SPIN Selling summary and book review: For a long time, the sales methods focused on the art of closing a sale: the greatest gurus said that this step was the most crucial, and that the more one attempted closing techniques during a sale, the more the sale was likely to be made; Neil Rackham’s research has shown that this is only true for small sales made primarily to individuals: he explains in SPIN Selling why closing techniques do not work, and what to use instead, drawing on statistical studies based on 35000 sales calls with buyer and seller.
By Neil Rackham, 1988, 192 pages.
Book review and summary of SPIN Selling:
Chapter 1 – Practice Makes Perfection
While a young researcher in behavioral psychology, who was developing his sales consulting business, Huthwaite, Neil Rackham had the opportunity to test the recently developed business behavior models with a Fortune 100 company. The sales of the latter were about 30% less efficient than they should have been, although it invested a lot in the recruitment and training of its sales representatives. Therefore, the sales manager asked tNeil Rackham to accompany several sales representatives and find out what was going wrong.
What Neil Rackham found did not please the manager and his colleagues.
After analyzing 93 sales interviews, his conclusions were as follows:
- Successful sales interviews were those in which the least amount of sales closing techniques had been used.
- The best sellers were not at all the ones who were the best at handling objections. There were simply fewer objections in the best sales.
- Using open or closed questions had absolutely no effect on whether the sale was a success or not.
The team to whom he showed these results was outraged. It went against everything they had learned, everything they had been doing for years, everything they had taught to new recruits: mainly that the three most important things to close a sale are the art of closing, managing objections, and detecting needs through open questions. Each of those in attendance, who had extensive sales experience, indicated that many reputable companies – IBM, Xerox, AT & T, Exxon, Kodak, etc. – were using this model and teaching it to their sales representatives. The manager turned to Neil Rackham and told him that he did not want to cast doubt on these research capacities, but that all of his results went against their experience, and that he, therefore, thought they were false.
It ends the meeting. Being a young researcher with no experience, he did not have the firepower to counter the wisdom of the world’s biggest corporations. Neil Rackham dressed his wounds on the plane back home, thinking that, indeed, the evidence of what he was claiming was not very strong. And if he had been in the manager’s place, he would not have listened either.
Since this uncomfortable meeting, the author and his colleagues have collected much more convincing evidence. They analyzed 35,000 sales calls for 10 years, studying 116 factors that can play a role in sales performance in 27 countries, thanks to millions of dollars in research funded by large companies.
With this, Neil Rackham could give the sales manager convincing answers, such as:
- His sales training was good for small sales. What Hutwaite discovered is that the traditional sales methods used by its sales representatives did not work if sales were large. That’s why his top sellers, who made the largest sales, no longer relied on the traditional techniques of handling objections and closing sales.
- They now know that much more effective techniques are being used by top sellers in major sales. At the time they did not understand these methods precisely enough to describe them convincingly, but now they are able to describe to the sales manager how the best sellers use a powerful investigative strategy called SPIN and which, more than anything else, besides sales skills, is a success factor.
- Although no one at Huthwaite knew it at the time, all the big companies cited by the team members became increasingly dissatisfied with the inefficiency of these traditional sales techniques. More than two-thirds of the companies cited called on Huthwaite from 1983 to 1988 to redesign the training of their sales representatives.
Neil Rackham presents in SPIN Selling the results of this research, and explains in detail which sales techniques are ineffective, and which ones are effective. Find out through this guide.
Chapter 2 – Obtaining commitment: closing the sale
When Neil Rackham began his research and did not know where to begin, he dove into more than 300 references. Each book on sales had at least one chapter devoted to the close. The author was fascinated. There stood the magic answer to generating business. The best-known closing techniques are:
- The assumptive close. Assume that the sale has already been made, saying, for example: “Where would you like to have it delivered?” before the customer has agreed to the purchase.
- The alternative close. For example, ask “Do you prefer delivery on Tuesday or Thursday?”, also before the client has agreed to the purchase.
- The now-or-ever close. “If you cannot make your decision now, I should offer it to another client, who is in a hurry to buy”.
- The last-chance close. “The price goes up next week, so unless you buy now…”
- The order-form close. The sales representative fills in an order form with the client’s answers, then hands them the form, even if the client does not show any willingness to buy.
In addition to these classics, there are hundreds of other closing methods that many sales gurus have been developing for decades. The experts were unanimous on the importance of these closing techniques, and generally said that it was better to use these techniques “as early as possible in the transaction” and to use several of them. J. Douglas Edwards, described as the father of closing techniques, indicated that successful sellers were selling by the fifth closing technique used.
The consensus established the following points:
- Sales closing techniques were closely related to the success of the sale.
- You should use a lot of closing techniques.
- You should close frequently during the sales call.
In this chapter Neil Rackham answers the following questions:
- How many of these closing techniques work?
- In larger sales, how do factors such as buyer sophistication and price influence the success of the closing?
At first, Neil Rackham fully agreed with the importance of the closing and had also obtained his first sale for his company thanks to an alternative close – at least he believed so. The first study focused on a large office equipment company. One of the ways to link closing to success, Rackham reasoned, was to go with sellers and examine how often they used closing techniques: if they were effective, the interviews leading to sales should show a stronger use of closing techniques. The results, covering 190 calls, were very different:
Thus, we see that in this case, the use of many closes causes a significant decrease in the number of sales. So much for the sacred importance of closing in sales. And the research is not just about numbers. Attending and analyzing 190 sales calls gave the author mixed feelings about closing, which he can now appreciate as the beginning of his awareness of the ineffectiveness of these techniques. He noted, for example, a distinct dissension among some clients, particularly professional buyers, with the use of any closing technique other than simply asking if the client was ordering.
