SPIN Selling and Selling Strategy

The SPIN selling model began with a large survey by Huthwaite that showed that in successful sales calls the buyer does most of the talking. This led to the SPIN sales system, which identified a more effective way for salespeople to ask questions and get buyers talking. SPIN selling is a powerful system, especially for a specific kind of solution selling. This critique is meant to explain its power in the larger context of Sun Tzu's Sun Tzu's Rules and how the process of SPIN becomes even faster and more effective when coupled with Sun Tzu's Sun Tzu's Rules.

SPIN Selling explains that by asking questions the salesperson build rapport with the buyer and gathers information. Sun Tzu's strategy specifically defines “rapport” as coming from a sense of shared mission. In using SPIN Selling and asking questions, you are communicating the larger idea that you and the buyer are working together on a shared mission of solving the buyer's problems. Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that a shared mission creates focus and power. This distinguishes the SPIN sales approach from most selling which simply focuses on making the sale. The original survey recognized that selling works differently when questions are asked. Sun Tzu's strategy explain why: a shared mission is being created by the process.

The power of combining SPIN Selling with classical front-line strategy is easy to explain and understand. Four types of questions are identified by the acronym SPIN: situation questions, problem questions, implication questions, and need-payoff questions. While SPIN offers a very valuable approach for using and formulating these questions, classic strategy offers the salesperson trained in SPIN additional powerful insights to offer his prospects with this process. This article explain this below in examining each category of SPIN questions.

Situation Questions

Situation questions are the most general, gathering facts about the buyer's situation. The Huthwaite survey showed that the more situation questions asked, the less likely it was that the sale would close. Sun Tzu's strategy explains exactly why this is true.

Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that there are an infinite number of facts involved in any situation. Just asking about “facts” doesn’t create sales progress. You cannot get you anywhere unless you have a way of organizing the information and identifying what is important and what is not. Most inexperienced salespeople ask so many situation questions because they don't know is important. Sun Tzu's strategy identifies exactly what is important and in what order, working through the five factors starting with philosophy, going to climate, then through ground, command, and methods.

Most salespeople asked more situation questions because most salespeople lack a focus and want the customer to give them one. The SPIN process, which leads to problems, implications, and needs, is good, but the classical strategy is even better because it brings in other elements, such as changes in climate, that really drive urgency.

Huthwaite's survey showed that the more senior the buyer, the less they like answering factual questions. This is because senior people realize that there are an infinite number of relevant facts and that the salesperson who is asking aimless questions is incapable of helping the buyer help with the issue of making decisions. When a salesperson masters Sun Tzu's strategy, senior people love talking to them because the questions they ask have a clear purpose and goal. Questions directed by Sun Tzu's strategy illustrates how to fit together pieces of information into a meaningful picture. In putting together that picture, the buyer gets valuable perspective, making the process well worth his or her valuable time. .

While SPIN selling teaches that successful salespeople ask fewer situation questions because of their good planning, according to the more precise definition of Sun Tzu's strategy, gathering relevant information does not come simply from research. The most relevant information, the buyer's subjective judgments about their situation, cannot be research except through questions. The secret is not simply avoiding such questions, but making them more productive for both the salesperson and the buyer.

Problem Questions

SPIN selling defines problem questions as the second step in the questioning process. During this step, salespeople ask about the buyer's pain. SPIN teaches that people buy when the pain of the problem is greater than the cost of the solution. While this focus on "pain" can be useful, Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that it is too narrow for most forms of selling. Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that people buy when no other alternative, including keeping their money, will give them as much benefit or pleasure.

Problem or pain questions assume that the buyer feels the pain or recognizes the problem. Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that this is not always the case. Pain is most likely to be felt when buyers are responsible for internal processes that are going wrong. When this happens, people realize their pain, but they don't necessarily know the causes, which leads to the implication questions that follow. Certainly Huthwaite's work with Xerox Corporation in the 70s and 80s influenced their thinking here. Those who bought reproduction equipment in this timeframe were dealing with internal constraints and conflicts that caused pain.

However, many buyers are not in this situation. Some buyers are looking for ways to advance their position to address there desire for gain rather than to address the pain of loss. Even in business-to-businesses sales, buyers should and must be motivated by more than simply “solving problems.” Looking at the buyer's situation from perspective of front-line strategy tells us more. The buyer is looking for ways of building up or advancing their existing position in the direction of their mission. They may or may not have a problem they need to solve, but they always have to make choices about how to use their resources to achieve the best results.

If there is a universal “problem,” it is deciding which management decision is the best at any given point in time. Among those decisions, there is always the choice of simply doing nothing, operating under the current system. People with “pain” are motivated to make a change, but so are people who are doing well and want to do better. This is true even for consumers. People who want to buy a new car aren’t in “pain,” but they want to have something better and they have to make a decision to get it. Seeing all buying decisions in terms of problems and pain can hide as much as it reveals.

SPIN Selling teaches that it is better to uncover more then one problem before asking implication questions because focusing on only one problem can by myopic. A salesperson trained in Sun Tzu's strategy could not make this mistake because they know to seek information in all five key areas. They take into account the totality of the customer’s position, which is designed to weigh a variety of weaknesses and strengths against each other.

Huthwaite' teaches that more experienced salespeople ask more problem questions and to ask them sooner. What this means from the aspect of Sun Tzu's strategy is that experienced people learn from trial and error that their job is balancing what Sun Tzu calls "emptiness" in the market with the "fullness" of their offering. Without having the terminology for it, salespeople learn to look for the emptiness or needs.

