of your pipeline

How do you know if Sandler sales is right for your organization?

As a general set of principles, the Sandler Selling System can apply to large sales in nearly any industry. If you become a trusted advisor to your customer, they’ll be more likely to buy from you.

But because the Sandler sales system emphasizes qualifying buyers, it’s best suited for high-touch B2B sales situations. For complex deals with long sales cycles—especially virtual selling or enterprise sales situations—sales are less of a numbers game or law of averages, and more about spending your time on qualified buyers.

The real challenge is identifying the right buyers rather than convincing people to buy.

If you have a product or service with a unique value proposition that’s competitively priced, the Sandler Selling System helps you communicate the value of your product relative to the customer’s pain points, guiding them gently towards your solution.

If your product doesn’t actually solve your ideal customer’s pain points, you have bigger problems on your hands.

Also consider: MEDDIC Sales is another popular sales methodology that applies to complex B2B sales.

The Sandler Submarine

David Sandler created the Sandler Submarine as a metaphor for the seven-step Sandler sales process. 

Sandler likens moving through the sales process to how a submarine crew reacts to a flood onboard. When a submarine is attacked, they move through the ship’s compartments one at a time, shutting the door to the compartment behind them to slow down the flooding.

Sandler likened this to the sales process. You have to secure and seal each step in the sale before moving to the next. Once you've moved forward, you can't go back.

For example, if you don’t establish a relationship with the customer in step one, you can’t expect to learn their real pains when you get to step three. If you start discussing pain points before you’ve built a bond, you’ve already lost the sale.

Sandler also chose the submarine for its stealthiness:

  • Submarines (i.e., professional salespeople) are stealthy. Their sales work is silent, below the surface, and at a deeper level. They’re nearly undetectable.
  • Battleships (i.e. traditional salespeople) are brash. They’re loud, they make their presence known, and everyone knows they’re coming. You can prepare a defense against them.

Sandler also likens salespeople to sailors in a submarine:

  • They must stick to a tight plan
  • They must secure each area of the sale before moving on to the next stage. Going back risks sinking the whole ship.
  • They have to make decisions based on objective facts, not emotion
  • They require discipline and guts

With the submarine metaphor in mind, let’s move on to the system’s seven steps.

The seven steps of the Sandler Selling System

The seven steps of the Sandler Selling System are broken into three phases:

  • Phase 1 - Relationship-building: bonding and rapport, up-front contract
  • Phase 2 - Qualification: the pain, budget, decision
  • Phase 3 - Closing: fulfillment, post-sell

Here’s a walkthrough of the entire process.

1. Bonding and rapport

Step one: the moment of truth.

According to Sandler, business is won or lost at the very beginning of the sales process, in the relationship-building phase.

Buyers come into every sales relationship with their walls up, ready to deploy their own buying system. They’re looking for information, prices, proposals, and plans—in essence, free consulting.

A classical salesperson will follow along with the buyer’s process, giving them all the information they need and eventually giving their pitch. At that point, the buyer will either take the deal, or the seller will keep chasing them until they do—or until the seller gives up hope.

To avoid having buyers treat you as a salesperson, stop acting like a salesperson. Subvert the buyer’s expectations.

In your initial discovery call, don’t pitch anything. Focus only on bonding and building rapport.

Authenticity is key here. Don’t spend the first five minutes building rapport through small talk and then getting down to business. The majority of your effort throughout the entire sales process should be put into building trust.

Before your call, do your homework. Learn something about the buyer, their company, or their industry. That will help you ask insightful questions in your discovery call.

Questions like these show that you’re genuinely interested in what the buyer is trying to accomplish in their job. They also help build your credibility as someone who’s knowledgeable in their space.

If you can truly build a connection and break down their walls, you’ll establish the relationship as one built on open and honest communication—at which point you can employ your selling system, not the buyer’s.

2. Up-front contract

Once you’ve established rapport, you can move on to setting ground rules for the conversation and the relationship. Your goal is to create mutual trust and a transparent environment.