Seller: So, Mr. Robinson, you can see that our product is clearly the best for you – if you just sign here (assumptive close).
Buyer: Wait a moment – I don’t see… I’m still deciding.
Seller: But, Mr. Robinson, I showed you how we can improve the efficiency of your company and avoid unnecessary problems and expenses – so if you could choose when you would like the delivery… (assumptive close)
Buyer: I won’t do that. I won’t make my decision this week.
Seller: But as I explained, this model is in great demand. I can get you one now, but if you wait until next week, there could be a delay of several months (now-or-never close).
Buyer: This is a risk that I will have to take.
Seller: Would you prefer a one-month trial installation, or would it be better for your budget to buy it directly? (alternative close).
Buyer: I’m going to throw you out of my office. Tell me, do you and your friend in the corner prefer to leave on your own, or should I call security?
As the seller pointed out to Neil Rackham with a sorry look, it is not fair for a buyer to use an alternative close to throw out a sale representative.
A study, however, is not enough to prove anything, especially since it was about disputing a consensus. The author and his company have therefore carried out many other studies including:
- A survey asking 38 sales representatives if they were for or against using closing techniques, and a correlation then established between their answers and their performances:
Sales representatives with an unfavorable attitude towards sales closing techniques achieved 104% of their annual objectives, compared to 83% for the others.
- A study of 47 sellers to determine if they had a higher success rate after training (dealing with the art of closing a sale):
We see a clear decrease in performance after training. The trainers argued that these were new techniques that sales representatives did not yet master, and that a temporary drop in sales was normal. A good argument. Another study was planned after six months, but unfortunately, the sales department was completely reorganized, making this study impossible.
The light came through a study commissioned by a franchisee of photo stores that would train its sales representatives with closing sales techniques. The peculiarity of this company is that it had a policy of rotation of its sellers: one day a salesman worked in an aisle that sold cheap products, like films, cassettes, accessories, and the other day he found himself in an aisle where he sold much more expensive products, such as high-end cameras, or hi-fi equipment or video.
Here are the results of the study for low-value goods:
|Average transaction time||Number of closes per transaction||% of sales made|
|Before training in the art of closing a sale||2m 11s||1.3||72%|
|Before training in the art of closing a sale||1m 47s||1.9||76%|
And on high-value goods:
|Average transaction time||Number of closes per transaction||% of sales made|
|Before training in the art of closing a sale||12m 35s||2.7||42%|
|Before training in the art of closing a sale||8m 40s||4.5||33%|
From these two studies the following useful information can be drawn :
- Transaction time decreased in both cases.
- The percentage of sales made slightly increased for low-value sales.
- The percentage of sales made fell sharply for high-value sales.
The reduction of the transaction time is logical. By forcing the client to decide, closing techniques speed up the transaction. This is an interesting discovery, which already shows the value that closing techniques have for small sales: by applying them, stores can reduce the line of customers and process more on a single day, thus increasing sales.
But who wants sellers to spend less time on the most important sales? For this type of sales, you generally want to spend more time with the customer, not the other way around.
All these studies show that sales closing techniques increase the chances of making a sale with low-priced products, but especially reduce the chances of selling with high-priced products or services.
What is the difference between a low-price product and a high-price product? It is unclear: The latest study products listed as “high-priced” had an average price of $109, which may not seem like much. But if this effect already appears at $109, it can only increase as the price increases. You could argue that spending $109 of your own money is more difficult than spending $10,000 of your company, and you might be right: no one quite understands the complex psychology of the perceived magnitude of the decision to be made. But it is certain that closing techniques, like all forms of pressure, become less effective when the magnitude of the decision to be taken increases.
Two other studies provide additional information to these data:
- A study showing that professional buyers, experienced in sales techniques, hate sales closing techniques because they seem manipulative to them. Here’s what 54 of them answered to the question “If you find that a seller is using a closing technique on you, what effect, if any, will that have on you?”:
- More inclined to buy: 2
- Indifferent: 18
- Less inclined to buy: 34
- A study on customer satisfaction of a franchise of stores between 3 and 5 days following their purchase, and their correlation with closing techniques used on them:
|Satisfied customers||Probability of buying again at the same store|
|Sellers trained to use closes||5.8 / 10||5.2 / 10|
|Sellers trained to use closes||7.7 / 10||7.9 / 10|
Therefore, it seems that purchases made under the pressure of closing techniques give rise to greater customer dissatisfaction after the fact, and that this creates a decreasing desire to buy something afterward in that store.
However, despite all the evidence that converges to indicate that closing techniques are detrimental to sales of a certain value, it is necessary to close.
Otherwise, this is what will happen:
Young seller: So, is there anything else I can tell you about this product?
Client: No, thanks. I think you answered all my questions.
Young seller: Good, good. Are you sure there is nothing else that I haven’t covered?
Client: Nothing I can think of.
Young seller: OK (horrible pause) uh… maybe I didn’t talk about dual voltage.
Client: You did. Well, I’m late for another appointment, so…
Young seller: (somewhat desperate) it also has an instruction manual in Spanish… if you need Spanish.
Client: Listen, Mr. Newman, I have to go.
Young seller: Um. Are you sure I answered all your questions?
- What’s going on here? An inexperienced seller is afraid to bring the interview to its close, out of fear of rejection no doubt, which results in the client becoming impatient. The client needs the seller to guide him a little bit, so the lack of a closing can have an effect just as adverse as too much of a closing.
