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What Is SPIN Selling?

B2C (business‑to‑consumer) selling is all about capturing the impulse to buy, author of SPIN Selling Neil Rackham says.

Selling to consumers is one and done, at least until the impulse to buy becomes active again. But the majority of B2B (business-to-business) selling is about providing the optimal solution for a specific problem.

Rackham makes a clear distinction between one-off small sales and significant deals to corporations that grow out of multiple sales calls over time. Customer perceptions and behaviors change with time, the author points out, so the selling method must also change.

If you provide products or services, SPIN selling is a technique you need to know. Even though Rackham published his book in 1988, SPIN selling is still considered an essential technique in sales. SPIN selling remains relevant for sellers for one simple reason: Sellers tend to pitch what they do rather than how they can solve specific problems.

Rackham says sellers can't be consultants. There aren't many people who enjoy being pitched to, but nearly every prospect appreciates working out ways to deal with persistent problems. SPIN selling is all about win-win scenarios, and Rackham offers a very specific methodology for achieving them.

Understanding the SPIN selling methodology

Neil Rackham and his team documented approximately 35,000 sales calls over a 12-year period in the 1970s and 1980s. They documented the techniques that worked and distilled them in SPIN selling.

Rackham and associates were selling to large and mid-sized corporate clients with high-value, multi-stakeholder, complex needs. They found that sales success boiled down into a four-step process that they gave the acronym SPIN: situation, problem, implications, and need payoff.

SPIN acronym

SPIN selling was designed for more extensive sales that can be methodically identified. That said, here’s how the SPIN sales process works for large and small deals.

Length of the selling cycle

Larger sales involve a longer selling cycle with multiple sales over time. More minor sales involve a shorter selling cycle that may close the deal during the first interaction.

Number of discussions involved

Large sales involve multiple decision-makers. They discuss the purchase without the seller present.

Small sales involve single decision-makers. Purchase decisions are often made without the seller present.

When sales are made without the seller, the purchaser may not remember all the pertinent facts for making the decision.

Pressure

For large sales, pressure becomes ineffective. "Seduction" is a more effective approach.

For small sales, pressure can be very effective.

The longer the selling cycle, the less effective pressure becomes as a sales tool.

Perception of value

For large sales, the greater the investment, the higher the perceived value.

For small sales, there doesn't have to be a lot of interaction between seller and customer to establish value.

Relationship after the sale

Large sales establish a relationship between seller and customer.

Small sales don't require extensive follow-up. The next contact may occur when it's time to make another sale.

Rackham points out one additional difference between large sales and small sales. Large sales involve high stakes from both the sales team and the customer. Small sales don't.

Stages of SPIN Selling

Rackham and his team identified 4 stages that are appropriate for all large sales calls.

Stages of SPIN Selling

Opening

Introduce who you are, explain why you're calling, and make a case for the customer giving you their time.

Investigating

This stage involves asking questions. Ensure you understand your customer and how their product evaluation has evolved since your last meeting. Identify the problems for which you offer the solution, and ask the questions that increase the perceived value of your product.

Demonstrating capability

The next step is showing the customer you have the product or service they need. This can be a physical demonstration, a presentation, or describing your offer.

Obtaining commitment

In small sales, the commitment is the purchase. Every small sales call should result in a sale.

Every large sale should result in a commitment, too, but this isn't necessarily a purchase. The commitment may be an agreement for another sales call, for a demonstration, or to meet a decision maker.

Rackham found that the most important stage in big sales was Stage 2, investigating. The more questions the seller answers, the more likely the customer will buy. In big sales, the more questions they ask, the more likely they'll make a deal.

How can the SPIN sales method improve your marketing?

So, does the SPIN sales method still work?

Sure, if you're selling to senior management of companies that have already acknowledged their need for change, have a clear vision of their goals, and have a well-established process for purchasing decisions. Some companies even have a scorecard designed to help their managers and customer sales reps optimize their meeting time, allocating specialist support, staging proposals, and improving forecasts.

