Book review: Neil Rackham (1995) SPIN Selling (Gower Publishing Limited: Aldershot)

Price: ***
Ease of use: ****
Value for EAA beginners: *
Value for EAA pros: ***

SPIN selling is a book on sales techniques in major sales written for “practising salespeople and their managers” which I think is nevertheless useful (to varying extents) for those involved in Effective Altruism movement building, as well as for vegan outreach, be it in a personal, corporate or institutional setting.

Summary of the book’s advice

The main finding of the research is that the most common forms of sales advice and training that was current at the time of research led to some increases in success in selling smaller, inexpensive or impulse-buy goods and services, but actually held back success in larger sales, where the costs to adopting a new product, technique etc were higher.

The author divides the process of a sales “call” up into the following stages:

  • Preliminaries (“the warming up events at the start of the call”)
  • Investigating (“finding out facts, information and needs”)
  • Demonstrating capability (“showing that you’ve got something worthwhile to offer”)
  • Obtaining Commitment (“gaining an agreement to proceed to a further stage of the sale”)

The book suggests that preliminaries don’t matter a huge amount and that successful major salespeople are flexible, rather than relying on strategies which speed up transactions in low-value sales, such as the “opening benefit statement”.

The book’s main advice focuses on the “investigating” stage. Here, the researchers (the author, Rackham and his company, called Huthwaite) created the acronym “SPIN” to show the stages of a successful sales call:

  • Situation questions (“finding facts about the customer’s existing situation”)
  • Problem questions (“about customer’s problems, difficulties or dissatisfactions”)
  • Implication questions (“about the effects, consequences or implications of the customer’s problems”)
  • Needs-payoff questions (“about the value or usefulness of a proposed solution”)

Their research showed that situation questions were used more in calls which failed and were over-used by inexperienced people. They are necessary to some extent, but are not a main driver of successful sales.

Problem questions are more closely correlated to successful calls, especially in smaller sales. These questions uncover “implicit needs” of a customer, i.e. issues that they are facing. However, the author argues that in sales pitches where the potential costs of implementing a solution (financial or otherwise) are large, a salesperson should not jump in at this point by demonstrating capability. Instead, they need to devote effort to developing the customer’s sense of need.

This is done partially through implication questions, which uncover “explicit needs” and get the customer talking to explain to you the magnitude of their problems, which therefore makes the cost of the solution seem more worth it to them. These questions are strongly linked to success in larger sales. They can be as simple as “and what effect is that having on [desired output]?”

Needs-payoff questions are those which help customers to focus on the usefulness and desirability of a proposed solution, and are also strongly linked to success in larger sales. They can be as simple as “what benefits do you see of [the solution]” or “can you think of any other benefits that [the solution] would bring you?”

When advising on how best to “demonstrate capability”, the author then redefines what constitutes a “benefit”, which is a word that other sales training programmes refer to a lot. Rackham distinguishes “features” about the product (anything it offers) from “advantages” (features which meet an implicit need of the customer) from “benefits” (how the product meets the explicit needs of the customer). Whilst “features” have no correlation with success in major sales, “advantages” correlate with success in early calls within a sales process, but less so later on, whereas “benefits” strongly correlate with success at all stages of a sales process.

The book argues that “obtaining commitment” is crucial. It distinguishes different outcomes from sales calls: 1) an order; 2) an advance – “where an event takes place, either in the call or after it, which moves the sale forwards towards a decision”, such as setting a time for a follow up meeting or demonstration; 3) a continuation, where “no specific action has been agreed with the customer to move it forward”; 4) no sale or rejection. The researchers classified an “advance” as a successful sales call, but a “continuation” as having failed. In this way, they emphasise the importance of obtaining specific commitments from the customers. Nevertheless, Rackham advises against “closing techniques” which essentially pressure the customer into making a decision, and are not correlated with success in major sales. He advises the following three steps as a way to obtain commitment: 1) check you’ve covered key concerns; 2) summarise the benefits; 3) propose an appropriate level of commitment.

The layout of the book is very easy to use. Each chapter is clearly labelled, even if it is not in chronological order within a sales call. Reading chapters 3-6 in the investigating stage would give you the main advice of the book (the SPIN technique), whereas the rest of the book can be summarised as noting that each of these stages doesn’t matter as much as the investigating stage itself, and you shouldn’t worry too much about memorising lots of different techniques for these stages. Each chapter ends with a summary and a useful practical guide on “techniques to help your selling”.

On a practical level, the book suggests that to help make sales calls successful, you should plan for the specific call. This might involve working out some of the specific implication and needs-payoff questions that you will ask. It also suggests that when trying to learn and implement its advice, you should focus on developing one aspect of the advice at a time, such as spending several weeks perfecting your implication questions before moving your focus onto needs-payoff questions.