Huthwaite carried out a study of 575 sales calls conducted by American Airlines sales representatives, comparing their success rate with the number of closings used in a sale. The results are beyond appeal:
Calls without any closing achieved a sales transformation rate of 22%. This figure climbed to 61% when a close was used. And starting from 3 closes, the success rate is lower than if no closing technique is used…
Therefore, it is necessary to close the sale in order to make progress with the client. In minor sales, it’s simple; either the interview ends with a sale or it doesn’t. We rarely go to a video equipment store and go to the cassette department to discuss prices with the seller and finally say “I’ll think about it and I’ll come back later”.
When it comes to major sales, it’s not nearly as simple. A minority of interviews can lead to a sale, and that’s perfectly OK: a seller at Airbus or Boeing can very well spend three years working without taking a single order. And during this time, he/she will not have received any refusal that could be interpreted as a failure. All interviews allow for a slow and modest progression towards the ultimate goal – an aircraft order.
The author proposes to divide the outcome of each sales interview into four possible categories in order to set objectives and to make an analysis thereafter:
- Orders: the client makes a firm commitment to buy. “We are 99% sure to buy” will not be considered an order. The commitment must be irrevocable and will generally involve a signature on whatever document.
- Advances: when an event takes place, during the call or after, which moves towards the sales goal. Typically, it may be the agreement of a client to attend an on-site demonstration, an authorization that will take you to the manager or another type of decision-maker at a very high level, an agreement to launch a test phase, access to people who were previously inaccessible to you, etc.
- Continuations: when the sale continues but no specific action has been decided with the client to advance. Typically, this will take the form of “Thank you for coming. Why not come see us again the next time you’re in the area”, or “Fantastic presentation, we are impressed. Let’s meet again.”
- No sales: when the customer states clearly that it is not possible to do business.
These differences may seem unnecessarily complicated, but Neil Rackham’s research shows that top sales representatives make a distinction, at least empirically, between these four categories, as opposed to novice sale representatives, who often confuse continuations with advances, or even with orders.
In most major sales, the objective of most sales calls will be to obtain a firm commitment from the client in order to achieve progress towards the sale. The proposed commitment should be the highest realistic commitment that the client can realistically make. Successful sellers never push the client beyond their limits.
Chapter 3: Client Needs in Major Sales
Success in getting a commitment depends on how well the previous steps have been handled. The author’s research suggests that it is the investigating stage, in which the needs of the client are sought, which is the most important.
What is the need of a client? Their willingness to solve problems that affect them. A buyer who honestly feels 100% satisfied with the way things work does not feel the need for change. What is the first sign – in each of us – that indicates that we have a need? When our 100% satisfaction turns into 99.9% satisfaction. And this dissatisfaction can eventually grow in this way:
It’s almost perfect –> I’m slightly dissatisfied –> I have problems with it… –> I need to change immediately
Thus, the needs can:
- Start with minor imperfections
- Evolve into clear problems, difficulties and dissatisfaction
- Finally become wants, desires or intentions to act
In small sales, the progression of these steps can be almost instantaneous. In major sales this process can take years.
Neil Rackham separates needs into two types:
- Implicit needs. The client talks about his dissatisfaction, problems and difficulties. Typical examples would be “We are not satisfied with the speed of our existing process” or “I am not happy with our wastage rate”.
- Explicit needs. The client speaks explicitly about these wants and desires. Typical examples would be “We need a faster system” or “We need a more reliable machine”.
The author’s research shows that:
- People with less success in sales do not differentiate between implicit and explicit needs. They treat them in the same way.
- Successful salespeople treat implicit needs differently from explicit needs, often without realizing it.
A study of 646 simple sales calls counted how many times the client indicated an implicit need, and how does this correlate with the success of the sale:
Successful calls have almost twice as many implicit needs as unsuccessful ones. A service selling low-priced products saw its sales increase by 31% when its sales representatives were trained to reveal to clients their implicit needs. Is this also true for larger sales? The author attempted to verify this by studying 1,406 large sales, the average amount of which was $27,000:
Here, the difference is too insignificant and shows that there is no relationship between the explicit needs that the seller has revealed and the success or otherwise of the sale. Why the difference?
This is because anyone who has to make a purchase decision must balance two factors:
- The seriousness of the problems that the purchase would solve.
- Cost of the solution.
This is balanced in the following way: if the client perceives that the problem is more important than the cost necessary to solve it, they will buy. On the other hand, if the problem is small and the cost is high, then they will be unlikely to buy, which is summarized in the balance Buy / Don’t Buy proposed by the author:
So, in small sales, it is enough to reveal the implicit needs so that the balance leans on the side of the purchase. In larger sales, this is not enough: Talented sales representatives rely on implicit needs and turn them into explicit needs to improve their chances of selling.
Thus, an analysis of the 1406 large sales outlined above, but this time focused on the explicit needs expressed during the call, revealed the following results:
The number of explicit needs expressed is twice as high in successful large sales than in unsuccessful ones. Thus, the purpose of questions during a large sale is to discover the implicit needs and develop them into explicit needs. Let’s see how this is done using the SPIN strategy.
Chapter 4: The SPIN Strategy
The SPIN strategy is, therefore, to find the implicit needs and develop them into explicit needs. SPIN means:
Let’s examine these one by one:
These are the questions that are asked at the beginning of a call, especially with a new client, or a new person. They are of the type “What is your position?”, “How long have you been here?”, “Do you make purchasing decisions?”, “What is your annual sales volume?”, etc.
Huthwaite’s research shows that:
- Situation questions are not positively related to success. Successful calls contain the fewest questions of the situation in general.
- Inexperienced sellers ask more questions than seasoned sales representatives.
- Situation questions are an essential part of the call, but they should be used with caution.