SPIN Selling suggests working backwards from the problems that your products solves for a buyer to generate problem questions. This works and is necessary as far as it goes, but Sun Tzu's strategy can make it more powerful. The SPIN approach says that by looking at your products, you can know before talking to customers what needs they will fill. Front-line strategy says that this "planning" approach will miss most opportunities. You need customers to tell you how your product fits their needs. This requires the front-line focus of exploration rather than the SPIN focus of simply planning.

The job of Sun Tzu's strategy is to learn from customers the types of needs your product fills. You then take that knowledge to similar types of customers with similar types of needs.

Implication Questions

SPIN Selling uses implication questions to learn about the effects of the problem. This is necessary before talking about solutions. It also develops the seriousness of the problem to increase the buyer's motivation to change. These type of questions are necessary to identify the source of the buyer's pain.

In SPIN Selling, implication questions are needed because the system doesn't recognized the need to understand specific issues of the buyer's philosophy, change in climate, the economics of leadership, and methods. Since these key factors have been overlooked by the process thus far, the SPIN process asked about implications hoping to pinpoint one of these issues as the real problem. If the issue is increasing the buyers' motivation to change, Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that the salesperson should focus on change in climate rather than the general implications of the problem.

SPIN Selling teaches that implication questions are the most powerful sales questions, but they are even more powerful when they focus on the specific information needed to define the position of the buyer. Understanding the factors that define the position makes SPIN selling much, much more effective. These question are so powerful because what buyers are looking for is insight into their problems. As SPIN Selling teaches, buyers are trading information for insight. One of the easiest ways to gain and offer insight is by doing a more comprehensive job in analyzing positions using classical formulas of Sun Tzu's strategy.

Need-Payoff Questions

The final questions in the SPIN Selling process are the need or payoff questions. The questions are designed to get buyers to tell salespeople about their explicit needs. This identifies the real benefits the salesperson's solutions. Instead of having the salesperson explain those benefits, need questions get the buyer him or herself to explain those benefits. This has a much greater impact than the salesperson stating the benefits.

Sun Tzu's strategy cuts more quickly to the core issues of a buyer's needs or desires. Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that customer needs represent their emptiness. All decisions that people make reflect a desire to fill an emptiness. Salespeople offer “fullness” in the form of their products or services to fill these needs. Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that product features and benefits are best understood only in terms of fullness that fills a specific form of emptiness. The process of asking need questions is instantly more understandable once you add the framework of emptiness and fullness from Sun Tzu's strategy.

SPIN and Sun Tzu's strategy

Salespeople trained in the "SPIN" average of 17% improvement in sales results. This number bothers me. Salespeople that are also trained to combine SPIN with Sun Tzu's strategy can easily double or triple this improvement.

People do not buy from salespeople because they understand their products but because they feel the salesperson understands not just their problems but their goals. Sales rapport comes from goals shared by the salesperson and his or her customers. The job of salespeople is not just communicating the value of their products, but communicating that information in the context of sharing the customer’s goals.

The advantage in using Sun Tzu's strategy in the sales process is that it immediately aligns goals and offers a comprehensive view of buyer's situation. Using it, salespeople can be confident that all major elements, especially that pesky element of change, are taken into account. SPIN teaches that top salespeople discuss the effects of the problem before talking about solutions. Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that customers want to buy from top salesperson because the salesperson seems understand their situation as well as they do.

A Bigger Picture

There are no perfect solutions in a complex sale but Sun Tzu's strategy teaches that there are valuable relative comparisons. The SPIN model doesn't specifically look at a buyer’s other options in making a decision. These options apply both to addressing the specific problems identified by SPIN and for using resources outside of that problem entirely.

The SPIN universe is limited to the buyer's needs and the salesperson's product. The real world must address the position of competing products and alternative choices including the choice of "no decision." All alternatives must be positioned appropriately by the sales process. This requires a more comprehensive analysis of the buyer’s other options to create a ideal positioning for your product. SPIN is a great start to this process, but it works better in the large context of good strategy.

One of the best tools in SPIN selling is the idea that salespeople need to evaluate a buyer's commitment to finding a solution. In SPIN, an action that moves a salesperson closer to a sale is called an "advance." A buyer's request is not an advance unless the buyer also agrees to take some action. This fits exactly with the Sun Tzu's strategy model that defines progress as a series of many smaller steps. Each step requires a list-aim-move-claim cycle where the . the “claim” stage demands a response. In classical strategy, actions speak louder than words. In sales, a claim requires getting this commitment to action from the buyer. No advance is completed without a successful claim.

However, strategy extends the SPIN model. It says that these steps should be as small and quick as we can design them for a given situation. We don’t want to try to get BIG commitments that require a long-time, but a series of smaller, quicker, easier, hard to deny commitments, using openings to take us where we want to go. Asking for hard, risky commitments kills the process and are a failure of strategy. Salespeople and all front-line people must continually listen and aim for the small wins that keep the process moving forward until it builds momentum.

The idea that this process can be “planned,” as often stated in SPIN Selling is not very precise. The process itself opens up the paths that the salesperson needs to explore. Those paths cannot be known beforehand in any specific sale. What is mistaken for “planning” is what we call a situational response: rehearsing certain methods that automatically come into play in a given strategic situation.

SPIN Selling is correct when it says that asking good questions doesn't come easily for most people. This is why SPIN emphasized planning. However classic strategy says that salespeople find asking good questions difficult because they lack a standard framework for analysis. Sun Tzu's strategy provides such a framework. Without that framework, the SPIN process of starting with problems and working to need can uncover some of the key factors. However, if you couple those processes with the more direct approach of Sun Tzu's strategy, they both speed and focus the sales process.

The whole focus of SPIN Selling is on a logical process that investigates the prospects needs and selling in light of those needs. This process is more powerful when you add the more comprehensive framework of relative positioning from Sun Tzu's strategy and look at sales as a process of advance the position of your offering so that it surpassed all other alternatives.