When people think of sales, they often picture a someone in a suit pitching something that’s not really needed (or even wanted). But the best sales professionals have always known that selling is about relationships. Neil Rackham knew that all the way back in 1988. After 12 years of research and analyzing 35,000 sales calls, he invented what is called SPIN selling.

Today, sales professionals are routinely trained in Rackham’s technique, one which believes the best method of making a sale is getting the customer to realize on their own how great your product is, after defining their problem for themselves. Instead of a hard, surface-level pitch, the salesperson gets to know the customer so they can help them.

So, what exactly is the SPIN technique and how does it work? We’ll define the method here in more detail, explain some examples of how it can be used, and tell you how you can get into the world of digital marketing.

SPIN Selling: How Does it Work?

After Rackham and his team combed through all that data to figure out what made sales calls succeed or fail, they distilled their findings into the SPIN method.

SPIN is an acronym derived from the four different types of questions Rackham determined salespeople could ask their customers during the call to improve their chances of closing a sale. He categorized them like this:

  • Situation
  • Problem
  • Implication
  • Need or payoff

In each phase of the SPIN sales model, salespeople ask their customers some probing questions and let them do most of the talking. The salespeople do pitch their product or service, but only after they’ve clearly defined the clients’ problem and guided them toward a specific solution using these four question categories.

Situation Questions

These are the backgrounder questions, in which a salesperson would gather basic information on their client during a call. In the ‘80s, this was necessary. Today, there’s Google and LinkedIn. You can gather most of the background data you need online before approaching potential clients. In fact, they expect you to have done at least cursory research, so their time isn’t being wasted with basic questions.

For this reason, it’s often recommended to ask as few situation questions as possible and target the ones you do more specifically. For example, instead of “How big is your company?” which could easily be found via an online search, you might ask, “Why do you train employees this way?”

Problem Questions

In this phase, the seller identifies areas where their product or service could help the client. What needs do they have that aren’t being met? How could what they’re selling help that client fill that need? These questions could also help make the client aware of a need they didn’t see before. It’s important to note here that SPIN selling isn’t about convincing people to buy things they don’t need, as that would be unethical.

Some examples of problem questions might be, “How reliable is your software?” or “What does it cost you when your system goes down for a few hours?” These can be a way to help frame a need for the client before going into the pitch.

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Implication Questions

These questions help further frame the need or problem by identifying how serious the client’s “pain point” is. Again, asking them questions about it makes them think through the issue and starts to form the idea in their heads that it might be solved by what the salesperson is offering.

These questions also give the seller further information about the potential buyer and they or their company’s methods. Rackham said in his book that customers should have “a new appreciation of the problem” by the time this discussion is finished.

Sample implication questions could be: “What could you accomplish with an extra five hours a week?” or “If you didn’t have to deal with [their problem], would it be easier to get your job done?”

Need/Payoff Questions

With this set of questions, the seller encourages the client to explain the benefits of the product or service being sold in their own words. These questions should be informed by what was asked in the implication portion, as the seller will have gathered personalized information about the client and how they work – how they do things in their company and why, how much an outdated method may be costing them, where the gaps are in their workflow-through implication questions.

Here, the questions are aimed at making the potential client see the utility of the product for themselves and how it can solve their specific need or problem. For that reason, it’s essential not to ask questions about issues their product can’t solve, because that might be implying that it could; again, these are murky ethical waters we want to stay out of.

Rackham identifies four stages of every sale in his book alongside numerous SPIN selling examples, and they are as follows:

  1. Opening/Preliminaries
  2. Investigating
  3. Demonstrating Capability
  4. Obtaining Commitment

SPIN selling advocates getting down to the business of finding out the client’s needs as soon as possible, rather than coming in with a sales pitch straight off. The SPIN system’s utility and focus on value make it no surprise that it’s one of the oldest sales techniques in the U.S., still going strong today.

By the end of the need/payoff portion, the goal is to have identified the client’s problem or need, how severe that need is and how it’s holding them back and how what the seller is offering can be the solution. The seller is seen as someone who can provide value to their client as an advisor, rather than a huckster trying to make a buck.

“You need to uncover the issues or challenges the organization you’re selling to faces,” said John Goldman, chief executive of the sales firm Rackham founded called Huthwaite International, in an interview with Forbes. “Show you can find a solution for their issues and opportunities.”

Keep in mind that while this method was originally distilled from sales calls, it can be updated and applied to modern digital marketing techniques, from email to Twitter. SPIN selling is about effectively communicating with the potential client, no matter the medium. In the age of email, slack and video conferencing, SPIN selling is arguably more important and effective than ever. Customers are being inundated with hard pitches, and they’ve learned to tune most of them out. Translating SPIN to email is one way to grab the attention of your potential customers.

New digital tools like social media can be used in SPIN sales, as well. Consider Twitter or Instagram polls, or sending out a questionnaire to an email subscriber list asking their thoughts. The candid, easily accessible nature of social media makes it more likely you’ll get answers to your questions, and the information you gather could save you time and effort down the line.

Want to Know More?

If you’re drawn to the world of marketing and want to see just how far you can push it in today’s digital world, then a degree in digital marketing could be the right choice to set you on a fulfilling career path.

Fairleigh Dickinson University’s fully online digital marketing degree will teach you how to effectively engage with people digitally, with classes in digital and mobile marketing, web analytics, search engine marketing, website design and more. Learn from faculty with experience in the field and earn your degree on a schedule that works with your busy life.