- Buyers quickly get bored or impatient if they are asked too much of the situation.
Experienced sellers tend to use more questions like “Are you satisfied with your current equipment?”, “What are the disadvantages of how you handle things now?”, “Does this old machine have reliability problems?”, etc.
What do these questions have in common? Each one probes the client in order to detect problems, difficulties and dissatisfaction, so each question invites the client to talk about implicit needs.
Huthwaite’s research shows that:
- Problem questions are more closely related to sales success than situation questions.
- In small sales, this link is very strong: the more the seller asks questions, the greater their chances of closing the sale are successful.
- In large sales, however, no strong connection exists: there is no evidence that increasing the number of problem questions increases your chances of selling.
- The ratio of situation questions to problem questions asked by sellers is based on their experience. Experienced sellers ask more problem questions.
Most experienced sellers, when faced with a major client, do a good job when it comes to asking situation questions and problem questions. Unfortunately, most people stop there. But as we have just seen, this is not very effective in large sales. Let’s see why through an example:
Seller: (Situation question) Do you use Contortomat machines in your department?
Buyer: Yes, we have three.
Seller: (Problem question) And are they difficult to use for your operators?
Buyer: (Implicit need): They are rather difficult, but we have learned to use them.
Seller: (Offering a solution) We can solve this easily with our new Effilo system.
Buyer: How much does your system cost?
Seller: The basic system costs around $120,000, and…
Buyer: (Falling backwards) $120,000!!!! Just to make a machine easier to use! You must be joking.
What happened here? The buyer perceives a small implicit need, but certainly does not see that the problem justifies a $120,000 solution, so the balance leans towards Don’t Buy:
What could the seller have done? Use implication questions, for example:
Seller: (Problem question) And are they difficult to use for your operators?
Buyer: (Implicit need): They are rather difficult, but we have learned to use them.
Seller: (Implication question) You say they are difficult to use. What effect does this have on your output?
Buyer: (Perceiving the problem as small) A very small effect, since we have specifically trained three people who know how to use them.
Seller: (Implication question) If you only have three people who can use them, does that create a bottleneck?
Buyer: (Still seeing the problem as unimportant) No, it’s only when a Contormat operator leaves that we have a problem waiting for his replacement to be trained.
Seller: (Implication question): It seems that the difficulties of using these machines can lead to a turnover problem with the people you have trained. Is that right?
Buyer: (Recognizing a bigger problem): Yes, people certainly do not like to use Contormat machines, and operators usually do not stay with us for long.
Seller: (Implication question) What does this turnover mean in terms of training costs?
Buyer: (Seeing more) It takes several months for an operator to become proficient, so maybe $4,000 in salary for each operator. In addition to this, we pay Contormat $500 to send our new operators for training at their factory, which is off-site. So maybe add $1000 for the trip. In fact, it’s about $5,000 per operator that we train – and I think we need to have trained at least five already this year.
Seller: So, it’s over $25,000 in training in less than six months. (Implication question) If you have trained five people in six months, it seems like you never have three fully qualified operators at the same time: how much do you lose in terms of productivity?
Buyer: Not a lot. When there is a bottleneck, we persuade other operators to work overtime, or we outsource.
Seller: (Implication question) Doesn’t overtime also increase the cost?
Buyer: (Realizing the problem is serious) Yes, we pay overtime 2.5 times more than the normal rate. Even with the additional salary, the operators are not motivated to do this extra work, which I think is one of the reasons we have so much turnover.
Seller: (Implication question) I can see that sending the work externally also increases your costs, but is that the only implication that comes from outsourcing? Is the quality of the work affected, for example?
Buyer: That’s what I am the most dissatisfied about. I can control the quality of everything when it is produced in-house, but for all that is outsourced, I am at the mercy of others.
Seller: (Implication question) And I assume that being forced to send work outside also puts you at the mercy of other people’s schedules?
Buyer: Tell me about it! I just spent three hours on the phone tracking a late order.
Seller: (Summarizing) So from what you tell me, because your Contortomat machines are so hard to use, you spent $25,000 on training this year, and you have a very expensive operator turnover. You have bottlenecks in production, and that translates into costly overtime and forces you to outsource. But outsourcing is not satisfactory because you lose quality and have late deliveries.
Buyer: Seen in this light, these Contortomat machines create a serious problem.
What happened here? A small problem has become a much bigger one – and therefore much more expensive – to end up weighing in the balance much more than the initial implicit need (difficult to use):
As a result, the power of implication questions in large sales is enormous, because they allow the client to perceive the problem to be solved in its entirety, and not to focus on the superficiality that flows from the daily grind, what we call “nose to the grindstone”. Implication questions are not a new discovery, however, people asked them long before the research highlighted them. Socrates in particular was a master of these: just read any of The Dialogues of Plato to be convinced.
Socrates also illustrates an important point about implication questions: they are negative and can make clients uncomfortable with their problems. Sellers who ask too many implication questions can make buyers feel depressed or negative. Although few sellers end up being condemned to drink hemlock, it is also important to be aware of this weakness of implication questions, and to counterbalance them with more positive questions.
Successful sellers use two types of questions to develop the implicit needs into explicit needs: first, they use the implication questions, then, they use the need-payoff questions, first to develop the problem so that it appears in all its seriousness, then by constructing the value or utility of the solution. It is with this second type of question that one can build a positive perception of the solution that prevents an unfavorable perception of the buyer.
Typical examples of need-payoff questions are:
- Is it important for you to solve this problem?
- Why would you find this solution so helpful?
- Is there another way in which this could help you?
