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SPIN Selling: What are the Four SPIN Questions and How to Use Them in B2B Sales

by Fosburit
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If you’re a B2B salesman, you’ve probably heard of SPIN selling, a book written by Niel Rackham, who is a sales scientist. SPIN stands for Situation, Problem, Implication, Need-Payoff. 

SPIN selling is also a sales technique, which teaches you how to ask four types of SPIN questions (Situation Question, Problem Question, Implication Question, Need-Payoff Question) strategically with B2B customers in the sales process. 

  1. Situation Question: to gather buyer’s information by asking the questions you need to ask.
  2. Problem Question: uncover buyer’s hidden problems or Implied needs.
  3. Implication Question: help the buyer discover and understand the impact of problems they have. That is to say, transform implicit needs into explicit needs. 
  4. Need-Payoff Question: offer solutions to their problems in their own words with your goods or services.

These four questions form a complete sales tactics of SPIN.

Designed for B2B Sales

There is a science in selling. Like Neil Rackham said: “The best selling isn’t at all about your products and what you can offer. It’s very much about the customers and their needs.”  

SPIN selling is designed for B2B sales, which improves salesperson skills, that you can put into action, but different with traditional sales techniques. It develops real value selling, once you understand the methodology, you’ll be armed with many techniques to use on B2B sales. 

Difference Between B2B and B2C

B2C

Neil Rackham put forward the difference between large-order sales and small-order sales. We can also simply understand it is the difference between B2B and B2C.

In a B2C (small order) scenario (such as buying a batch of ballpoint pens, or a book), the customer demand is simple, fewer purchasing decisions, a short purchasing process, and almost no buying risks. 

Therefore, sales skills and a description of the performance of the product are sufficient to achieve the sales. 

B2B

However, in the scenario of a B2B (large order), the sales of which with long cycles, together with high-value (for example, a container of air conditioner, a machine production line), the requirements of customers are complex.

There are many decision-making participants, many bidders, a long buyer’s journey, and a high purchasing risk. The pure “sales words” level is not enough to assure the purchaser to place the order. 

For example, the following sales method which may be used in small orders but are almost not workable in big orders:

  1. “The price of raw materials will increase, if you don’t place the order this week, the price has to increase.”
  2. “The discount will end in two days.”
  3. “We can send you a sample for free”.

The reason is that sales cannot skip the procurement process in the large order scenario. There is absolutely no purchasing decision if both the demand and the solution are not specialized.

However, the risks can be neglected if there is a decision mistake in the small order in B2C (for example, if you buy the wrong bottle of shampoo, you can give it away or throw it away).

So in order to close the deal in B2B business, the sales should pay more attention or even understand the buyer’s business, buyer’s purchase process, the solution to buyer’s problem, and finally move forward the sales process step by step (e.g. from initial contact, to demand investigation, to ability verification, move to the commitment, and etc).

Four Questions and the Logics Behind

Niel Rackham came up with four strategies for questioning customers in SPIN selling, they are Situation Question, Problem Question, Implication Question, and Need-Payoff Question. 

These four types of questions are the logic of how to ask questions. For example:

  1. “Who is your supplier?” – Situation Question.
  2. “Is there any problem with your supplier? – Problem Question.
  3. “Do these problems with your supplier have any impact?” – Implication Question
  4. “If these problems are solved, what help will it bring to you? – Need-Payoff Question.

First of all, SPIN clearly points out that in the scene of large order sales, it is meaningless to propose a plan (quotation) at an early stage when the demand of the customer is not clear because this will only lead the customer to focus on the price and only discuss the price with you.

Secondly, SPIN emphasizes that when sales communicate with customers, they should let customers talk more, not the other way around. 

We should understand the real needs of customers by asking questions. Meanwhile, guide the customer’s cognition and their buying process. Finally, work out a solution to hit the target.

Situation Question

The Situation Question is the first question logic of SPIN, and it is also the most commonly used question type when sales face customers. For example:

  • “What are your sales channels?”
  • “Which supplier do you purchase from?“
  • “What is your annual purchase volume?“
  • “Do you have a target price?“

Leave a low level impression

From the sales cognition, that knowing more about the customer will be helpful in working out a more precise plan to get the order. In theory, this is not wrong, but Situation Questions are often only beneficial to sales. However, customers need more time and energy to answer these questions. 

Here may the inner world of the customers:

  • “Who are you, why should I spend time and energy to answer your questions?” 
  • “Can these time and energy efforts bring benefits to me and my company?”

Also, keeping asking questions only surrounding the customer’s situation will leave a bad or unprofessional impression on your customers as they reckon you don’t care about their business, only care about yourself.

The above two points are why customers are not willing to answer your Situation Questions, sometimes they’re bored of your questions.

How to Use Situation Question?

1. Establish Initial Trust

Before asking questions, sales should establish initial trust. There are four types of trust: appearance trust, relationship trust, professional trust and interest trust.

