In 1988, Neil Rackham and his company Huthwaite, Inc., researched more than 35,000 sales calls, observing successful and experienced sales professionals doing what they do best. In the process they disproved a number of popular myths about the selling process, and they developed a sales model of their own, which they called SPIN selling (Rickham, 1996). Today sales professionals around the world incorporate the SPIN selling model into their sales process with great success—and if you learn a few simple principles, you can too. The following section describes SPIN selling in a nutshell.
What Is SPIN Selling?
SPIN works from the theory that relationship selling is customer-centric. It requires you to adapt your selling process to your customer, and it delivers personal solutions. To make this work, you have to ask your buyer a lot of questions, let them do most of the talking, and give their responses your full attention. In the SPIN model, there are four components of a sales call: opening, investigating, demonstrating capability, and obtaining commitment. SPIN gets its name from the four kinds of questions that take place during the investigation stage: Situation, Problem, Implication, and Need-payoff. With smaller sales, these four components of the sale (opening, investigating, demonstrating capability, and obtaining commitment) often happen sequentially and in a short period of time; a customer might walk onto your car lot and commit to buying a car from you an hour later. But often in business-to- business (B2B) sales, especially complex ones, you will incorporate SPIN components into a number of the steps in your selling process. For instance, you will do some investigation during your preapproach, and you might make an early presentation in which you open, investigate, and demonstrate capability. Because larger sales take more time, you won’t close the sale at the end of your first presentation, but you might get a commitment from your customer to move the sale forward.
The opening of the sales call is not the most important part, but it does pave the way for the important steps that come after (Rackham, 1996). At the beginning of every call, you want to set the preliminaries and make any necessary introductions. (In larger B2B sales, you usually won’t spend very long on introductions because 95 percent of the time you will be meeting with an existing customer or a prospect you have already met.) (Rackham, 1996). If you are following up on an earlier sales call, it’s important to recap the conclusions of your last discussion: “The last time we spoke, we talked about pricing and setting a timeline, and you agreed that you would like to move the sale forward if we could put together a proposal that matched your budget and would meet your deadlines.”
Investigation—asking questions to uncover your buyer’s needs—is at the heart of SPIN selling. This is the stage during which you ask the types of questions that give SPIN its name: situation, problem, implication, and need-payoff. Here’s how each of these types of questions works during the sales presentation.
Situation questions deal with the straightforward facts about the buyer’s existing situation and provide a starting place for understanding your buyer’s needs (Woodley, 2010) If you ask too many situation questions, you risk boring your prospect and damaging your credibility, so ask situation questions sparingly. If you do careful research before your sales call, you should find out most of the basic information about your customer’s current situation before your meeting so that the situation questions you ask are only the ones that will provide information you aren’t able to track down elsewhere. (Rackham, 1996). For instance, if you are selling Internet connectivity, you might ask your buyer, “Which of your offices are currently using DSL?”
Customer: Our four branch campuses use DSL, but our main offices downtown use a cable service.
You: Oh, they use cable? Who is their provider?
Customer: Ajax Communications. We’ve been with them for about two years.
You: I understand Ajax sometimes offers their service on a contract basis. Do you currently have a contract with Ajax?
Customer: We had a contract, but that ended a couple of months ago.
You already know that your prospect will only be motivated to buy if she recognizes she has a need.
Asking problem questions helps customers understand their needs, and ultimately it paves the way for you to propose a solution that seems beneficial to your customer (Rackham, 1996). Problem questions are the most effective in small sales: “Was limited storage space ever an issue with your last computer? How much has the size and weight of your current laptop affected your ability to carry it with you?” But in B2B sales it is still important to ask a few problem questions so that you and your buyer share an understanding of the problem or need (Rackham, 1996). Sometimes it is tempting to jump right into presenting the benefits of your solution, but keep in mind that your prospect might not always see their problem right away, even if it is already evident to you (Spin selling, 2010). Imagine you sell tractors. To understand the difficulties your prospect faces with their current machines, you could ask problem questions like “How much does it cost to maintain your current farm machinery?” “How often do your tractors break down?” and “Who is usually responsible for doing the maintenance work?”