So, the need-payoff questions achieve two things:
- They focus the client’s attention on the solution, rather than the problem. This helps to create a positive problem-solving atmosphere where attention is focused on actions and solutions.
- They make it so that the clients tell you the benefits. For example, a need-payoff question like “How do you think a faster machine could help you?” could get an answer like “This would certainly reduce production bottlenecks, and this would also better serve the time of our experienced operator”.
Thus, the need-payoff questions are 1) positive, 2) constructive, and 3) helpful. They are sometimes difficult to distinguish from implication questions, but with this model of understanding, it becomes simple:
- Implication questions are always sad.
- Need-payoff questions are always happy.
Thus, the SPIN model can be summarized as follows:
- The seller asks situation questions to establish the context,
- Which leads to problem questions so that the buyer reveals the implicit needs,
- Which are developed by implication questions, which make the buyer appreciate the full extent of the problem,
- The leads to need-payoff questions, which allow the buyer to talk about the explicit needs,
- This allows the seller to indicate the benefits of the product for the buyer, which is closely related to the success of the sale!
Chapter 5: Giving Benefits in Major Sales
In Chapter 4 we saw how the SPIN strategy effectively manages the investigating stage of a sales call. For the record, a sales call takes place in four major stages:
Preliminaries -> Investigating – Demonstrating capabilities-> Obtaining Commitment
We will now see what Huthwaite’s research found concerning the demonstrating capabilities stage.
Anyone who has been trained in sales in the past 80 years has probably learned the difference between two ways of talking about a product: features and benefits. What they learn is that the features are facts about the products and are not persuasive, while the benefits show how the features can help the clients and are much more persuasive. Let’s look at what Huthwaite’s research found in this regard.
So, these are the facts, data, or information about your products or services, typically: “This machine has a memory of 2 GB”, “Our consultants are trained in educational psychology”, “There is a three-stage redundancy test”. The consensus is that these facts are neutral, and are therefore not helpful in convincing the client, even if they don’t hurt. The author’s research, involving 18,000 sales calls, shows that:
- Overall, the number of features described is slightly higher in unsuccessful calls (those that lead to a continuation or a no-sale, as seen in the first part of this review). But the difference is small enough to conclude that features are neutral.
- In small sales, there is a slight positive relationship between the number of features described and the success of the call.
- In large sales, the features have a negative effect when they are used early in the sales call, and neutral if they are used later on.
- Users respond more positively to features than decision-makers.
Studying benefits was a bit more complicated than expected. While everyone agreed on the definition of a feature, it was not the same case for benefits. Some said that benefits show how a feature can help a client, others said that a benefit should involve lower costs for the client, many also said that a benefit is any statement that fills a need, etc.
After defining tests to test half a dozen definitions by analyzing which types of benefits were used in successful and unsuccessful calls, Huthwaite broke down benefits into two distinct categories:
- The advantage. This type shows how a product or service can be used or can help a client.
- The benefit. This type shows how a product or service meets an explicit need (see the previous review) expressed by a client.
The advantage is what is taught most of the time in sales training. The benefit is a definition coined by Huthwaite, who named it so because research shows that benefits are very strongly related to sales success, regardless of their size. For example, a study of the performance of 42 Motorola sellers showed that those using benefits rather than advantages increased their sales volumes by 27%.
Why these differences? According to Neil Rackham, this comes from the fact that you can only speak of a benefit if you address an explicit need. If you address an implicit need, you are talking about an advantage. We have seen in the previous review that the expression of explicit needs was strongly correlated with success in large sales, and that the expression of implicit needs was strongly correlated with small sales.
A study looked at 5,000 sales calls at a multinational company selling high-tech machines, whose average sales cycle was 7.8 calls before leading to a sale. The researchers accompanied the sellers during the 5,000 sales interviews studied and observed how often each seller used features, advantages or benefits and compared them with the outcome of the interview. The results obtained were as follows:
The positive interviews, i.e., those that led to an advance in the sales process, or on an order, are those in which benefits were used the most.
There are three key points to remember from all of this:
- Don’t demonstrate the capabilities of the product too early in the sales call. In small sales you can discover the problem and jump directly to advantages by indicating how you can fix it, but it does not work well in the larger sales. It is important in large sales to develop explicit needs – using implication and need-payoff questions – before offering solutions. Many clients will encourage you to give your solutions when they have not yet given you information about their needs. They will tell you “Just come and give a presentation of your product, and we will decide if it suits our needs”. If you are forced to make a presentation of features and advantages early in the sales cycle, try to have at least a pre-meeting with a key person of the client to find out the needs, so that your presentation includes at least some benefits.
- Pay attention to advantages. A lot of sales training programs, because they are based on models suitable for small sales, encourage you to give advantages when you sell, and to complicate things, they often call these benefits. Don’t let this type of training upset you: in large sales, benefits are those that show that you fulfill an explicit need.
- Pay attention to new products. Most of us give far too many features and advantages when we sell new products, because what we are focused on them rather than on client benefits. Don’t let this happen to you. Instead, the first thing to do is to ask yourself about any new product: “What problem is it solving?“. When you understand the problem it solves, you can plan ahead SPIN questions to develop explicit needs.
Chapter 6: Preventing Objections
Huthwaite’s research shows the following data:
- Objection management is a much less important skill than most sales training would like to believe.
- Objections, contrary to common belief, are more often created by the seller than by the buyer.
- In the average sales team, there is usually at least one seller who receives ten times more objections than the others in the same team.
- Experienced sales representatives receive fewer objections because they have learned to prevent them, not to manage them.
