As a sales manager, choosing the right sales methodology for your team can be overwhelming. The majority of people in the sales world will have heard the term SPIN Selling before—even if they don't know exactly what it means. In this article, we’ll walk you through and summarize the pros and cons of SPIN Selling to help you decide if it’s the right choice for you.
SPIN Selling is spawned from Consultative Selling: the approach of exploring a prospect’s needs before offering your product as the solution. In this methodology, strong relationships must be formed before focusing on selling.
The term originates from a book of the same title that was published 30 years ago. For “SPIN Selling”, Neil Rickman studied more than 35,000 sales calls made by 10,000 salespeople in 23 countries over 12 years. His findings disproved many commonly held beliefs of what powered a sale, like using open questions and describing a product's benefits to increase interest.
Rickman’s findings found that when it comes to selling high-value products a lot of these golden rules don’t work.
From his findings, he built a method called SPIN: a sales methodology that focuses on asking prospects the right questions at the right time using active listening, a technique that involves concentration and focused effort to deeply comprehend what the other person is saying. Combined with pointed questions, the sales rep can work out how their product will solve their prospects’ problems. In this piece, we’re going to look at:
What is SPIN Selling?
SPIN Selling’s technique focuses on a core foundation: sales reps need to ask pointed questions at an appropriate time.
If used correctly, the SPIN technique can highlight common themes and problems a customer is having, enabling your sales reps to position your product as a viable solution.
With this encouragement, the prospect comes to the conclusion that your product can help them, making it easier for your rep to close the deal.
The questions used in the SPIN technique are based on a framework that has four key areas, which are where the method gets its name:
- Situation: Questions about a prospect’s processes, tools, objectives and responsibilities, enabling sales reps to learn about the prospect’s goals.
- Problem: Questions about what challenges the prospect is currently dealing with to help reps address their specific needs.
- Implication: Leading questions about the problems uncovered in the previous step to help reps understand how they negatively affect the prospect’s company.
- Need payoff: Questions about solutions to drive home that the product will benefit the prospect’s organization.
Rather than following a rigid script for every sales conversation, SPIN Selling teaches reps to ask situational questions to move their prospects through the sales funnel.
What are the benefits of SPIN Selling?
To summarize, SPIN Selling enhances sales conversations. Through SPIN Selling, reps start having more stimulating conversations with prospects because they’re not following a one-size-fits-all script.
Instead, they’re navigating the conversation using appropriately-timed questions. The sales reps may have a list of questions they want to ask, but the training helps them time the question in a way that attracts a valuable answer. By gauging which question to ask when, reps can invigorate the conversation and learn a lot more. In this sense, no strict script would work.
SPIN Selling forces your reps to thoroughly research their prospects and come up with thought-provoking, unique questions that are strategically positioned throughout the selling stages.
And because the conversations are thought-provoking, your reps organically learn a lot more about their prospects. They can then use this information to:
- Understand their prospect’s pain points on a profound level to spotlight their biggest needs
- Figure out how their prospect makes major buying decisions
- Build trust
There are also tons of internal benefits to adopting a SPIN selling technique for your sales team:
- If done well, your sales reps will face fewer objections because positioning your product as an effective solution will be easier
- Your sales reps can occasionally avoid the pitch stage entirely by closing the deal during a more casual, pointed conversation
- It provides a framework for planning sales activities that focus on behaviors
- It creates an action plan for the continued development of on-the-job skills
Jamie Stiff, Head of Sales at Lyvly, is a fan of SPIN Selling.
“You really get to the heart of the problem, and it eliminates the ‘nice-to-haves’ while getting into the real needs of the client,” he says. “This allows the seller to operate with genuine care and authenticity, which builds credibility and trust.
What myths did SPIN Selling debunk?
When it was released, SPIN Selling questioned if sales teams should trust what the sales world took as gospel.
“Let’s start this book with some frank advice. Don’t trust what top performers tell you. All our research experience indicates that there’s a great difference between what effective salespeople say they do and what we’ve actually observed from going out with them. If you want to find out how experts sell, then travel with them and watch them in action, don’t rely on what they tell you afterwards.”
The research, results and ultimately the methodology broke the mold and forced a revolutionary type of change in the sales world.
One of the reasons the SPIN Selling methodology is so popular is because it debunked widely used sales techniques—with hard data.
Teams that adopted the SPIN selling methodology were able to use data and research, not sales myths, to guide them towards better techniques.
