Part of the appeal of SPIN Selling has always been the logic of the proposition: Neutral researchers observed thousands of sales calls over a period of several years and identified the behaviors exhibited by the most successful sellers. (Success was defined as an outcome that moved the sale forward. The researchers were “neutral” because they didn’t care what the markers of success turned out to be; their job was simply to identify them.) The selling behaviors that have been shown to correlate with success can be taught to other sellers, whose performance improves when they use these behaviors on calls.
One of the surprises that emerged from this research was that the high performers, regardless of which industry or even which country they were operating in, were selling in a way that in many cases ran counter to what they were trained to do. Instead of doing all the talking, they were doing most of the listening. Skillful questioning enabled these sellers to guide the dialogue toward a mutual understanding of buyer needs, which proved to be an excellent basis for both winning the sale and forming long-term business relationships.
Neil Rackham, who led the original research, wrote a book called SPIN Selling to explain his findings and the sales models derived from them. Several publishers rejected the book. The considered opinion of the sales experts they consulted was that asking questions was exactly the wrong thing to do. Face-to-face time with a potential buyer is precious, they said, and should be used to extol the virtues of the product.
The experts were partly right and partly wrong. Talking about product features can be an effective way to sell… for small, transactional sales. If you’re in the market for a sandwich, features look like value—fresh, toasted, baked-on-site, organic, homegrown, handmade, new, special sauce—hey, it must be good. But in complex, multi-call sales, “feature dumping” gives the seller a low signal-to-noise ratio. As explained in one of our oldest white papers, SPIN Selling Primer, “The Huthwaite models look at selling as a collaborative process of mutual clarification between seller and customer. The foundation of success is the alignment of sales behavior to the buying process.”
McGraw-Hill published the SPIN Selling book in 1988—and continues to keep it in print—and over time the sales community’s perception of questioning techniques has shifted from “counterintuitive” to “common sense.” More than half the Fortune 100 have used SPIN or SPIN-influenced sales training. At this point, the SPIN story is an old one, and its outlines will be familiar to most professional salespeople. The new story in B2B sales is the impact of social media.
These are early days in a literal revolution (“sudden or momentous change in a situation”—American Heritage Dictionary) that promises to remake sales and marketing from the ground up. Browse the business titles on Amazon, and it appears that there may be more books on social media than there are companies with social media strategies.
Best practices—known to cynics as “entrenched practices”—for social selling and marketing are still being established. And once these practices have crystallized into conventional wisdom, it may still turn out that the top performers will find success by doing something quite different.
Meanwhile, as we gather at the portal of the brave new social era, what we see stretching out in front of us is not a trackless wasteland. For both sales and marketing, the key to adapting to momentous change is to focus on the buyer. The buyer is the north star by which we navigate. It is, after all, the drastic changes in buyer behavior that have led to all the fuss about social media to begin with.
And this is precisely the point where SPIN offers insights on how to begin to sell socially. As noted above, “The foundation of success is the alignment of sales behavior to the buying process.” In upcoming articles, we’ll highlight some lesser-known elements of the SPIN model in the context of social situations.