Article | 13 min read

SPIN selling: A comprehensive guide on how it works

The SPIN selling methodology gives sales professionals a framework for asking the right questions to help them close more deals.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published September 9, 2020
Last updated July 22, 2022

When you start a sale, what are you trying to do?

If your answer is “sell a product,” we have unfortunate news for you—you’re approaching it the wrong way.

Neil Rackham, the founder of the Huthwaite Research Group and author of SPIN Selling, puts it best: “The objective is not to close a sale, but to open a relationship.” And he’s absolutely right. Except for a few household brand names, no product is ever going to sell itself based on features alone. Instead, you need to develop a relationship with a prospect and work together to find solutions to their problems.

B2B sales teams in particular need to pivot to more “consultative” roles, learning as much as they can about their customers so they can offer the best solution. That starts with listening. Asking key questions is a crucial way for a salesperson to assess a prospect’s current situation, identify their needs, and build rapport with them.

But sometimes, it’s hard to know the right questions to ask. One industry-leading methodology is Rackham’s SPIN selling method. The SPIN sales model shows sales professionals how to pick questions with the most impact. By using SPIN selling, you’ll be able to discover customer needs, uncover pain points, overcome objections, and experience more sales success.

In this piece:

What is SPIN selling?

SPIN selling is a sales technique designed to help sales reps close difficult, complicated deals. The acronym SPIN stands for different types of questions:

  • Situation
  • Problem
  • Implication
  • Need-payoff

Sales reps have a reputation for going on and on about their products or services instead of listening to decision-makers. The SPIN selling method flips this sales training approach on its head. With its carefully crafted questions, the SPIN model is all about actively listening to prospects during sales interactions—you can say goodbye to one-sided conversations.

History of SPIN selling

Rackham introduced the methodology in his 1988 sales book, SPIN Selling. He outlines a sales process framework for developing and timing structured questions that sales reps should ask in person or on sales calls to close more deals. He also encourages reps to become trusted advisors—his goal is to teach salespeople how to build lasting relationships with clients through effective, ethical selling.

SPIN Selling has remained a best-seller since its publication, and the namesake technique is one of the most popular sales methodologies still used today.

SPIN selling questions (+34 examples)

To discover what made top salespeople so successful, Rackham and his team at Huthwaite studied more than 35,000 sales calls over several years. They found that there are four types of strategic questions you should ask to boost sales.

  • Situation questions
  • Problem questions
  • Implication questions
  • Need-payoff questions

Each type of question carries out a particular function of the sales process. The SPIN selling questions are meant to build on each other so reps can reach the ultimate goal: winning the sale.

Here are 34 SPIN question examples (broken down by stage) that you can use in your next sales call.

SPIN situation questions

Situation questions help reps learn more about each prospect’s current state. They’re asked during the opening stage of a sale.

During this stage, situation questions gather any information you need to help you address and overcome future objections. Just make sure you avoid asking basic questions that you can quickly answer through research.

1. How do you currently do [insert process]?
2. Why does your company take this approach?
3. What is your budget for [insert process]?
4. How important to your organization is [insert process]?
5. What tools do you use to support [insert process]?
6. Who does [insert process] the most? What do they need?
7. How often do you have to do [insert process]?
8. How much [insert resource] do you typically use in a given day/week/month?

SPIN problem questions

Problem questions probe prospects’ frustrations and pain points. These types of questions are asked during the investigating stage.

Once you reach this second stage, it’s time to ask detailed questions and learn about the prospect’s goals and roadblocks. This conversation should help the prospect realize current and future issues that your product or service could help solve.

9. How cost-prohibitive is it to do [insert process]?
10. Are you satisfied with your processes for [insert operation]?
11. Do these processes ever fail?
12. How time-consuming is it to do [insert process]?
13. Have you ever run out of [insert resource]?
14. Have you ever been unable to access [insert resource]?
15. Has a previous interruption in [insert process or operation] cost you resources?
16. Has the cost of [insert process or resource] ever kept you from [insert operation]?
17. Who is responsible for handling issues that arise with [insert process or operation]? How does it impact their workload?
18. What’s the biggest challenge your organization faces with [insert process or operation]?
19. What are the disadvantages of your current processes for [insert operation]?