Here are three significant beliefs that SPIN Selling's research found to be misconceptions when it came to high-end sales:
Misconception #1: Always be closing
Closing a deal is the main goal in the salesroom, right? After all, sales reps have quotas to reach and revenue to bring in.
However, SPIN Selling's research found that if reps are continually pushing to close deals, especially high-end ones, closing aggressively has the opposite effect. In fact, this tactic would lose the rep business.
The research found that the average number of closing attempts made by a sales rep during a sales call didn't positively impact the closing rate. As it was put in the book:
Closing techniques may increase the chances of making a sale with low-priced products. With expensive products or services, they reduce the chances of making a sale.
Misconception #2: Open-ended questions are essential to closing deals
Sales reps are told to ask open-ended questions to try and find out as much about their prospects as possible.
The thought process behind this is that the prospect will tell the sales rep about their problems in hopes they can solve them together. Close-ended questions, which can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, are off the table.
SPIN Selling’s research found that the sales industry’s obsession with asking open-ended questions wasn't backed up by hard evidence. The book established that the number of open-ended questions asked by sales reps didn't make a difference in their closing rates.
In fact, Rickman discovered that successful salespeople used closed questions, too, but only to find out information that would advance the sale. As he wrote in the book:
In other words, none of our studies showed that the classic distinction between open and closed questions has any meaning in high-value sales calls.
Misconception #3: Overcoming objections is a must-have skill
It’s common for sales reps to be able to predict sales objections before they happen. And dealing with sales objections often isn’t a matter of if, but when.
Unsurprisingly, Rickman disputes this in SPIN Selling. He says that sales objections don’t always happen, and his research showed they could be prevented if reps ask the right questions early on.
During his research, Rickham said he often found reps preparing for sales calls by listing out potential objections their prospect might throw at them. This also involved rehearsing their rebuttals and deciding how they were going to handle each rejection.
This effort, Rickham found, wasn’t as crucial to a sale as the reps believed. In fact, Rickham found that customer objections weren’t a significant factor in a lot of successful sales calls studied for SPIN Selling. Here’s what Rickman said in the book.
“Skilled people receive fewer objections because they have learned objection prevention, not objection handling.”
However, you are still likely to face the same sales objections repeatedly in your sales calls and you can prepare for them. Check out our tool that contains experts’ answers to some of the most common sales objections.
What are the pros and cons of SPIN/consultative selling?
SPIN Selling is backed by tons of data and the method has been adopted by many sales teams around the world.
However, like any selling technique, there are pros and cons:
SPIN selling in the digital age
A lot has changed in the sales world since “SPIN Selling” was published more than 30 years ago.
Even with the evolution of sales tools and techniques, the core methodologies of SPIN Selling hold true. However, when the book was published, selling tools like LinkedIn and CRM were yet to be invented.
The good news for sales managers is that these tools can supercharge how effective SPIN Selling is in the salesroom. A CRM can help your sales team gather, store and use the collected information on a prospect to plan out their strategy.
Whenever a sales rep makes contact with a prospect, they can record their calls and take notes, and then store them in the CRM to refer back to. This will help them better track which questions were successful at what stage and make adjustments need be.
Moreover, using a CRM like Pipedrive, sales managers can create a visual map to help sales reps move prospects down the funnel. Questions to ask and the answers that a rep needs to obtain before the prospect can move further down the funnel can be assigned to each stage.
These are just a few examples of how sales teams can combine proven techniques like SPIN Selling with digital tools to create a modern selling machine.
How to adopt the SPIN/consultative selling methodology in your sales team
An easy way to introduce the SPIN methodology to your sales team is by plotting out the question types on a chart.
This makes the flow of the technique clear and straightforward. You can’t move onto the problem question, for example, without asking situational questions first:
You can then elaborate further by explaining in more detail how to navigate each stage.
Step 1. Warm-up your prospects
Your reps should start by asking ‘Situation’ questions with the goal of introducing themselves and asking questions that will help their prospect feel comfortable.
Sales reps should ask generalized, thought-provoking questions to help start a conversation. For example, a rep might ask their prospect something like, “Did you know that (industry- or product-relevant statistic)?” or “Have you ever thought about trying to (automate the process to boost sales)?” to get the conversation flowing.
Keep in mind that while situation questions should be somehow related to your product, the product should never be directly mentioned at this stage.
Using a Sales CRM like Pipedrive as an example, here are some examples of situational questions:
- What is the procedure you follow to find customers?
- How do you track your customer’s engagement?
- How do you navigate your sales cycle?
Step 2: Investigate your prospect’s problems
Next, your reps need to find out what challenges their prospect is facing.