In larger sales, implication questions are closely linked to success because they increase a prospect’s motivation to seek change. Implication questions uncover the effects or consequences of a prospect’s problems. These questions are especially effective when your prospect is a decision maker whose success depends on understanding the underlying causes of a problem and its potential long-term consequences (Rackham, 1996). Say, for instance, your prospect has offices in five locations, but they only have IT staff at two of the locations. To help them understand the implications of this problem, you might ask questions like this:
You: If a computer crashes at one of your branch offices, who takes care of the problem?
Prospect: That depends. Our Bellevue and Redmond offices have their own IT people, but when we have a problem downtown or in North Seattle, we call someone from the east side offices to come fix it.
You: Wow, that must be a hassle for the IT people! How often do they have to drive out to another location for computer trouble?
Prospect: Usually not more than three or four times each week. If the problem isn’t an urgent one, the IT guys usually make a record of it so that they can fix it during their regular visits.
You: So your IT people have regularly scheduled maintenance visits that they make in addition to the occasional “emergency” trips?
Prospect: Yes. Someone from IT visits each of the three locations once a week to run maintenance and fix any issues that have come up since the last visit.
You: The travel time from Redmond to downtown is about half an hour each way, and it can take an hour during rush hour! Isn’t the commute from Redmond to your other locations even longer? In total, how much time and money would you guess your company invests in these maintenance trips each week?
Your buyer might have told you up front that the shortage of IT staff is a problem, but they might not yet realize all the implications of this problem (like higher costs, wasted time, and inefficiency). By asking this set of implication questions you have just asked, you are helping your prospect explicitly state a need (or needs) that you can solve for them (SPIN selling, 2010).
Once you help your prospect uncover their specific needs, you can help them to discover a way out by asking how this problem could be resolved. These questions are called need-payoff questions. If you ask your prospect the right need-payoff questions, they will tell you how your solutions can help them; you won’t even need to spend much time talking about your product’s benefits because your prospect will have already convinced themselves that your solution will be valuable to them (Rackham, 1996). For example, following the previous conversation about your customer’s IT problem you could ask “How would it help if the IT staff could fix at least half of your computer problems remotely?” or “How much time would you save if I could help you find a way to cut down on your IT support calls from the branch offices?”
From here, you can bring in the FAB approach:
- The product features, or what the product has: “This car has all-wheel drive, and the back seats fold down to expand the trunk.”
- Its advantages: “The all-wheel drive capability makes for better handling in ice and snow, and the ability to fold down the seats means you get a larger storage capacity than you would with other cars of its kind.”
- What the feature does and its benefits: “The all-wheel drive will give you peace of mind when your daughter drives the car in the winter, and the added storage capacity will be especially helpful for any odds and ends you need to transport during your upcoming move.” This includes what the features mean, or the ways in which your solution addresses your prospect’s acknowledged needs (SPIN selling, 2010).
Why Use the SPIN Model?
In relationship selling, the idea of a sales “presentation” can be misleading. To deliver customized value to your prospect, you have to understand their needs and make sure that you are in agreement with them about a solution he could use. This means the sales presentation is a two-way communication. When you make the effort to listen to your prospect this way and when you work to understand their needs, not only will you close more sales, but you will also build stronger, lasting customer relationships. Your prospect will come to trust you and to rely on you as a problem-solving expert.
Asking the right questions is one of the skills required to be a successful salesperson. This is where your ability to ask the right questions really comes into play. It is the open-ended questions that you ask during this portion of the presentation that set the tone for the rest of your presentation. But don’t stop here. Ask open-ended questions throughout your presentation to engage the prospect and continue to gain valuable information.