Neil Rackham published “SPIN Selling” in 1988 based on a major 12-year study focusing on how large sales were made. A key finding was that in successful sales calls it’s the buyer who does most of the talking, and this is done by asking them the right kinds of questions. He clarified four types that could be asked to attain the most success in larger sales: s-situational, p-problem, i-implication and n-need/payoff questions. In this post, I will outline these four categories of questions and note why they are still a relevant path to sales success 30 years later. You might also find Mark Elliott’s treatment of this topic helpful.
Situational questions focus on understanding where your buyer currently stands. While they are essential, they must be used sparingly and carefully as buyers can quickly become bored. They’re often overused by unsuccessful salespeople, probably because they’re easy and safe to ask. Successful sales reps don’t ask unnecessary situational questions. Research on targets has never been easier, and a cursory review of the target’s website or LinkedIn profile can provide plenty of information. Be sure when you are planning questions to ask yourself, “What do I really want to know when should I ask this question?” While the challenger sales model suggests that you come to the table already knowing this information, and challenging the status quo, I believe a more consultative process will build greater trust in more complex sales.
Referring to their sales and marketing offerings, Klenty Home blog provides these examples of situational questions to ask around current tools being used. In the end, you want to know more about your buyer’s current context in relation to the product your selling.
Successful sales reps spend more time focusing on problem questions than situational ones as these are more strongly linked to sales success. They can include questions like, “Are you satisfied with your present tool/platform/ system?”, “What is the disadvantage of the way you’re handling things now?”, or “What’s the biggest challenge with the current way of doing things?”. Open-ended sales questions, often beginning with what, why and how, can be the most powerful as they provide further insight into the pains your buyer is experiencing. My experience has been that buyers are more interested in discussing their problems than simply providing information about their company. While speaking to a potential customer this week, asking a few “problem” questions opened up three different ways I was able to offer solutions to him.
Most probing questions stop at situational and problem questions. Spin selling pushes salespeople towards asking questions around implied needs. While problem questions can uncover implied needs, these might be small challenges in the mind of the buyer that do not outweigh the cost of the solution. For example, one of my clients has a tool to share contacts more easily in G Suite. While on the phone with someone who has signed up for a trial they described the problem in their organization, “I can’t share and update contacts at my school”, but they didn’t believe the problem was big enough to merit buying licenses for all the G Suite users in their school. It was my job to help them understand the implications of NOT solving this problem, “So, what happens when a teacher isn’t able to contact parents in an emergency situation because the contact information is not up to date?” Sometimes the buyer must be walked through the implications and seriousness of the problem to see the outcomes related to not doing anything about it. Stacking up all the implications of the problem helps the buyer address its true size.
Some examples of implication questions can include:
-What effect does that have on output/ efficiency/ the bottom line if that issue is not addressed?
-In what areas will that lead to further costs?
-How will that slow down future growth?
While implications can have a negative tone, its important to frame the situation within a positive context. The Spin Selling research identified that successful people used two types of questions to transform implied needs into explicit needs: first implied needs questions build up the problem, then need-payoff questions build up the positive elements of the solution:
-Is it important for you to solve this problem?
-Why would you find this solution useful?
-Are there other ways that this could help you?
They begin to turn attention from the problem to the solution and the customer begins discussing the benefits with you.
The research shows that need-payoff questions are strongly linked to success in larger sales, increase the acceptability of your solution, and begin to equip the buyer to be a champion of the solution within their organization. You’re getting the buyer to tell YOU the ways in which your solution will help, becoming your subject matter expert. This rehearsal equips and empowers the buyer for the internal selling they’ll need to do within their organization.
To summarize, The seller uses SITUATIONAL QUESTIONS to get the lay of the land, leading to PROBLEM QUESTIONS so that the buyer reveals IMPLIED NEEDS which are developed by IMPLICATION QUESTIONS, making the buyer feel the problem more clearly and acutely leading to NEED-PAYOFF QUESTIONS so that the buyer states EXPLICIT NEEDS allowing the seller to state BENEFITS which are strongly related to success.
While the spin selling framework was developed over 30 years ago, I believe it’s still current and relevant today within complex sales. It’s a consultative method which builds trust and at the same time equips the buyer to become your internal champion within an organization.