Lessons for Effective Altruism movement building

In Effective Altruism movement building, we often position ourselves more as expert advisors than as salespeople, redirecting people towards certain resources, research or ideas to meet the needs of people that they are already conscious of. In these cases, then sales techniques may not be especially applicable. Indeed, Rackham lists when “you’re the expert” as one of the times when “a style high in giving and low in seeking [i.e. questioning] can be legitimate and successful” (pp. 39-40). Furthermore, since the “capability” that we are demonstrating, or the solutions that we are providing are often completely free in financial terms and often require only a small amount of other costs (e.g. some time reading), then we don’t really need to bother trying to develop the individual’s sense of need. If sales techniques are applicable, then it is more likely to be the advice which correlates with success in low-value sales, than the advice on major sales that SPIN Selling focuses on. One element of Huthwaite’s research was that listing the features of a product tends to increase the price sensitivity of the audience (p. 138). Given that many of EA’s offerings are free, simply listing off features of research, ideas, a mailing list or whatever else you are trying to “sell” might be an effective way to make your audience want to engage with it. Indeed, I tried out using some of the SPIN techniques in the book in a casual conversation with somebody who was new to EA at a social, and it seemed slightly unnecessary (and demotivating) to make them feel that they needed research to support their advocacy even more than they already realised that they did.

Nevertheless, there are times when we enter into conversations about larger commitments (like taking the Giving What We Can pledge, or careers changes) with individuals; indeed it seems likely that encouraging deep engagement with EA provides greater opportunities for impact, given the talent gap that the EA community faces at the moment. Furthermore, there may be times when direct outreach or “sales” of (specific) EA ideas to particular (influential) individuals is needed. In such instances, the book’s advice is useful for making your arguments more persuasive.

I suspect that some people reading this will see such sales techniques as manipulative and would object to their use to share EA ideas. I’d agree that we certainly wouldn’t want to use any techniques that would damage trust in us or the EA movement. However, I see these techniques more as a way to help people realise the needs that they already have, to overcome status quo bias and people’s instinctive efforts to rationalise and justify their own current behaviour, than to manipulate people. In this sense, using such sales techniques would just be helping people to do more good.

Lessons for vegan outreach or sharing ideas about speciesism and animal suffering

It seems fairly rare that animal advocates will be able to have extended conversations in which they can employ these sale techniques. Usually, they will only have time for a very short pitch (e.g. an online ad) which is better conceptualised in terms of a marketing funnel than in terms of sales techniques, or will be reactively responding to individual questions and challenges.

If, however, interested individuals start to engage with ideas about animal suffering or veganism, there may be opportunities to direct the conversation in a way which uses the SPIN methods.

I have found that individuals often engage with the Effective Animal Advocacy movement armed with questions about how to make their individual outreach efforts more effective. Apart from encouraging people to consider whether individual outreach really is the most effective use of their time, I have also recommended SPIN Selling to some individuals for this reason.

Lessons for animal advocates’ corporate or institutional outreach efforts

It seems more likely that in discussion with a business or institution, professional animal advocates will have a longer slot in which to discuss the benefits of an expanded vegan offering, or for restructuring the “choice architecture” that they offer their customers (using a customer’s inertia to nudge them in a particular direction – a term borrowed from Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge). In such discussions, it seems likely that the SPIN model would provide useful methods for businesses or institutions to feel the need to do so more acutely, whether it is for moral, environmental, health, public relations or profitability reasons.

Should you trust the advice? The research methodology

The book is based on research studies of 35,000 sales calls made by 10,000 sales people in 23 countries. Initially, the researchers attempted to work out which behaviours correlate with success in successful sales calls, which they then developed into a training programme. It contains an appendix which details the methodology of testing for the effectiveness of the training programme. Although Rackham and his team at Huthwaite found results which initially suggested the success of training in the SPIN model against control groups, such as a 76% increase in sales over a 6 month period in a trained group compared to a 19% increase in the control group, various complicating variables led them to test further. Although noting that “you can never entirely eliminate the effects of other organizational and market factors” (p. 225), some of the most conclusive proof that the training worked came from comparing a control group to those who had received the SPIN training but hadn’t put the behaviours that they were trained in into practice very much, and again to those who had received the training and put the behaviours into practice. Whereas the control group’s number of order per month fell from before training, to during (alternative, non-SPIN) training to after, the middle group’s performance improved during the training but fell back down afterwards (suggesting a “Hawthorne effect”). More successfully, however, the group which most adopted the behaviours taught by the SPIN model increased their total number of orders per month during the training, but improved on this again in the months after the training. Even if the detailed methodology is not given for each individual study, a large part of the book is devoted to bemoaning the lack of rigorous research into sales training programmes beforehand, so the research and advice in the book seems like a significant improvement. Additionally, it makes the book a lot more accessible – it is a useful “how to” of sales techniques, rather than a detailed report on a single study.

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