SPIN Selling: The Ultimate Guide

If you’re a B2B salesperson, you’ve probably heard about SPIN Sales. It’s one of the most well-known — not to mention oldest — selling systems. SPIN gives reps a research-backed framework for working and closing complex deals with extended sales processes.

You can use SPIN principles along with your current sales methodology. The strategy focuses on asking good questions in the right order, using active listening, and translating the prospect’s needs into your product’s features. (Many of SPIN’s principles align well with inbound sales.)

To help you implement the most useful tips, aspects, and templates from SPIN Selling, we’ve put together the following guide:

  • Introduction to SPIN Selling
  • SPIN Selling Book Summary
  • SPIN Selling Questions
  • Stages of SPIN Sales
  • SPIN Objection-Handling Techniques
  • Modern SPIN Selling

SPIN Selling Acronym

SPIN stands for the four stages of the questioning sequence:

  • S: Situation
  • P: Problem
  • I: Implication
  • N: Need-Payoff

SPIN Selling Summary

To get the full impact of Rackham’s advice, we recommend reading the entire book. Here’s the link to SPIN Selling book on Amazon.

Here’s a handy overview of the contents:

Section 1. Sales Behavior and Sales Success

  • Closing is less important than most salespeople and managers think
  • Questioning is more important than most salespeople and managers think
  • The ratio of close-ended to open-ended questions doesn’t predict selling success
  • Great reps focus on preventing, not handling, objections

Section 2. Obtaining Commitment: Closing the Sale

  • Successful closing depends on getting the right commitment
  • Reps must determine their call objectives in advance
  • There are four potential outcomes to every sales call: Order, advance, continuation, no-sales

Section 3. Customer Needs in the Major Sale

  • Implicit needs are statements about problems, issues, and areas of dissatisfaction
  • Explicit needs are specific features or functions
  • In larger sales, explicit needs are strong buying signals

Section 4. The SPIN Strategy

  • Salespeople who close at high rates tend to ask the same types of questions in the same order
  • There are four main question types: Situation, Problem, Implication, Need-Payoff
  • Each question type plays a different role in moving the buyer toward the sale

Section 5. Giving Benefits in Major Sales

  • Features and benefits are the most common ways to pitch a product to the buyer
  • Advantages are less effective later in the sales process
  • Features are more important to users than decision makers
  • Benefits have the highest influence over the purchasing decision, but only when presented near the end of the sales conversation

Section 6. Preventing Objections

  • Objections are usually created by the salesperson, not the buyer
  • The more advantages you present, the more objections you’ll receive
  • Develop needs before you offer benefits to avoid unnecessary objections

Section 7. Preliminaries: Opening the Call

  • Don’t use conventional openings, i.e. providing benefits or relating to the prospect’s personal interests
  • Get down to business quickly and establish your purpose

Section 8. Turning Theory Into Practice

  • Adopt one principle of SPIN Selling at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed
  • Practice them with smaller accounts or existing customers first

Questions are the foundation of SPIN Selling. Rackham and his team found top-performing salespeople rarely, if ever, pose random, low-value questions. Not only does every question have a clear purpose, but the order in which they ask their questions is strategic, too.

The four main types of SPIN Selling questions are:

  1. Situation
  2. Problem
  3. Implication
  4. Need-Payoff

Let’s examine each type in more detail.

SPIN Situation Questions

Use Situation questions to learn where your prospects stand — from their processes and pain points to competitive plans and results. The specific questions will depend on your product; for example, if you offer leadership training for mid-level managers, you might ask, “How do you currently teach first-time managers best practices and strategies?”

If you sell office supplies, on the other hand, you might ask, “How do you purchase office supplies right now?”

Here are some sample questions you can customize for your own use:

  • What is your role at [company]?
  • How do you do X?
  • What’s your process for X?
  • Walk me through your day.
  • Do you have a strategy in place for X?
  • Who’s responsible for X?
  • How long have you done X this way?
  • Why do you do X this way?
  • How much budget do you have assigned to X?
  • Why do you do X this way?
  • How important is X to your business?
  • Who uses X most frequently? What are their objectives?
  • Which tools do you currently use to do X?
  • Who is your current vendor for X?
  • Why did you choose your current vendor for X?

Note the lack of fact-gathering questions like, “How big is your company?”, “How many locations do you have?”, “Which products do you sell?”, and so on. When Rackham published “SPIN Selling,” there wasn’t anywhere near as much information available to sellers.

Now that you can discover a long list of key details about your prospect with a quick online search, many situational questions are no longer effective. Not only do they make buyers impatient, these questions also leave less time for the most important ones. Ask as few of the questions in this category as you can — and make sure you’ve done research before the call.

SPIN Problem Questions

In this stage, reps identify potential areas of opportunity. In other words, what gap isn’t being filled? Where is the prospect dissatisfied? They may be unaware they have a problem, so delve into the common places your solution adds value.

