SPIN selling: How to perfect your sales messaging by talking to customers

SPIN selling: How to perfect your sales messaging by talking to customers

“Our conversion is quite low. While we might get leads, it feels slow. We serve a niche market and have great software. But getting that message across in a way that captures their interest is lacking.

This is an all-too common problem I hear from sales reps. And from those in marketing, for that matter.

Getting your messaging right isn’t easy. 77% of B2B buyers said they do not want to talk to a salesperson until they’ve done their research.

What if you could talk to your customers to get the messaging you need to lift your sales conversion rates? And not only sales conversion rates, but marketing conversion rates too.

My agency, Growth Ramp, is a product marketing agency to help entrepreneurs from idea to scale. I balance my work between three disciplines:

  1. Product
  2. Marketing
  3. Sales

Working in these fields allows me to see the common thread which holds the tapestry of customer acquisition together.

What’s the common thread, you ask?

The ability to grasp a customer’s problem and show how your product solves that problem using the customer’s language. Often the easiest way to do this is to:

  1. Talk to customers
  2. Ask the right questions
  3. Show how the product solves their problem.

The approach I’m about to share will help you capture the voice of the customer (VOC) to nail your messaging.

There are many places to collect VOC data, from live chat logs to your sales calls. You can apply the VOC data to every customer acquisition channel to improve conversions.

Note: I’ve put together a bonus resource at the end of this article that will help you apply VOC data to your messaging. I used this approach to double (+127%) a startup’s annualized revenue in 6 months.

Sales reps who applied the method in this article saw 17% more average sales volume over the control group. (Yes, they A/B tested their sales team). Even better, it helped Motorola Canada’s sales team boost total sales orders by 30%.

What was the approach Motorola’s sales team used to increase their total sales by 30%?

The approach is SPIN selling, a technique Neil Rackham covered in his 1988 sales book of the same name.

You may be thinking, “Seeing how much business has changed since 1988, isn’t this out-of-date?” Or perhaps you’re thinking, “That’s great it works in the US and Canada. But does this apply where I live?”

Neil Rackham and his team at Huthwaite had those same questions. That’s why they observed 35,000 sales calls from 10,000 salesmen and women. His team looked at 116 factors, from sales calls in 27 countries, which spanned 12 years.

Doubts still prevented Rackham from publishing his findings. His findings were controversial at best, and contradictory at worst. So he kept quiet and trained salesmen using the SPIN method for seven years.

Finally, Rackham was ready to release his findings and teach the world about SPIN selling.

What is SPIN Selling?

SPIN is an acronym for the four types of questions top sales teams use:

  1. Situation questions, which helps you to learn about the buyer’s situation.
  2. Problem questions, which helps you to identify the buyer's pain and find areas of opportunity.
  3. Implication questions, which helps you understand the seriousness of the problem. These questions increase a buyer's desire to change products.
  4. Need-payoff, which helps you get the buyer to tell you about their needs based on the benefits your product offers.

Should you start your next sales call asking these questions from the get-go? No. (Unless you want your sales prospect to feel like they’re under interrogation).

When should you use SPIN questions in your sales call?

According to Rackham, every sales call goes through four stages:

  1. The Opening - This is the stage when pleasant introductions and first impressions begin.
  2. The Investigation - In this stage, you learn about your buyer’s problems, priorities, and criteria.
  3. Demonstrate Capability - You’ve found out a customer’s problem. In this stage, you’ll want to prove the connection between the buyer’s issues and your product.
  4. Get a Commitment - At the end of the day, you’re looking for the buyer to make a commitment: Will she buy your product or not? There are four potential commitments you can get: an advance, a continuation, an order, and a no-sale.

Rackham recommends using SPIN questions in the Investigation stage to raise your close rate. What are the SPIN questions, you ask?

The SPIN Selling Questions

Each of the four types of SPIN questions plays a different role. Together, they move a prospect towards buying your product.

Here’s how the SPIN questions lead to a sale:

  1. Situation Questions help you establish the context of the problem. This leads to…
  2. Problem Questions, which allow you to find out the buyer’s implied needs. Implied needs are derived from...
  3. Implication Questions, which heightens the problem in the buyer’s mind. Once the buyer learns the scope of the problem, this opens the door to ask...
  4. Need-Payoff Questions to learn the buyer’s specific needs and learn what benefits they seek. After you learn what benefits they want, you will show how your product solves their problem and close the deal.

Like any sales script or template, it is not wise to follow this system in a rigid order. You need to be flexible as you move through the SPIN questions.

Salespeople who close at high rates tend to ask the questions in the same order. They begin with Situation Questions.