Indeed, Huthwaite’s research shows that the type of responses that clients will give in a sales call come largely from the behavior of sales representatives and what they put forward:
|Underlined Elements||Most likely client response|
|Benefits||Support or approval|
Indeed, research shows a strong correlation between the number of features advertised and clients’ price concerns. Advertisements for inexpensive items such as cheap watches often point to many features to deliver the message “so many features for such a small price”, while the ads for luxury items are much more refined and generally show the object within a favorable framework, without listing many functions:
High-end watch: no feature listed
As a result, it is important to keep the list of the features of a product or service to a minimum, as they greatly increase the likelihood that the client will object to the price. Here it is important to distinguish the cause of the symptoms: it is the number of features which is the cause of the objections to the price; trying to better manage their objections puts in place a curative treatment, which will be much less effective than preventive treatment.
Furthermore, one of Huthwaite’s most fascinating discoveries is the very strong relationship that exists between the advantages put forward for a product, and the objections. Let’s examine why with this transcript of a sales call that took place in Dallas in 1981, about electronic typewriters with screens (which were widely used in the 1980s before the spread of the computer, the word processor and the printer):
Seller: (Problem question) Does all this retyping waste time?
Buyer: (Implicit Need) Yes, a little bit. But not much here, not like in the other site.
Seller: (Advantage) That’s why our word processors would be a great help to you because they eliminate your need for retyping.
Buyer: (Objection) Listen, we retype some text, that’s for sure. But you won’t make us buy fancy machines at $15,000 just to reduce retyping.
Seller: (Advantage) I understand you, but the labor costs of retyping can climb to very high levels. A big plus of our machines is that they can save you money by making your employees perform better.
Buyer: (Objection) We are very effective right now – and if I wanted to do better in terms of efficiency, I can think of 16 ways to do it without new word processors. I have two xxx word processor machines here in our offices. Nobody knows much about them. They create problems, only problems.
Seller: (Problem question) Are these xxx machines difficult to use for your employees?
Buyer: (Implicit need) Yes, it’s easier to write by hand – doing it the old-fashioned way.
Seller: (Advantage) We can really help you here. Our yyy machines have a screen so that people see exactly what they are doing. This is much better than your old xxx machines where you have to remember things like format codes – which we automatically display so that our machines can be used more easily.
Buyer: (Objection) You know what? Some of the ladies working here get upset about typewriters with correction ribbon. A screen? It would just confuse everyone. I would end up making more mistakes than I do now.
Seller: (Problem question) Are you getting too many errors?
Buyer: (Implicit need) Yes, a little bit. Well, not more than in most offices, but more than I would like.
Seller: (Advantage) Tests show that with the full-screen editing and error correction we offer, your error rate would drop by more than 20 percent if you use our machines.
Buyer: (Objection) Yes, but it’s not worth all these complications just to get rid of a few typos.
Obviously, advantages are not always followed by objections like here. But Neil Rackham’s research shows definitively that they are more likely to raise objections. This call follows a very classic pattern that is repeated again and again in many sales calls: Problem question -> Implicit need -> Advantage -> Objection. Each time the buyer does not see enough value in the solutions proposed by the seller to merit the proposed investment:
Let’s look at the same situation handled by a more experienced sales representative:
Seller: (Problem question) Do you have too many errors?
Buyer: (Implicit need) Yes, a little bit. Well, not more than in most offices, but more than I would like.
Seller: (Implication question) You say, “more than you would like”. Does this mean that some of these errors cause you difficulties in the documents you send to clients?
Buyer: Sometimes that has happened, but not often, because I check every important document carefully before sending it.
Seller: (Implication question) Doesn’t it take a lot of time?
Buyer: Too much. But it’s better than leaving a document with an error – especially if it’s an error in the figures sent to clients.
Seller: (Implication question) Why? Are you saying that an error in numbers can lead to more serious consequences with clients than an error in the text?
Buyer: Oh yes. We can lose a market or commit to an unprofitable contract – or just be perceived by clients as unkempt. People are judging you on things like that. That’s why it’s worth a few hours a day to proofread all that while there are other things I should be doing.
Seller: (Need-payoff question) Suppose you don’t need to spend that time proofreading. What could you do with this time saved?
Buyer: Well, I could take some time to train my employees.
Seller: (Need-payoff question) And this training would increase productivity?
Buyer: Oh, a lot. Right now, you see, people do not know how to use some of the equipment here – this plotter for example – so they have to wait until I have free time to do it.
Seller: (Implication question) So the time you spend proofreading also forces you to become a bottleneck for other people’s work?
Buyer: Yes. I am really overwhelmed.
Seller: (Need-payoff question) So anything that could reduce the time you spend proofreading would not only help you, but would also help the productivity of others?
Buyer: That’s right.
Seller: (Need-payoff question) I can see how by reducing your proofreading I would be able to relieve the current bottleneck. Are there other ways in which reducing errors in documents could help you?
Buyer: Of course. People here hate to retype. This could boost their motivation if fewer mistakes means less time retyping.
Seller: (Need-payoff question) And I guess less time spent on retyping would also lead to a reduction in costs?
Buyer: You are right. And that’s something I need to do.
Seller: (Summarizing) So it seems that your current level of errors leads to time-consuming retyping, which creates a motivation problem with your employees. If errors, especially in numbers, are sent to your clients, this can be very damaging. You’re trying to prevent that right now by spending two hours a day proofreading all the key documents. But this turns you into a bottleneck, reducing everyone’s productivity, and preventing you from spending time training your team.
Buyer: When you see things this way, these errors in the documents really do damage us. We cannot just ignore the problem – I have to do something about it.