This step involves asking the prospect questions to figure out what part of their business they’re struggling with and how you could help. If a rep fails to connect with the prospect at this stage of the SPIN cycle, it’s hard for them to move onto the ‘implication’ phase.
By asking the right questions here, the sales rep can break down conversational barriers and help the prospect be more open about their struggles. Once a prospect starts discussing the challenges they’re facing, sales reps can get a better idea of what product or solution they can offer them.
Continuing with our Sales CRM business example, here are some examples of problem questions:
- Do you think there are processes your company currently uses that you could improve?
- Is it expensive for you to use a lot of different tools for various tasks? Is it worth it?
- What problems are you facing with your current use of this tool?
Step 3: Prove your product is a solution
Next, sales reps need to start introducing your product as a solution to the prospect's problems.
Reps should never imply that your product will immediately fix their prospect’s problems. However, hypothetical implication questions will help your prospect come to the conclusion on their own that your product is the solution to their problem.
Moving away from the CRM example, here are some examples of implication questions that pretty much any B2B sales rep could use:
- If you can’t fix this problem, how much money and time will your company lose?
- If you fail to fix this problem, would that be damaging to your business's reputation?
- If you have to keep fixing this problem manually, how much will that affect your bottom line and business operations?
It’s at this stage where social proof, testimonials and other trust signals come into play.
Step 4: Seal the deal
Using need-payoff questions, the ultimate goal now is to resolve a prospect’s need and ask them to buy (or try) the product.
Whether scheduling a demo or offering a free trial, it’s at this stage that sales reps lock in a commitment from the prospect.
If the sales rep genuinely listened to their prospect’s situation and positioned your product well throughout, they won't have to sell too hard in this phase.
For this example, let’s assume the role of a SaaS company that sells security software. Some examples of need-payoff questions are:
- How much time could you save if you used our out of box Site Reliability Engineering solution to monitor your security for you?
- If you could decrease the number of site errors by X% next year, would that be worth investing in a security monitoring solution?
- Could our security solution also help to cut down on costs?
- If you were offered a demo or a free trial to see if it helps your problems, would you give it a go?
Take SPIN Selling for a test drive in your sales team
Adopting a SPIN Selling methodology in your sales team is a time-consuming investment. Before you take the plunge, take the technique for a ‘spin’ to see if it's right for your organization.
Let’s see how this test run would look in a fictional scenario:
A SaaS company is selling a sales-boosting tool to a large-scale online clothing store. The specific product they are selling as a solution is a checkout optimization tool; it streamlines the checkout process so that it’s faster and easier to navigate, therefore decreasing cart abandonment. The SaaS company’s sales manager decides to try SPIN Selling to see how it works with a large-scale prospect.
The sales manager may start by listing a question from each key area of the SPIN technique:
- Situation: “How would you describe your current checkout experience?”
- Problem: “How often do people abandon their carts?”
- Implication: “How has that problem impacted your sales?”
- Need-payoff: “If this problem could be solved, how would that benefit your company?”
The sales manager could then show these questions to his reps and get them to come up with their own questions and conversation points for each area by researching the prospect.
The reps should start their research by establishing the online clothing company’s current situation. They could begin by searching on social platforms like LinkedIn, Google, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, as well as publications written by or about the company that can be found in print or online. The rep could search for answers to the following questions:
- How have they established themselves in the e-commerce market?
- What is their current financial situation?
- What is their average product price point?
- Who is their target audience?
- What is their checkout experience like?
- What SaaS tools do they currently use if any?
From this research, a rep can prepare situation questions for their initial conversation with the prospect.
Using the example from the Sales Manager’s list, on the first call, a rep could start with an opening pitch like:
As you might know, 27% of all global clothing sales are now made online, with 58% of global consumers making at least one purchase online in a year. I understand your company already has an online store, but our internal research shows that small changes to an online checkout experience can significantly increase sales. What’s your current checkout experience like?
(If you’re interested, the stats above are from a Forrester report.)
Now, the doors will be open for the conversation to start. If it’s successful, the sales manager may consider investing in teaching the SPIN Selling methodology to their entire sales team.
It makes sense that SPIN Selling is still talked about and used by the sales industry more than 30 years after its publication. It’s backed up by hard research and helps reps get to the heart of a prospect’s problems so that they can position their product as an effective solution.
Of course, there are downsides to SPIN Selling. It takes time to adopt the methodology into a sales team, and the process itself can’t be automated. But the latter is one of the reasons it works so well. Just as every customer is different, so are the questions a sales rep should be asking.