  • How long does it take to do X?
  • How expensive is X?
  • How many people are required to achieve the necessary results?
  • What happens if you’re not successful with X?
  • Does this process ever fail?
  • Are you satisfied with your current process for X? The results?
  • How reliable is your equipment?
  • When you have issues, is it typically easy to figure out what went wrong?
  • How much effort is required to fix your tools or buy new ones?
  • Are you happy with your current supplier?

SPIN Implication Questions

Once you’ve identified an issue, figure out how serious it is. Implication questions reveal the depth and magnitude of your prospect’s pain point — simultaneously giving you valuable information for customizing your message and instilling urgency in the buyer.

According to Rackham, they should have a new appreciation for the problem by the time you’ve finished this part of the conversation.

Rackham also says top-performing salespeople ask four times as many Implication questions than their average peers.

  • What’s the productivity cost of doing X that way?
  • What could you accomplish with an extra [amount of time] each [week, month]?
  • Would your customers be [more satisfied, engaged, loyal] if you didn’t experience [problem related to X]?
  • If you didn’t experience [issue], would it be easier to achieve [primary objective]?
  • Does [issue] ever prevent you from hitting your goals in [business area]?
  • When was the last time X didn’t work?
  • How is [issue] impacting your team members?
  • Would you say [issue] is a blocker in terms of your personal career growth?
  • Would saving [amount of time] make a significant difference to your [team, budget, company]?
  • How would you use an extra [amount of money] each [week, month, quarter, year]?
  • Has a problem with X ever negatively impacted your KPIs?

SPIN Need-Payoff Questions

Need-Payoff questions encourage the prospect to explain your product’s benefits in their own words, which is far more persuasive than listening to you describe those benefits.

Essentially, you’re asking questions that surface your offering’s potential to help with their core needs or problems. These questions focus on the value, importance, or utility of the solution.

Make sure your Need-Payoff questions don’t highlight issues your product can’t solve. For instance, if you help corporate recruiting teams identify potential engineering candidates, you shouldn’t ask about the impact of hiring better marketers.

Fortunately, it’s relatively simple to develop Need-Payoff questions — they should come directly from your Implication questions.

Sample Implication question: “Has a problem with X ever prevented you from meeting a deadline?”

Sample Need-Payoff question: “If you could do X in half the time, would that make it easier to meet your deadlines?”

Customizable Need-Payoff questions include:

  • Would it help if … ?
  • Would X make it simpler to achieve [positive event]?
  • Would your team find value in … ?
  • Do you think solving [problem] would significantly impact you in Y way?
  • Is it important for your team members to see X benefit so they can take Y action?

Be careful — Need-Payoff questions can backfire. If they’re too obvious, you might come across as condescending. Try to reframe the solution in a way the buyer hasn’t previously considered.

For example, rather than asking, “Would your company benefit in saving money?”, you could ask, “Would redirecting $1,000 per week from your content creation budget and putting it into Facebook advertising drive significant traffic toward your blog?”

The 4 Stages of a SPIN Sale

Rackham says there are four basic stages of every sale:

  1. Opening (also called “preliminaries”)
  2. Investigating
  3. Demonstrating capability
  4. Obtaining commitment

Transactional salespeople often move through all four of these stages in a single sales call. However, reps working on larger, more complex deals might take two months to two years to complete them.

To help mid-market and enterprise salespeople measure their progress, Rackham uses the concept of “advances.” An advance is an action the buyer commits to that brings you closer to a purchase.

The operative word is action. It’s tempting to interpret your prospect’s request for more information or a proposal as a buying signal, but that puts the ball entirely in your court. If the buyer is actually interested, they’ll agree to do some work as well.

A continuation is a sales conversation that ends with an undesirable outcome. In other words, when you finish the call or meeting the buyer hasn’t agreed to any next steps that will advance the deal.

Example advances include the prospect reviewing your pricing page and sending you their questions, signing up for a free trial and exploring the tool, or introducing you to a key stakeholder.

Come up with as many valuable advances as possible. The more paths to the sale you have, the likelier you are to get there. When your prospect turns down one of your advances — for example, an introduction to Procurement — you can calmly accept the rejection and then propose something else.

An order is the third potential outcome of a sales call. The buyer agrees to purchase your product and shows their strong desire by signing paperwork. For large deals, this is usually the last outcome in a series of progressively larger closes.

A no-sale is the fourth (and least desirable) outcome. Your prospect rejects your request — you can’t meet with the decision maker, they won’t schedule another meeting, or at the most extreme, they say there’s no possibility you’ll work together.

SPIN Selling Opening

SPIN Selling and inbound sales take the same approach to the first, or connect, call. Reps shouldn’t immediately jump into their product’s features and benefits — not only will this overly aggressive strategy turn off prospects, but salespeople will lose the opportunity to learn valuable information.

The purpose of the connect call is to get the buyer’s attention and start to earn their trust. Lead with a compelling insight or thought-provoking question.

SPIN Selling Investigating

Investigation is the most important phase of SPIN Selling. It’s equivalent to the discovery call: You’re figuring out how your product can help the buyer, identifying their priorities and buying criteria, and gaining credibility by asking relevant, targeted, strategic questions.

According to Rackham, a strong question strategy can improve your close rate by 20%.