Situation Questions

The first step in the SPIN model is to use Situation Questions. Situation Questions help you seek facts about the buyer’s current situation.

Situation Questions are necessary to set the stage for the rest of the SPIN model.

Situation Questions include:

  1. How do you currently solve this problem?
  2. What’s your process when this problem comes up?
  3. Who do you use right now to solve this problem?
  4. What’s your role at the company?
  5. Do you make the purchasing decision?

Asking too many Situation Questions is a common rookie mistake. According to Rackham’s research, the more Situation Questions asked during a call, the less likely that call was to succeed.

One explanation for this is that Situation Questions help set the stage. Yet until the buyer feels the gravity of the problem, there’s no reason to change. That is why you need Problem Questions.

Problem Questions

“People do not buy from salespeople because they understand their products but because they felt the salesperson understood their problems.” ~ Neil Rackham

Once you get the context of the buyer’s situation, you want them to feel the pain of their problem. What gap isn’t filled with what they’re currently doing? Where is the prospect dissatisfied?

If there isn’t a problem, they would not be on a sales call with you. This is why you need Problem Questions.

Here are some Problem Questions:

  1. What is your biggest challenge you’re facing right now? Why is this a pressing challenge for you?
  2. What frustrations do you have with how you’re currently solving this problem?
  3. How satisfied are you with what you’re currently doing? Why are you unsatisfied with your current product?
  4. How difficult is it for your team to use this product?
  5. How many people work on this problem when it comes up?

To know what to ask, your goal should be to work backward from the problems your products solve. There’s no use asking if they have an SEO problem if your product improves PPC performance.

To understand what problems your product solves, you may find it valuable to fill out a positioning canvas. This can help you communicate and refine your value prop, which you’ll use later in the SPIN model:

It’s essential to find several problems. If you focus on one problem, the buyer may ask about another area where your product doesn’t do as well compared to the competition. By finding many problems, you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket.

While the buyer feels their problem’s pain, you want to help the buyer understand the cost of keeping life as-is. Implication questions will help you highlight the seriousness of the problem to make a change.

Implication Questions

Whenever a customer buys a product, there is a fear of the unknown.

Problem Questions help you learn how to decrease a buyer’s attachment to current processes. To pull them to your product, help the buyer justify the change. Which is where Implication Questions come in.

Implication Questions might sound like this:

  1. You say it’s hard to use Moz’s tools. What effect does this have on your output?
  2. You mention the extra work causes your marketing department to work overtime. Doesn’t the overtime add more to your costs?
  3. You feel like your writers are underperforming. How much production have you lost from your writers not working at full capacity?
  4. Because your team has to do a rush job, does this affect the quality of your work? How often does a client need you to redo the work you send? How many added hours is that?
  5. If you send work out to a competitor, does this put you at the mercy of someone else’s delivery schedule?

If you notice, Implication follows the Problem stage and is harder to plan. To better plan these questions, Rackham suggests writing down potential problems. Then, you can ask yourself what related difficulties relate to this problem.

I prefer to listen to past sales calls. Close’s software can record your calls, making it easy to do so. This way, you can list actual problems rather than inventing them. From there, you can match the problem to your product features.

Rackham found top salespeople ask four times as many Implication Questions than their peers.

One reason is Implication Questions give the buyer a new appreciation for the problem your product solves.

Another observation Rackham made is that Implication Questions are powerful in high-tech sales. One explanation Rackham gives is that high-tech markets are risky. Because the market changes fast, the customer has to see their current problems as severe before buying something new.

Implication Questions give you both the opportunity to understand and to persuade.

While these are valuable for high-ticket sales, weaknesses remain. Asking too many Implication Questions can leave your buyer feeling depressed as you emphasize the problem. And a depressed customer may mean they won’t take action.

Is it possible to get the benefit of making the buyer feel their problems which leads to a sale? This is where Need-Payoff Questions come in handy.

Need-Payoff Questions

In 2015, Aberdeen Group ran a survey on 207 businesses that collected customer feedback to help their business. This is also known as the voice of the customer (VOC).

AG compared the top 20% of businesses (“Best-in-Class”) with the bottom 80% (“All Others”). Here’s what they found:

Based on the results, the Best-in-Class had 9.8x greater year-over-year revenue over the remaining 80% of businesses (48.2% vs 4.9%). Perhaps this is why 96% of marketers believe customer experience management is vital to building loyalty.

The same reason why VOC is so powerful is the same psychology why Need-Payoff questions are valuable.