SPIN implication questions

Implication questions allow prospects to voice their frustrations with the problems they mentioned in the previous stage. Ask these questions when you’re ready to demonstrate the value of your product or service and how it can solve those issues.

According to Rackham, prospects find SPIN implication questions to be the most stimulating and thought-provoking. When you get to this point, Rackham states that you “start to uncover things where you [the rep] may be able to offer a lot more value.” He explains that these questions enable sales and support teams to craft “richer and better solutions” for potential customers.

Push prospects toward making a purchase by asking these questions:

20. What resources does it cost to do [insert process] this way?
21. If you had more resources, what could you accomplish?
22. How would you use more funds (be as specific as you can) each quarter?
23. How is your issue with [insert process or resource] impacting your team?
24. Does [insert process] ever keep you from reaching your business goals?
25. If you weren’t experiencing your problem with [insert process or resource], would it be easier for you to reach your goals?
26. If [insert process or operation] didn’t ever occur, what would happen?
27. Have you had this problem with [insert process or resource] in the past?
28. Where do you find you have the most bottlenecks with [insert process or resource]?
29. Are there any hidden costs for training, equipment, etc. associated with [insert process or resource]?

SPIN need-payoff questions

Need-payoff questions ask buyers how important or urgent it is for them to solve their problem and what the benefits would be. This is a closing tactic used in the final phase of the sale.

When you arrive at this stage, ask SPIN need-payoff questions to encourage the prospect to communicate the usefulness of your product or service in their own words. If you’re successful, these questions will help the prospect realize your company’s value, and they’ll convert.

30. Would doing [insert process] make it easier to reach your business goals?
31. Would you find it valuable to do [insert process]?
32. Do you think that resolving your issue with [insert process or resource] would help your organization?
33. Why is being able to do [insert process or operation] important to your organization?
34. How do you think a solution for [insert process or resource] would help your team?

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

The 4 stages of a SPIN sale

According to Rackham, there are four basic stages to every sale:

  1. Opening
  2. Investigating
  3. Demonstrating capability
  4. Obtaining commitment

The SPIN selling stages build off one another and correspond to a category of SPIN questions. The stages could all happen during one sales call or over several months of interactions—it just depends on the customer and the process.

STAGE 1:

Opening

  • In the beginning, don’t push your product
  • Focus on building a sincere relationship
  • Gather as much information as you can
  • Ask questions and show interest in your leads

At the beginning of the SPIN selling process, you shouldn’t push your products or services on leads. Instead, focus on gradually building a sincere relationship. Gather as much information as you can about them—their role, their frustrations, and so on.

CRM software helps with this learning phase and improves the quality of sales relationships by making it easy to manage customer information and track interactions.

Let’s say you sell time-tracking software, and you meet a brand-new lead. At this point, don’t begin by telling them how much more productive your software can make their team. Instead, collect information by asking high-level questions such as:

  • Who’s responsible for tracking time?
  • How does your team currently track time?
  • Why did you choose to track time that way?

By showing interest in your customers as people—rather than just viewing them as a source of revenue for your company—you’re more likely to build trusting relationships.

STAGE 2:

Investigating

  • Find out what’s frustrated leads in the past
  • Investigate pain points to build trust and credibility
  • Reassure leads that you have their best interests in mind
  • Overcome objections

In the previous SPIN selling stage, you established a genuine relationship with the prospect. In the investigating stage, you’ll go even further by asking questions to uncover information about the prospect’s problems (which your product or service may be able to solve). By digging into customer needs and challenges, you’ll be able to establish yourself as knowledgeable and trustworthy.

To continue our time-tracking software example, a sales rep should narrow in on pain points by asking the following questions in stage 2:

  • What issues do you have with your current processes for time-tracking?
  • How time-consuming or cost-prohibitive is it for your team to track their time accurately?
  • Has your current time-tracking process ever failed?
  • What are the biggest challenges your company faces with tracking time?

Understand what’s frustrating leads, and you’ll be prepared to explain why your product or service will eliminate those roadblocks.

STAGE 3:

Demonstrating capability

  • Tie your solution to the prospect’s problem
  • Demonstrate value and capability
  • Showcase features
  • Provide product demos

You’ve established rapport and built a solid relationship with your prospect, so they’re likely ready to listen to how your products or services can solve their problems. In your sales presentation, walk them through the features and explain how those features can benefit their company.