Seller: (Benefit) So let me show you how our typewriters could help you reduce your mistakes and reduce proofreading…
Now the cost and the problems are balanced by the value that the seller has created using implication and need-payoff questions:
That said, it’s impossible to completely prevent objections, especially if your product can not meet all your client’s needs or if a competitor’s products are clearly superior. However, the author’s research shows that using the SPIN strategy can halve the number of objections received.
Chapter 7 – Preliminaries: Opening the Call
Preliminaries are the first step of the four major stages of the sale:
Preliminaries -> Investigating – Demonstrating capabilities-> Obtaining Commitment
This is clearly not the stage that excited Hutwaite the most, and so they spent much less time on it than on the other stages. The limited data they did collect and analyze, however, show differences from what is usually taught.
So many books insist on the importance of the first impression, sometimes going as far as to say that the fate of the sale relies on the first given impression. Yet, the author’s research shows that initial appearances are much less important than what these books suggest. This does not mean that it pays to be completely disheveled, with shabby clothes: a good standard of clothing probably has a positive impact. But do not think that small details make a big difference in the success of a sale. In any case not in the preliminaries stage: the longest and most important impressions are made during the investigating stage.
In the early stages of interacting with someone, we are often overwhelmed with information that we either do not notice or we forget very quickly, and sometimes these are obvious things. Have you ever been introduced to someone, and 10 seconds later, forgotten their name? Why would you forget something as important as the first name? Because your mind is filled with other things, like what you will say next. Consequently, many potentially important first impressions are forgotten during the first minutes of an appointment.
Since the 1920s, sellers have been taught that there are two ways to successfully open a sales interview:
- By discussing the personal interests of the buyer. The conventional wisdom of selling says that if you can discover someone’s personal interests and discuss them, you can more easily and quickly create a relationship with them, and that will lead to the success of the sale.
- By making a positive introductory phrase about the product you are offering, such as “Mr client, with the current climate, productivity is the main problem of key decision-makers like yourself – and our product will contribute to your productivity “.
The author’s research shows that both methods can be successful for small sales, but that they are unlikely to help you with large sales.
Most professional buyers using the techniques of discussing personal interests are jaded by them. Some see sales representatives every day and are tired of always wasting precious time talking about motorcycles, horse racing or the latest news from little Gabriel. The higher up a buyer is, and the more they think their time is valuable, the more impatience you will generate if you spend too much time on topics not related to business. And many buyers are suspicious about sellers who start talking about such topics: they think the sales representative is not honest and is trying to manipulate them.
Huthwaite also reviewed 300 sales calls to determine whether a positive and punchy introductory phrase had an impact on the success of the sale. The answer is that they did not find such a relationship. In addition, successful sellers tend to start their interviews differently, while the more inexperienced sellers tend to use these kinds of openings almost all the time.
As a result, Neil Rackham recommends focusing on three things for the first stage of the sales call, realizing that this is not the most important stage:
- Get to the point of the call quickly. Don’t beat around the bush: the preliminaries stage is not the most productive, so you have to spend as little time as possible, especially non-productive time. If you spend too much time on jokes, you may then run out of time for the essential stages of the call- the client will have to stop just when you reach a critical point.
- Don’t talk about solutions too soon. As discussed in the previous chapters, offering solutions too early will create objections and greatly reduce the chances that the call will end successfully. And if, in your case, it is often the client who asks you questions and you have the role of the one who states the facts and provides explanations, then it is likely that you have not sufficiently established your role of questioner during the preliminaries, and that you do not have enough control over the call.
- Focus on the questions. Don’t waste your time worrying about how you will open the call: use this time to prepare some questions instead.
Chapter 8: From Theory to Practice
One of the favorite words of Neil Rackham, entelechy, is so little known to those who hear it that they often have to look up its definition in the dictionary. It is a shame, because it fills a serious lack in the English language and deserves to be found in everyday vocabulary. It means the actual achievement of what was a potential – turning a potential into practical action rather than theoretical elegance. Entelechy is the subject of this chapter: transforming the potential content in SPIN Selling’s knowledge into actions that will be useful in a practical way for your sales.
There is no easy way to convert theoretical models into practical skills. The fact that you read this review, or that you subsequently read the book, does not mean that the knowledge you gain will automatically turn into greater sales skills. The challenge for both the author and the reader of any book claiming to be practical is entelechy – turning theory into practical action. Your challenge is more difficult than that of the author, because improving your skills – in any field – requires a lot of work; there is no magic formula to sell better. And for each reader who will be able to increase their skills, a dozen will fail.
Why is it so difficult to learn skills? It’s not just because it takes a lot of work: you have already demonstrated your ability to work hard, investing the time and energy needed to read this review- and it will be even more so if you read the book. But Neil Rackham wonders how many readers will invest as much effort to turn this knowledge into practical skills. The sad reality is that we generally work harder and more effectively to gain knowledge than to turn that knowledge into skills.
Neil Rackham thinks this is because most people have never thought through the basic techniques for learning skills. At school, our success depends on the techniques we develop to gain knowledge, and most of us are pretty good at it. But what did schooling do to help us learn skills systematically? Except for sports, the answer for most people is nothing, or very little. How can one learn any skill efficiently and with minimum pain? Huthwaite, training thousands of sales representatives around the world in SPIN, found that most people can significantly improve their ability to learn skills by following four simple rules.
1. Practice only one behavior at a time
Most people, when working to improve their skills, try to do too much at once. Except for people who successfully learn complex skills by learning one thing at a time – not by half-learning two things, and much less by trying to learn 10 at a time. So:
Start by just taking one behavior to practice. Don’t go to the next one until you are sure you have mastered the first behavior.