First, Need-Payoff questions help you focus the buyer’s attention on the solution rather than the problem. Then, you get the buyer to tell you the benefits they seek in their own words (AKA, VOC).

Instead of creating a solution for their problem (which may lead to objections), you get the customer to offer you potential solutions. Which you do through Need-Payoff questions.

Here are some examples of Need-Payoff questions:

  1. You’re spending an extra four hours a week learning Moz tools. Suppose you had a rep walk you through the tool. Would that be worth doing?
  2. One problem you’re facing is paying for too much overtime. And from what you’ve said, you’re interested in anything that can cut down your weekly overtime, is that correct?
  3. Your writers are not performing as high as you expect them to. Could you explain to me how a task management tool would help?
  4. It sounds like a rush job increases the amount of rework you need to do. How would a sales brochure set the right expectation?
  5. You’ve found it difficult to deliver your work on time once you are at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. Why would it be valuable to use a project management tool to reduce the amount of work you need to send out to a competitor?

A Need-Payoff Question allows the buyer to explain the pay-off to you in their words. This is how you get VOC data to  raise your conversions.

It’s also important to note that a Need-Payoff question is not about convincing the buyer. Instead, it’s about creating a problem-solving atmosphere to allow your buyer to sell themselves.

Now that your buyer has explained the benefits, you’ll want to show how your product delivers on those benefits. Then, you’re ready to close the deal.

For sales, you’ll likely do this over the phone. But how can you use the same VOC data to improve your marketing?

Applying the SPIN Technique to Marketing

“Good advertising is salesmanship in print. Multiplied mechanically, by the printing press.” John E. Kennedy, a father of modern advertising.

After applying the SPIN technique, most salesmen close the deal and call it a day.

What if told you there’s an opportunity to further accelerate your sales, hidden in plain sight?

Inspired by John E. Kennedy, I realized each sales call (or any contact with a customer) is a goldmine to help website copy increase sales at scale. Or to improve any marketing copy, for that matter. After all, isn’t digital marketing an evolution of print advertising?

This process will help bridge the gap between your marketing and sales department to create greater alignment and harmony.

Let me show you how to apply the SPIN questions to your marketing with two examples.

From the SPIN questions, you found out:

  1. The customer’s situation.
  2. The customer’s problem.
  3. The customer’s implied needs.
  4. The customer’s desired outcomes.

This is the framework for writing good marketing copy. Consider the classic PAS copywriting framework:

  1. Problem (which you learn from Problem Questions).
  2. Agitate (which you learn from Implied Questions).
  3. Solution (which you learn from Need-Payoff Questions).

After getting the customer’s permission to record the sales call, you can take everything they said and improve your marketing. Because when you create a sales page optimized for SEO, this becomes as Kennedy said, “salesmanship multiplied.”

For example, let’s say a customer switched from a competitor. You can use that information to target comparison keywords. Then compare your product and a competing product to educate the customer with the sales call data.

If you’re unfamiliar with comparison landing pages, here’s a comparison between Podia and Clickfunnels:

Here’s another example comparing Close and Hubspot:

And here’s a final great example from Woven vs Calendly:

The theory behind why comparison pages are effective is that they target product-aware customers.

What’s a product-aware customer?

According to the copywriter executive Eugene Schwartz, product-aware customers are aware of your product and your competition’s product. But because she’s not sure if your product is right for her, she’s comparing you to the competition.

As a result, she may be Googling keyword phrases like:

  1. {{Competitor}} Review. Example: Close Review.
  2. {{Competitor}} Alternatives. Example: Close Alternatives.
  3. {{Competitor 1}} vs. {{Competitor 2}}. Example: Close vs. Hubspot.

The second keyword phrase is a search phrase a customer who churns from a competitor’s product will use.

Want more evidence comparison keywords are great for lead-gen?

Comparison pages convert visitors to trial accounts at 10% or higher for Podia. These pages were also key in the product marketing strategy I used to double (+127%) Decibite’s annualized revenue in 6 months.

Here’s how this worked well for Decibite, and how it may help you close more deals faster.

First, I created a comparison between them and GoDaddy:

I later wrote an article on Reddit why entrepreneurs should avoid GoDaddy.

Looking at Decibite’s live chat log, I could piece together the buyer journey. It went something like this:

  1. A potential customer went to Reddit’s entrepreneur community.
  2. Read Jason’s article on why they should avoid GoDaddy like the plague.
  3. See Jason’s suggestion to consider Decibite, among a few other web hosts.
  4. Went to Google and looked up “Decibite vs. GoDaddy.”
  5. Read the information on Decibite’s landing page.
  6. Clicked the button to Decibite’s pricing page.
  7. Didn’t get all the answers they needed, so they went to Decibite’s live chat.
  8. Switched from GoDaddy to Decibite.