Say, for example, the prospect mentioned their company has a distributed workforce. You might highlight that your time-tracking software is cloud-based, allowing users to access their data from any device, no matter where they’re located.

STAGE 4:

Obtaining commitment

  • Obtain commitment and receive payment
  • Handle the paperwork
  • Thank the new customer
  • Celebrate!

At this stage, the sales rep successfully converts the prospect into a paying customer. The buyer will select the product or service that best meets their needs and provide billing information.

This is also the stage where the sales team should reflect on what went well and what didn’t—use each customer journey as a learning experience to optimize future deals. Once this stage is complete, you can celebrate a job well done.

SPIN selling techniques and best practices

Sales operations have never existed in a vacuum. The market changes every year due to the financial, societal, and technological advancements and disruptions in the world. SPIN selling is a great tool, but if you want to use it to increase sales, you’ll need to make sure you’re following the most up-to-date best practices.

Align SPIN with your customer experience plan

The first two stages of SPIN selling focus on discovering your prospects’ pain points, but you may already know those answers thanks to customer experience research. Rather than throwing out SPIN, concentrate on the third and fourth stages. Use what you already know about your prospects to inform your strategies for the second half of your SPIN cycle.

Incorporate technology

SPIN might be all about building relationships with your prospects, but that doesn’t mean you can’t leverage technology. You can always use sales chats to get to know your prospects before you dive into the meat of the conversation. You can also utilize sales reporting software to track your success through your sales volume and quota.

The sales industry is like the Wild West, so no matter what sales strategy you’re following, don’t forget to use all the tools in your arsenal to back it up.

Add stage five

In the SPIN selling model, stage four ends with a closed deal and a bottle of champagne. But that isn’t always what happens in the real world. Your prospects aren’t just divided into “purchased” and “not purchased”—there are other classifications. That’s why we recommend adding the secret fifth stage to SPIN selling: analysis.

Per Rackham, there are four outcomes for a SPIN sale:

  1. Advance: The prospect does not make a purchase but wants to move forward.
  2. Continuation: The prospect does not buy but requires you to continue reaching out in the future.
  3. Order: The prospect purchases the product or service.
  4. No-sale: The prospect outright declines the purchase.

The last two outcomes are very straightforward, but the first two necessitate some clever thinking. If you’re in the fourth SPIN stage and a prospect isn’t ready to buy but still wants to move forward, you must know your next move. Do you schedule a demo? Do you set up a meeting for a month from now to give them time?

Similarly, if they don’t purchase but also don’t say no, where does that leave you? Do you need to revisit pain points? Do you need to talk to someone else in the company?

Creating different strategies to address certain situations is key in refining your SPIN selling system and acquiring more customers.

SPIN sales training

Like any other highly specific sales strategy, SPIN selling requires unique sales skills and sales training. This type of training is so specialized that it’s offered through SPIN-sales-focused organizations, such as Huthwaite International.

The training features interactive activities through different parts of the customer journey that hone your reps’ sales personalities. While SPIN selling does involve many of the questions we covered in previous sections, it’s also about making quick decisions on the fly and having the confidence to navigate tricky conversations.

Some abilities covered in SPIN selling training include:

  • Recognizing when you need to shift tactics
  • Analyzing why sales went wrong and how to make future improvements
  • Building confidence in yourself and your sales team/co-workers
  • Starting conversations with clients who haven’t expressed explicit interest
  • Incorporating SPIN techniques across sales channels

If your company is new to SPIN selling, you might need to change some of your sales plans to accommodate these new methods. Keep an open mind and be willing to try different approaches to the sales journey.

Start SPIN selling with a powerful CRM

The most important part of SPIN selling is keeping track of customer details. The easiest way to do that? With a robust, flexible sales CRM like Zendesk Sell.

Zendesk Sell lets you integrate SPIN questions into future sales calls so you can build deeper connections with leads and move them through your pipeline. You can use Sell to track prospect preferences, timing, and qualifications. You can also set up automated outreach to ensure your perfect SPIN timeline isn’t thrown off by a busy week.

Request a demo of Zendesk Sell today, and let us keep you organized while you SPIN into the future.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

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