As much trust as possible should be established first, to ensure that the customer would like to answer your several Situation Questions. 

Or at least, assure the customer that you or your company have the ability to solve his/her (company) problem, or be able to attract his/her interest at a certain key point.

Otherwise, it makes no sense to ask Situation Questions as the customer may not answer you at all.

2. Not Only Focus on Situation Questions

Don’t just stay on situation questions, insert other types of questions. 

Suppose you have 10 background questions that you must know from the customer anyway, and there are no answers after searching them on the Internet.

Spread these 10 questions to the entire communication process, instead of focusing on asking these 10 questions.

3. Only Ask Important Situation Questions

It may be believed that the preparations of work before the start of the war determines the outcome of the war. 

It is recommended to do a series of background investigation of every customer (not included the customer you encounter unexpected at the exhibition) through the internet first to know their:

  1. Sales: including business scope, organizational structure, business scale, main market, competitors, etc.
  2. Procurement: including main products, possible suppliers, procurement scale, product preference, etc.

Only if there is really no way to find background information in public channels, then ask the customer. 

And it is suggested to ask questions about which the customer’s concerns (such as the customer’s main market, competitors, operating conditions, etc.) to help you understand the customer’s business. 

Rather than those that you most care about, such as “who you buy from?”, “what’s the annual purchase volume?”, “what’s your product requirements?” and so on.

All in all, as the basic questioning logic of SPIN, Situation Question is suggested to be asked as little as possible.

Problem Question

Problem questions are sales inquiries into the problems, dissatisfaction or difficulties of the customer. For example:

  • “Is there any problem with the current supplier?”
  • “Is the product quality stable enough?”
  • “Is the current competition in the market fierce?”
  • “Will the delivery be in time?”

Most greenhand sales are afraid to ask customers problem questions, because they are worried to make customers unhappy.

But in fact, there is no need to worry about this, because the purpose of asking these questions is:

1.No Pain, No Change

If customers are not aware of their own problems, definitely they will not have the motivation to change or buy from you.

For example, suppose you are a CRM software salesperson. When you are in contact with customers, if you are just talking about “how good your product is” and “advantages over your competitors”, it may not make much sense. 

Among the customers’ perceptions at this time, they may think Excel is also very useful, why should they spend money on your CRM software?

But does the customer really not need CRM software? We don’t know. So in this case, the customer is in an implied needs instead of explicit needs. 

The greatest significance of problem questions is to try to uncover the hidden needs of customers. 

From the perspective of the buying cycle, letting customers realize from “no problems or no issues found” to “discovered problems or issues” by asking problem questions, and then sales begin to use implication questions to make the customer “feel greater pain.”

2.Lead the Customer’s Cognition to Your Most Competitive Direction

For example, suppose your biggest advantage over your competitors is the delivery time, and your disadvantage is the higher price. You should guide the customer to find more of his problems in terms of delivery time instead of price.

Otherwise, if you ask the customer “Do you have any questions about the price?”, the customer replied “Yes, our price has not been competitive to our customers in the local market”, and then you replied “Oh, my price is also not competitive”, then Isn’t it embarrassing?

How to Use Problem questions?

You can start by diagnosing the cause based on the Nine Block Vision Model from the book of The New Solution Selling

For example, when you are in contact with customers, ask:

  1. “Is there anything wrong with your existing suppliers as you are now contacting potential suppliers?” (open question)
  2. “Are there any new challenges in the current market?” (open question)
  3. “There are two problems in the industry: late delivery and price instability. Is there any problem that bothers you?” (controlled question)
  4. “In other words, you feel that the quality of the current suppliers is unstable and the service level is not professional enough, right?” (confirmed question)

In this way, we can diagnose the main problems and challenges that customers face.

However, it should be noted that in the B2B scenario, generally, Problem questions only play a role in diagnosing the cause of customer pain and uncovering the implicit demand, but may not transform implicit demand into explicit demand, nor can it quantify and amplify the pain of customers. 

Therefore, in practical applications, we generally use this type of question as a transition. We need to rely on the next type of question – Implication Question to develop the buy’s purchasing process.

Implication Question

Problem questions are the investigation of dissatisfaction, difficulties or problems that customers may have, then Implication Questions study the impact of these dissatisfaction, difficulties or problems on customers.

For example:

  • “Is there any problem with the current supplier?” (Problem question) – “Does the current supplier’s XX problem have any impact on your business?” (Implication question)
  • “Is the product quality stable enough?” (Problem question) — “Does the customer complain about the quality?” (Implication question)
  • “Is the current competition fierce in the market? (Problem question) – “How much profit margin and sales decline caused by fierce market competition?” (Implication question)
  • “Are there any delays in delivery?” (Problem question) – “XX retailers have very strict requirements for the delivery time. Has the supplier ever been fined due to the delay delivery?” (Implication question)

As mentioned in the part of the problem question, problem questions generally can only diagnose the cause of customer pain and uncover hidden needs. It functions in simple and small purchases. For example:

In the supermarket scene, if the promoter says, “You seem to have some dandruff, come and try this newest anti-dandruff shampoo”, you are likely to buy it, because buying a bottle of shampoo does not cost much at all, and there is not much risk.

