The recent Association of Professional Sales conference in London brought together over 500 delegates with a single shared obsession: to learn how to transform our sales organisations into a source of lasting competitive advantage.
We heard from expert authors and roll-our-sleeves-up practitioners, and everyone emerged with a stream of practical ideas that could be immediately applied to the goal of finding and winning more of the right sort of customers.
I was intrigued to hear Neil Rackham’s update on SPIN® selling, in which he showed how what is probably the world’s most widely adopted complex sales methodology remains highly relevant in today’s demanding sales environment…
Rackham set the scene by reinforcing a message that many of us have long believed: having a great salesforce is a much stronger (and far longer lasting) source of competitive advantage than having a great product.
The evidence is undeniable: today’s top performing sales organisations compete (and win) on having a better sales process and not just by relying on having a better product - but what does this actually mean in practice?
COMPETING AGAINST THE STATUS QUO
Firstly, today’s top performers recognise that their strongest competition often comes not from other vendors, but from the prospect’s natural inclination to “do nothing” and to stick with the status quo unless they have a compelling reason to change.
All too often, even if we succeed in addressing the prospect’s acknowledged current needs, we will fail to get the order if the prospect decides that they can nevertheless make do with what they are doing today for a while longer.
That’s why simply uncovering and satisfying acknowledged needs isn’t enough: we need to help our prospects recognise and solve future problems that will come back to haunt them if they carry on as they are today.
It seems that Ralph Waldo Emerson was wrong: building a better mousetrap will not cause prospects to beat a path to our door. What we need to do instead is to articulate a more compelling problem.
So what does this mean for Rackham’s widely adopted “SPIN” selling methodology? In the unlikely case that any of you are unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for:
- Situational questions
- Problem questions
- Implication questions
- Need-Payoff questions (aka Value questions)
Rackham’s original research demonstrated that top performing sales people ask far fewer situational questions, and ask far more effective problem and implication questions, than their lower-performing peers - and that’s still true.
However, the nature of these different question types has evolved:
Prospects are even more resentful of having to answer a series of dull fact-based discovery questions than they ever were - and there is even less excuse nowadays for sales people to ask questions that they could have answered with a modest amount of judicious research. Even if the prospect doesn’t throw the sales person out on the spot, chances are that they won’t be asked back again.
Rackham’s original guidance holds true to an even greater degree today: we should ask no more situational questions than we absolutely have to - and avoid “front loading” the sales conversation with a stream of dull data-gathering checklist questions.
When SPIN® was first introduced, the natural inclination of sales people was to focus on getting the prospect to acknowledge a current problem that would lead to a need for the sales person’s solution, and while this is still important, the greatest value now comes from asking questions that help the prospect to anticipate future problems that they may not yet have even considered or been aware of.
Sales people who master this art of uncovering unconsidered needs invariably establish the foundation for having far more impactful value creating conversations (more of this in a moment).
According to Rackham’s latest research, top performing sales people still ask far more implication questions (4* as many) than their average peers - and prospects still find these questions far more stimulating and thought provoking than any other question type.
Implication questions help the prospect to recognise the consequences of failing to deal with the problems we have helped them to uncover. When combined with previously unconsidered but critical needs, they provide rocket fuel for the prospect’s decision process - and the sales person that does the best job of connecting the two will inevitably emerge with huge advantage over their plodding peers.
NEED-PAYOFF (VALUE) QUESTIONS
Tying it all together are the Need-Payoff (Value) questions, which help the prospect to recognise the value of solving the identified problems using the vendor’s recommended solution - but there’s been a subtle but important change here, as well.
When SPIN® was first introduced, it was common to think of these questions as being largely about communicating value - but as Rackham points out, top sales performers today are not just in the business of communicating value - they are in the business of creating previously unanticipated new value for their customers.
I came away with the clear impression - as did many of the delegates I spoke to - that the fundamental principles of SPIN®, when reinterpreted for today’s sales environment, remain as relevant today as they were when it was first introduced over 20 years ago. What’s your experience?
By the way, if you’re a UK-based sales leader (or if you aspire to be a future sales leader), I strongly encourage you to join the Association of Professional Sales. You’ll find it a fascinating forum for learning from both acknowledged experts and from your peers.
Bob Apollo is the Managing Director of UK-Based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners. He writes and speaks regularly on the critical importance establishing of scalable sales processes in driving B2B sales success.
Other related articles include:
- Neil Rackham really wanted us all to be SPIV sales people
- Neil Rackham: B2B buying behaviour is becoming increasingly polarised
This article was first published on LinkedIn.
Photo courtesy of Alex Irwin and the APS