Sandler Training compares this to a baseball game. The rules are clearly agreed upon by the umpire and both teams before the game. When a player hits the ball over the fence, everyone agrees it’s a home run. If the ground rules weren’t clarified, it would lead to mass confusion. What happens when the ball goes out of play?

By creating an up-front contract (verbally), you’re making both parties’ roles clear up-front. This keeps things respectful of everyone’s time and proactively avoids any roadblocks to the deal.

These questions establish a verbal understanding between both sides and sets clear expectations. It allows you to set the meeting’s agenda, purpose, timing, and goals.

The more you share, the less the buyer will think you’re hiding something. The fewer surprises for the buyer, the better. 

3. Pain

Next, comes the qualification phase.

The goal of the third step is to identify the buyer’s pain points to establish whether or not your product or service can help them. Because you can’t offer them solutions until you know their problem.

Pain is a strong emotion, and people buy emotionally. If you can uncover their real pain, you’ll probably close the deal.

To do this, you have to do most of the listening—70% listening, 30% talking is a good ground rule. By talking too much, you’ll trap yourself into confirmation bias, where you lead the customer to talking about the pains you think they have, rather than the pains they think they have.

If the buyer comes back to you with questions—for example, during a sales demo—ask a question right back, such as “Why is that important to you?”

This may feel a little uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get there with some practice.

4. Budget

One of the biggest differences between the Sandler sales method and other selling methodologies is that you’ll want to identify the prospect’s budget early on in the process.

While other methodologies focus on hooking the buyer in before you bring up pricing, this method focuses on putting the buyer’s budget on the table up-front so that you avoid wasting each other’s time.

However, this step is more nuanced than asking if they have the money. You’ll also want to find out if they have the time, resources, and people necessary for the deal to be successful.

These questions not only establish their budget, but they also reframe the cost to the buyer in terms of what they’ll be losing by not going with your solution.

5. Decision

Next, you have to establish the buyer’s decision-making process.

If you don’t know how they’ll be making their decisions, you won’t know how to position your solution as the best choice.

Knowing your customer’s pains, budget, and decision-making process, you’ll be able to do one of two things:

If you feel there are too many roadblocks to making a sale, disqualify them. Your time is better spent on other deals. That’s one of the main benefits of the Sandler system.

But if you understand their pains, you know they have the budget, and you know how they’ll be making their decision, you can move to the final phase.

6. Fulfillment

Finally, we’ve reached the closing phase.

The sixth step is the fulfillment stage. This is where you present a solution that solves your buyer’s pain points, fits within their budget, and aligns with their decision-making process.

If you’ve strictly followed the process up until this point, this phase should just be a confirmation of all the discussions you’ve had along the way. You shouldn’t have to apply any sales pressure or present new information. For example, features and benefits should be left out of the discussion.

The fulfillment stage is often a presentation, but it could also be a proposal document, pricing quote, or an informal discussion. It depends on how the buyer will be making their decision.

The decision should be pretty black-and-white for the buyer at this point. If you come across any late objections, you likely missed something in the qualification phase, or you didn’t build enough trust—resulting in the buyer withholding information from you.

7. Post-sell

If you get a yes, congratulations! You can move to the final step: the post-sell

But once the buyer moves on to the customer onboarding or implementation process, it’s not time for you to duck out. 

This is your chance to address any possible buyer’s remorse and give the buyer a no-pressure environment to express their concerns.

To do this, establish another up-front contract. Provide all the paperwork that needs to be filled out, provide a clear statement of work, make any contracts easily accessible.

If the buyer does raise any post-sale concerns, you can consider offering a money-back guarantee or a trial period. The goal here is to enhance your credibility and maintain the trust you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Then, keep the relationship going over time. Check in on occasion to ask for referrals, lay the groundwork for repeat business, join your customer success team for quarterly business reviews, and ask for a testimonial or a case study. For more client management tips, check out our client management guide.

The Dock Team