In the first posting in this series I explained the dangers of adopting any form of questioning approach that suggests the adviser is on auto-pilot.

In the second posting I identified some useful questions and promised to outline a specific questioning structure for professional advisers such as accountants, solicitors and surveyors.

Whatever questioning approach you adopt, you must feel comfortable using it however well it might have been proven to help achieve the desired aim. Of course it takes time and practice to feel comfortable with any new approach, let alone to master it.

One of the most enduring structured but unscripted approaches can be recalled using the SPIN acronym which is often credited to Neil Rackham, former president and founder of Huthwaite corporation The structure is explained in Neil’s 1988 book and focuses on an acronym: S.P.I.N which helps us to recall four elements of an effective questioning approach:

  • Situation Questions – to gather background information and understand the context of the sale.
  • Problem Questions – to explore the prospect’s dissatisfactions and concerns.
  • Implication Questions – that develop and link apparently isolated problems by examining their ‘knock-on’ effect on the areas of the prospect’s business.
  • Need-payoff Questions – that invite the prospect to consider the benefits of solving his or her problems and, having done so, to express an Explicit Need for a solution (“If I can show you a proven way to find a permanent solution to this adverse situation, would you be willing to hear my brief presentation?”).

A key feature of this approach, as implied by earlier posts in this series is that it encourages the prospect to define both their problem and their desire to find a solution. Hence, the ambitious professional comes across more as a ‘consultant’ rather than as a salesperson trying to make a sale.

Situation Questions
These are intended to elicit relevant background facts about the prospect. Bear in mind that situation questions will bore the prospect so the more background information you can collate (and recall) beforehand the better.

Example questions

  • Tell me about your company?
  • To what extent do you specialise in a particular area?
  • Tell me something about your customers (this is likely to generate a focus on the key ones)
  • How’s business?

Problem Questions
These are intended to identify the prospect’s difficulties or dissatisfactions.

Example questions

  • How much time do you spend on collating information for the taxman each year?
  • What do you find frustrating about the way your legal work is handled?
  • What are the disadvantages of the way you’re handling this [process] now?
  • What concerns do you have? 

Implication Questions
These should focus the prospect’s attention on the consequences or effects of their problems. The goal of using these questions is to persuade the customer to EXPLICITLY state a need that you can solve.

Example questions

  • How much money do you lose when you lose a customer?
  • How much does it cost you to get a new customer?
  • What’s the lifetime value of your customers and how much will you make when you double it?
  • Do you get a lot of legal issues in property management?
  • How much time do you waste dealing with dissatisfied customers?

Need-Payoff Questions
These address issues such as the value, usefulness, or utility that the prospect perceives in a solution. Only ask these questions AFTER the prospect has confessed to a need. If you ask these questions too early in the process your prospect will simply deny the existence of the need which you claim to solve.

Example questions

  • How would it help if your offices were connected to a centralised database?
  • Why is it important to get all your employees accounting for their work?
  • Would it be useful if your homeowners made most of their requests without bothering anyone?
  • Is there any other way that this could help you?
  • Do you see the value in knowing which vendors do the most work?

After the prospect has admitted to some explicit need – not something vague – you can then explain how your service solves the need.

The final stage of this approach is the way that you attempt to address all of a prospect’s stated concerns, and ask them if they have any more. Traditionally you would then finish by summarising the benefits of your service and proposing the next appropriate level of commitment.In the fourth and final part of this series I will suggest an alternative and more effective approach.

[I learned recently that the SPIN acronym was originally going to be SPIP. The originator contrived to make the last letter an N at the encouragement of his young son who pointed out that SPIP was a silly word!]