As you can see, the customer educated themselves in step 5 and 6 before talking to the sales team in step 7. Your process might involve a sales call rather than using a live chat widget. But the principle remains the same.

Because comparison pages assist the buyer’s journey, it should reduce the time you need to spend on a sales call because the pages educate customers for you.

How do you turn SPIN and VOC data into comparison landing pages?

During the sales call, you can ask the question, “What steps have you previously taken to address those problems?” This allows you to find out what products compete with your product.

Another opportunity to find competitors is to Google phrases relevant to your product. For Close, they might Google “best CRM software.” You’ll find CRM listicles like this one to source more competitors.

If you want a more thorough way to find your competitors, have the marketer you’re working with do take these two steps:

  1. Go to Google, type in the name of your biggest competitor, and add "vs." at the end.
  2. Go through each letter of the alphabet to find every competitor.

It should look something like this:

You can then ask your customers follow up with questions like, “What did you find helpful about those solutions? What do you wish were better about those solutions?”

Use that information along with other SPIN questions to close the deal with the customer. Then, pass this data to a product marketer. For every competitor mentioned, they’ll be able to create a comparison landing page and target the right keywords to rank the page on Google.

If you have an affiliate program, a product market can reach out to customers who are bloggers to create review pages.

How many times have you looked at customer reviews before buying a product on Amazon?

If you’re like me, you’ll at least glance at the star ratings first.

Unfortunately, there’s not an Amazon for SaaS products. As a result, it’s common for potential prospects to Google, “[your tool] review” to read what people are saying about your product. This is yet another wonderful opportunity to get bottom-of-the-funnel leads.

All the product marketer needs to do is reach out to bloggers and see if they would like to write a review. Need some inspiration to send to the bloggers?

Here’s a review of LastPass from Login Lockdown:

And here’s another example of a Toptal Review from my sister site, Lancer Review:

Marketers who’ve never created and promoted these types of pages might think they get very little traffic.

After all, comparison pages and review pages are bottom-of-the-funnel, right?

The reality is, these pages often bring in a ton of traffic which converts.

Why can you get so much traffic from comparison and review pages?

It’s fairly common for review pages to rank for the product’s brand keyword. Take a look at when I did a Google search for MeetEdgar:

Right below MeetEdgar’s main company listing are three review and comparison pages. Sure, most people doing a Google search for your competitor’s company will click on their name. But a fraction of that pie will also keep scrolling to find these other entries too.

Another example is to create product feature pages to target product keywords.

In the Implication stage, I suggested listening to customer calls to find out their problems. From there, you mapped the problem to your features.

This means a product marketer can target product keywords to help more customers with the same problem. Close’s sales call page is an example of a product feature page. Here’s another example from Monday on task management software.

Why is it worth giving the VOC data to a product marketer to create feature pages?

Feature pages target solution-aware prospects. Eugene Schwartz said these customers are reviewing solutions. So while he knows the results he wants, he may not know of your product. Or if he does know of your product, he’s unaware it provides the results he’s looking for.

As a result, he knows to look for a sales CRM with an email sequence. So he Googles, “sales email sequence software” and comes across this page on automated sales email software:

Your content then educates him what you normally would discuss on a 1-on-1 sales call.

As Kennedy points out, marketing allows you to scale your sales force. Targeting comparison and product keywords allows you to do this better at scale through SEO.

Applying the SPIN Technique at Your Startup

Spin selling has helped thousands of sales folks around the world increase their close rate. Those who applied this technique saw an average of 17% more sales volume than the control group.

If you want to apply the SPIN technique at your startup, I recommend you start by applying one principle, so you avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Like most areas, it will take time to get the SPIN process right. Rather than risking a new process on a big customer, start by practicing on small accounts or current customers.

Keep in mind the goal is to know your customers intimately. The goal isn’t to play a game of 20 questions. You’re looking for the motivations which help you close this deal or not.

Last, after using the SPIN questions to improve your messaging, don’t forget to send the data to a product marketer too. This VOC data is a treasure trove of valuable insights to help them create an army of salesmen at scale.

If you’d like more advice like this to help you on your journey from idea to scale, I put together a free email series on product marketing. I think you’ll enjoy it because it goes deeper into different product marketing strategies like this one.

B2B startups create real competitive advantages by learning from customers. Want practical, actionable insights on how to grow your customer base effectively? Download Steli's book Talk to Your Customers for free!