SPIN Selling Demonstrating Capability

Once you’ve connected the dots between your solution and the prospect’s needs, you need to prove that connection exists.

There are three basic ways to describe your product’s capabilities, Rackham says:

  1. Features
  2. Advantages
  3. Benefits

Features are most useful when selling low-cost, simple products. A feature for a cup might be, “It can hold 10 ounces of liquid.” End users tend to find features more compelling than decision makers, who care about the bottom-line results.

Advantages describe how a product’s features are actually used. Like benefits, they’re useful for smaller purchases but less persuasive with larger ones. The advantage of a cup might be, “You can use it to drink both hot and cold beverages.”

Benefits go one step further and show how a feature can help the prospect. They typically have a financial component and meet your customer’s need(s). A well-crafted benefit gives the buyer a reason to buy your product. The benefit of your cup might be, “Since you drink coffee in the morning and iced coffee in the afternoon, you’ll appreciate this mug’s versatility. Now you can enjoy both beverages with one cup.”

The FAB formula gives you another way to think about features, advantages, and benefits.

Because [product] has [feature]

[user] will be able to [advantage]

which means [prospect] will experience [benefit].

Let’s fill in this formula for a salesperson offering employee gamification software.

“Because our platform lets you set up leaderboards for your service teams, customer support reps will get a real-time overview of their performance compared to their peers. That means they’ll be motivated to raise their average satisfaction rating and respond to tickets more quickly.”

SPIN Objections

In every deal, objections are inevitable. In fact, you should worry more if you’re not getting them — that means your prospect has reservations they’re not sharing with you. Your goal is to discover why the buyer hasn’t already pulled the trigger on this purchase, then help them understand why their concerns aren’t true blockers.

(Of course, if there’s a valid reason your product isn’t a good fit, you shouldn’t persuade them otherwise.)

Rackham states there are two types of objections:

  1. Value: Your prospect isn’t convinced about your product’s ROI. They might say, “I like its features, but the cost is too high.”
  2. Capability: Your prospect doubts that your product can meet their specific needs. That translates to comments like, “I’m not sure it’ll be able to do X for us,” “That process seems like it would take more time than you say,” and “I think we need a more robust solution.”

Capability objections can be further broken down:

  1. Can’t: Your solution cannot solve one of the buyer’s main priorities
  2. Can: Your solution can solve one of their main priorities, but they don’t perceive that

It’s important to prevent as many objections as possible. The majority of objections are actually avoidable if you avoid selling too soon.

Rackham’s research revealed that reps can cut the number of objections in half by using implication and need-payoff questions to build value before presenting a solution.

In the traditional sequence, the salesperson asks a Problem question. Then they use the prospect’s answer to offer the corresponding product feature.

However, the rep usually doesn’t have enough context to truly understand what the prospect is trying to accomplish or what’s blocking her. Their generic, one-size-fits-all answer prompts the buyer to push back — and she’s probably not going to listen to any of their future suggestions.

Try the SPIN sequence instead. Ask a Problem question, probe into the consequences with Implication questions, then ask the buyer to recognize the value of a solution with a Need-Payoff question.

Modern-Day SPIN Selling

“SPIN Selling” was published more than 30 years ago. Although its core techniques and principles hold true, the typical buying journey has evolved. If you’re going to use the SPIN model, you should update it.

First, ask as few Situation and Problem questions as possible. Prospects simply don’t have the patience to do your homework for you. They don’t want you to identify the pain points they already know about — if that was the case, they’d simply buy the solution by themselves. You’re valuable because you can find opportunities or pain points your buyers don’t yet know about.

With that in mind, use thought-provoking questions such as, “Has your organization ever considered [new strategy]?”, “Do you know [surprising statistic]?”, and “Would you like some recommendations for preparing for [impending industry event]?” 

Rackham didn’t give these questions their own category, but they’re definitely useful in modern sales.

Second, incorporate social selling into your strategy. When Rackham came out with “Social Selling,” LinkedIn didn’t exist. Now you have far more insight into your buyers’ perspectives, priorities, and personalities than salespeople in the late ’80s could ever have dreamed of. Don’t let this valuable resource go to waste.

Read your prospect’s profile(s), browse their group comments and any articles they’ve written or shared, check out their Recommendations section to get a feel for their work ethic, and so on. Become as familiar with each individual as you can before your kick-off sales call so you can engage them like it’s the fifth meeting, not the first.

Third, guide their buying process. As the average number of stakeholders involved in every B2B deal grows larger, and internal buying processes become more complex, your expertise gets more valuable. Prospects need you to help them purchase your product like they never have before. Come prepared with the job titles — and potentially names, if you can find them — of their coworkers who need to be informed or consulted.

Tell your point of contact what their manager is going to want to know before they approve the decision, and send them materials to make their presentation more compelling. Work with your contact to anticipate and avoid roadblocks. Liaise with Procurement and/or Legal when necessary to get the deal over the finish line as quickly and easily as possible. Although Rackham didn’t give these recommendations in “SPIN Selling,” they’re one of the most effective ways to differentiate yourself in modern sales.

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