2. Try the new behavior at least three times
The first time you try anything, it’s often uncomfortable and difficult. It’s not just shoes that hurt the first time. So:
Never judge whether a new behavior is effective or not until you have tried it at least three times.
3. Quantity before quality
The author’s studies consistently show that the fastest way to learn new sales behaviors is by focusing on quantity, not quality. When a very expensive SPIN training program created by a client, based on the quality of the questions asked, was put in competition with the Huthwaite program, based on the number of questions asked by the sales trainees, it was beaten hands down in terms of time and money invested, AND in results. During training, it is better to ask 100 average implication questions than 10 of the best possible quality. So:
When you train, focus on quantity: use the new behaviors a lot. Don’t worry about quality problems, such as; are you using them smoothly or is there a better way to say it. These things will come as you rehearse. Use the new behavior often enough and the quality will come on its own.
4. Practice in safe situations
At the end of a negotiating-skills training program, which the author sometimes gives, one of the participants came to Neil Rackham and said: “Tomorrow I will enter one of the biggest negotiations of my career – I will sell my business. What lessons from this program should I focus on during the negotiations?”. Neil Rackham replied, “Forget all the things you learned in this program, otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting having come here.”
It takes time to master a new skill. Until you have done so, don’t try it in important situations where poor control of it could lead to disasters. So:
Always try new behaviors in safe situations until they seem comfortable. Don’t use large sales to practice your new skills.
To learn the SPIN method, the author recommends focusing primarily on the investigating stage, i.e., all the questions you will ask clients. If you get to develop your questioning skills, the other stages of selling will usually come on their own. For that, it is better not to rush the powerful implication and need-payoff questions but first to comfortably master the simpler situation and problem questions.
Follow the following sequence:
- Decide first if you ask enough questions of any type. If you are used to talking a lot – that is giving a lot of features and advantages- then start by asking more questions. Most of the questions you will ask will be situation questions, but that’s OK. Do this for several weeks until you feel comfortable asking questions.
- Next, plan to ask problem questions. Aim to ask the client questions about problems, difficulties and dissatisfaction at least half a dozen times. Focus on the number of questions; do not worry whether each question is “good” or not.
- If you feel that you are doing a good job of discovering client problems, it is time to move on to implication questions. They are more difficult to ask and may require several months of practice before you are comfortable with them.
- Finally, when you are comfortable with situation, problem, and implication questions, turn your attention to need-payoff questions. Instead of giving benefits to clients, focus on getting the clients to tell you the benefits. Ask questions like “How would that help you?”, “What do you see as advantages about this approach?” or “Are there other ways our product might be helpful to you?”. Again, focus on quantity, not quality.
Lastly, after planning and action, it is very important to review the actions you have put in place and analyze them.
Ask yourself questions such as:
- Have I achieved my goals?
- If I repeat this call, what will I do differently?
- What did I learn that will influence future calls with this client?
- What did I learn that I could use elsewhere?
The book then ends with two appendices, the first presenting the results of studies proving the effectiveness of SPIN sales training, isolated as much as possible from other factors, and the second being a test allowing you to know where you are positioned compared to sales closing techniques.
Book critique of Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling
I think that upon reading this summary, you will be convinced of the excellence of SPIN Selling. Clear, relevant, based on numerous studies of thousands of sales calls, it provides a complete model to succeed at small and large sales – even if the focus is primarily on the latter – and specific stages outlining what needs to be done to progress. The author goes straight to the point, no-nonsense – the book is also remarkably short, while still being very complete – by presenting a lot of data from his research, and many scenarios with precise transcriptions of sales calls reflecting the points made, all of which is sprinkled with a light humor that helps to appreciate it more as a whole.
The last chapter alone is worth the purchase of SPIN Selling, as Neil Rackham is one of the few authors who explicitly questions how to move from theoretical knowledge to practical knowledge – and the only one that I know to devote a whole chapter on the subject – and to propose a progression through stages, both universal and more specifically dedicated to the SPIN method, simple and effective. He made me discover the word entelechy, and I think I’ll integrate it into my everyday vocabulary, just as I did with the word procrastination 😉.
In terms of shortcomings, it is worth mentioning that the data presented lacks the precision and abundance of information needed to make true scientific studies – it is clear that Neil Rackham sometimes has to keep his clients anonymous – even if I think that the studies are done scientifically and in a way that Neil Rackham has primarily tried to simplify the presentation of the results. Furthermore, the book’s publication date (1988) is felt, particularly in the context of sales calls and the dates of when the studies were conducted.
I have never been trained in sales and I do not know if today many training courses in this field are still focused on the art of closing a sale and the management of objections, or if the environment that Neil Rackham criticizes has since evolved. The focus of the book is also primarily on B2B, and more specifically large sales in B2B, but in contrast, by way of often giving an example, small sales of B2C ironically make it possible to learn many things about the art of closing a small sale.
These shortcomings, however, are extremely minor and I can say that SPIN Selling is really a book that can serve as an example for many other business books: it is very clear, simple, concise, full of examples, supported by countless accurate studies that show the impact of all the techniques presented and offers an entire chapter explaining how to put your new knowledge into practice. What more could you ask for? Absolutely nothing. SPIN Selling is a must-read that I highly recommend.
Strong points of SPIN Selling:
- Clear and precise
- Concise and quick to read
- Features clear steps to progress in the art of selling
- Many scenarios
- Supported by extensive research involving thousands of sales calls
Weak points of SPIN Selling:
- The studies are often presented in a way that is a bit too simplified
- Context of the examples is a bit dated (beginning in the 80s for the most part)
- Highly focused on large B2B sales
- No French translation
My rating :
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