However, in the B2B complex procurement scenario, the probability of the problem question taking effect will be relatively low.

It’s impossible to say “Is the quality of your existing supplier’s products not good? Come on, use my product.”

Because the customer will think “Yes, the quality of my supplier’s product may have a problem, but whether we should change it now at a high cost (B2B orders are big)”. With the lack of urgency and necessity to take action.

You’ll rely on Implication questions to transform the answer of problem questions, such as “existing supplier’s product quality is not good” into “that means customer complaints”, and then into “affect your brand and increase sales expenses.” “finally affect your sales and the achievement of annual goals.”

In a word, the function of Implication questions is to transform implicit needs into explicit needs, quantify and amplify the pain of customers, so that customers can find reasons for action.

How to Use Implication Questions?

You can ask the questions from the perspective of exploring the impact, based on the Nine Block Vision Model from the book of The New Solution Selling.

The points of the questions mainly from the perspective of benefits (return, cost, profit, and efficiency). For example: 

  1. Does the sudden price increase of your existing suppliers have any major impact? (Open question) 
  2. The supplier increases the price by 10%. I don’t know if you are responsible for this cost increase, or your customers bear it? (Controlled question)
  3. Customers are unwilling to accept the extra cost, and eventually, you have to bear the 10% of the additional cost. Meanwhile, your sales volume will be affected in the next three months, right? (Confirmed question)

In this case, sales helps the customer recognize and quantify his or her pain by using implication questions.

Implication question is powerful, but sometimes it also has a negative effect, that is, it will make customers feel annoyed (unless there is enough trust, otherwise no one is willing to disclose their pain to others). Therefore, we will need the last one of SPIN, which is the Need-Payoff Question. 

Need-Payoff Question

Need-Payoff Question in SPIN is to transform customers’ implicit needs into explicit needs (which are beneficial to us). At the same time, state what benefits that our plan can bring. For example:

  1. “If the delivery period is shortened 5 days, how will it help you?”
  2. “Will the price decrease by 5% can help you get an additional 20% of your customer’s order?”
  3. “Which one do you think is better between the 30-day payment time and the 5% discount?”

Both the Implication question and Need-Payoff Question play the role of transforming implicit needs into explicit needs, the biggest difference between the two is: 

  • The Implication question brings negative stimulus to the customer by expanding and quantifying the pain. 
  • The Need-Payoff Question brings positive stimulation to customers by revealing and quantifying the value.

The same example you can feel when establishing employee performance appraisals:

  1. If you can’t do anything, what consequences you would bear. (Implication)
  2. If you have done something, you will be able to enjoy what kind of benefits. (Need-Payoff)

In a simple business scenario, there is basically one solution to one problem, such as:

  1. I’m hungry (problem) – eating (solution), 
  2. The weather is very hot (problem) – buy an air conditioner (solution)

But in a complex B2B scenario, the correspondence between problems and solutions is not so easy to understand.

For example, increasing the company’s operating profit margin (the ultimate problem) can be decomposed into improving turnover and reducing expense costs. 

Improving turnover can be further divided into increasing traffic (number of customers), conversion rates, and customer unit prices. 

Increasing traffic can also be further decomposed into escalating market promotion budgets and increasing customer visits. Escalating market promotion budgets can be realized by investing more money in B2B platforms, exhibitions, magazines, websites, and etc.

From the above example, we can know there may be several solutions to one problem, but customers are often confused:

  1. Which problems are the key issues? 
  2. Which solution is the best? 
  3. What should be done to make the best choice for the return on investment? 

Therefore, in the B2B field, there is often a gap between the real needs of customers and products. 

Customers need to spend a lot of effort to explore their needs, and sales use products to meet customer needs (which are often not real needs). It is inevitable both efficiencies is low. 

How to Use the Need-Payoff Question?

You can ask the questions from the perspective of vision, based on the Nine Block Vision Model from the book of The New Solution Selling.

The points of the questions can be from “what kind of ability can solve your problem” and “what can be brought to you by solving this problem”. For example:

  1. If the problem of the supplier’s price validity can be solved, what benefits can it bring? (Open question)
  2. Can the 6-month price validity period attract end customers to directly issue a semi-annual order forecast? Or can it reduce the transaction cost of your company’s review of supplier qualifications? (Controlled question)
  3. In other words, can better price stability help increase the stickiness between you and your customers? (Confirmation question)

In the above Need-Payoff Question scenario, sales (you) help customers find reasons to buy from you.

Final Thought

You may have read this book several times and master the technique of asking 4 SPIN questions – What it is and how to use it in B2B sales work. 

SPIN selling provides a framework for customer interactions. The method also helps me become a problem finder and a problem solver.

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