And many companies don't.

One of the most notable SPIN selling drawbacks is that modern companies have many big data tools that enable them to ask and answer their own questions. That doesn't mean that SPIN selling is outdated; it just needs updating.

What are SPIN selling questions?

The questions that make a difference in small sales are close-ended, yes or no. Focusing on yes and no questions on any sales call can save time.

But in big sales, the most important questions are open-ended. They're more powerful for drawing out information that shows the customer why the seller's solution matches their needs.

The 4 types of open-ended questions in the SPIN technique are:

Situation questions

Situation questions gather data about the customer that the sales rep can transform into information about the sale.

Example SPIN question: What are your plans for growing your audience?

Problem questions

Problem questions get the customer to identify their areas of dissatisfaction or the challenges of the product or process relevant to the sale.

Example SPIN question: Is your current service keeping up with demand?

Implication questions

These questions get the customer to discuss the consequences of staying with their current product or service. These interactions increase the perceived urgency of resolving the problem.

Example SPIN question: How has your hiring kept up with changes in the job market?

Need payoff questions

With these questions, the seller gets the customer to articulate how the product or service being offered meets their needs.

Example SPIN question: Would continuous monitoring reduce failure rates?

The order in which these questions are asked is flexible. Sometimes sellers start with situation questions, move on to implication questions, clarify with more situation questions, and so on.

Rackham is skeptical of traditional closing techniques. For Rackham, the only reason high-pressure closing techniques work is that the customer finds it easier to buy the product than to continue listening to the marketer.

For big-ticket items, pressure usually doesn't work, and when it does, the customer is more likely to be dissatisfied after the sale. Instead, the best approach to selling big-ticket items is to address any "elephant in the room."

Get the customer to acknowledge the need, then show how the product or service meets that need, and only then ask for a commitment. Settle for an advance, an agreement to take the product or idea to other decision-makers, with a date to meet with the seller again.

Best practices of SPIN selling

In business-to-business marketing, there's still a marketing funnel. Knowing how to write a sales email for outbound marketing is important to increase lead generation and drive more sales. You need to be able to grow your audience and build customer relationships.

Best practices of SPIN selling

Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when using SPIN selling.

  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Avoid generic questions
  • Listen carefully
  • Don't overwhelm prospects
  • Practice your delivery

The proven techniques of asking open-ended questions while avoiding generic questions and listening carefully still work. You also need to practice your delivery so that you don't overwhelm prospects.

Star salespeople place a premium on agile clients. They look for customers who can act decisively when presented with a compelling price to buy their products or services. They also make their pitches at the right phases of the customer journey. They look for companies that are in a state of flux.

Of course, the pandemic and supply disruptions have put nearly every company in a state of fluctuation. Add internal pressures, such as a recent merger or acquisition, leadership turnover, or widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the salesperson can capitalize on a unique opportunity.

Big sales are made to companies that are ready to change, not just ready to buy.

Companies that want to buy something will usually take the conservative route and go with established vendors. Sellers still need to be aware of those times companies are ready to buy. But companies that are ready to change can be persuaded to make purchase decisions in the near future.

Star salespeople seek to make their presentations to mobilizers, not to advocates. They look for customers who are accessible, return calls, and are available for meetings when asked. They look for customers who are considered credible inside their own companies, speak the truth, deliver on commitments, and benefit personally from the sale.

The ideal customer is a combination of a go-getter, teacher, and skeptic. They're eager for change, and they can achieve consensus in their own companies. They take some convincing, but once they’re convinced, they're sold.

Wrapping up: SPIN selling

Modern SPIN selling incorporates the tools of big data. Responses to email campaigns, logs of customer interactions, and scraping customer history can reveal the go-getters, teachers, and skeptics who will give the fastest payoff for efforts to make a big sale.

Mailchimp provides top performers with the tools to keep in touch with their customers. From email automation to customer data management, we can support all of your sales efforts.

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