Spotlight on SPIN® Selling
12th December 2019 | Bob Apollo
Following my initial two “Spotlight on…” articles on Sandler and Strategic Selling, I now want to turn my attention to another long-established, widely adopted and still-relevant sales methodology: SPIN® Selling from Huthwaite International.
The concepts behind SPIN® were the result of extensive research by Neil Rackham and his colleagues into the patterns of success and failure in complex B2B sales. Many of the ideas must have seemed counter-intuitive when they were first published three decades ago but have undoubtedly stood the test of time.
Rackham identified a number of significant differences between simple and complex sales and challenged the then-current thinking about the relative merits of open versus closed questions and the traditional emphasis on teaching salespeople how to handle customer objections.
Continuations and advances
He established a particularly important distinction between continuations and advances – something also recognised by Sandler as being critical to sales success. Simply put, in a “continuation” (the outcome of the majority conversations in which the salesperson hasn’t actually been thrown out) the customer agrees to the principle of further dialogue, but all the resulting actions tend to be with the seller.
In an “advance”, however, the prospective customer not only agrees to continue the dialogue but also (this is the critical element) commits to take some non-trivial actions themselves, such as providing previously restricted information, introducing the salesperson to their colleagues, agreeing to take an important next step, and so on.
These incremental customer commitments turn out to be critical to making meaningful progress in a complex sales environment, and successful salespeople both then and now tend to be the ones who have mastered the art of persuading a well-qualified customer to make a series of meaningful advances.
But how are these advances to be achieved? Rackham suggested that they depend upon the salesperson’s skills in having value-creating conversations with their prospective customers – the sort of conversation that a prospect will look back on and conclude was a valuable use of their time. Customers are naturally much more likely to want to continue a dialogue if they feel that they will continue to learn new and useful things from the next conversation.
The research found that the type of questions that salespeople asked, the sequence and relative frequency of the question types and the skill with which they asked them had a huge impact on the chances of getting an advance and – ultimately – achieving a successful sale.
Four types of question
The four question types that underpin the SPIN® acronym are:
- SITUATIONAL questions establish basic facts about the customer’s situation and circumstances such as the size of their organisation, the systems they have in use, and so on. Ineffective salespeople tend to ask a disproportionately large percentage of situational questions – as if they were on a box-ticking fact-finding mission.
But customers deeply resent being asked a series of self-serving fact-based discovery questions, particularly when so much of the asked-for information could have been uncovered by doing some judicious internet-based research.
- PROBLEM questions seek to uncover the prospect’s key business challenges, threats and opportunities. When SPIN® was first published, the dominant objective was to uncover the issues the prospect was already aware of in order to make a connection with the vendor’s potential solution.
But more recently SPIN® and other methodologies have recognised the value of helping the prospective customer to recognise and acknowledge issues they may have not yet been aware of or had undervalued. Rather than asking customers “what keeps them up at night” (which must rank amongst the worst questions a salesperson could possibly ask), today’s skilled salespeople are helping their customers to identify previously unconsidered needs.
- IMPLICATION questions are the most powerful of the four original SPIN® questions, and top sales performers tend to make particularly effective use of them. They help the customer to think through the potential consequences of the issues they have acknowledged.
Customers regard well-crafted implication questions as being particularly stimulating and valuable because they help them to position the scope of the problems they are wrestling with, and to establish whether the business case for dealing with them is compelling.
- NEED/PAYOFF questions help the customer to compare and contrast the costs and risks of sticking with the status quo versus the potential business benefits associated with a decision to change. Rackham wanted to call these “value” questions, but this would have resulted in the acronym SPIV, which I hope no self-respecting salesperson would want to be associated with.
Applying these questions
So how should these four question types be applied? Situational questions can and should be minimised through intelligent preparation. Problem questions help salespeople to better understand their prospect’s issues and challenges. Implication questions help salespeople to establish the relative importance of the acknowledged problems. Need/Payoff questions help to determine the strength of the resulting business case.
Whilst there is a broad logic to the Situation-Problem-Implication-Need/Payoff sequence, it would be wrong and unproductive for salespeople to adopt a simple linear approach. The most skilful salespeople often loop back from implication questions to uncover new problems, and from need/payoff questions to implication, problem and (occasionally) fresh situational questions.
Is the SPIN® model complete? I’d argue that Rackham identified but didn’t explicitly name a fifth key question type in his book: commitment questions.
In any complex B2B sale, building up the full picture requires a series of conversations. It’s particularly important that both the salesperson and the customer believe they are getting value from each phase of the conversation, and this will be evidenced by a well-qualified prospect’s willingness to commit to a series of meaningful advances.
But is the SPIN® model complete? I’d argue that Rackham identified but didn’t explicitly name a fifth key question type in his book: commitment questions.
COMMITMENT questions test the prospective customer’s willingness to agree to a meaningful next step or advance. The best place to seek such a commitment is often at the start of each phase of dialogue rather than at the end.
After determining an agenda and mutually agreed goals for the conversation, we might profitably ask “assuming we both agree that we have achieved these goals at the end of our meeting, would it be reasonable to also agree that our next step should be to [something that represents a genuine advance]?”
Students of Sandler will recognise the parallels between this question type and their concept of the upfront commit.
SPIN® awareness, when combined with commitment questions (SPIN®+C), remains a very relevant foundation for planning to effective sales conversations. But I’d also like to suggest that asking the right questions at the right time is still an incomplete framework.
Choosing the right time
Successful salespeople are able to interweave thoughtfully chosen SPIN®+C questions with equally well-chosen insights, stories and anecdotes that help to educate and inform the customer, and which make the resulting conversation that much more valuable for all concerned.
So: is the SPIN® model still relevant? My experience (and recent research) suggests that the answer is absolutely yes, in combination with appropriate commitment questions and making sure we give back at least as much as we gain from the conversation with our carefully chosen contributions.
If we succeed, we will stimulate our customer to respond with their own well-chosen questions, insights, stories and anecdotes and we will make that all-important valuable advance much more likely – to the great benefit of everyone involved in the conversation.