Rackham defines “larger sales” as those that require multiple seller-buyer discussions and he contrasts them with “simple sales”, where all the action takes place in more of less one shot. For example, when a market stall vendor persuades me to part with $65 for a hi-tech, multi-function penknife that can do everything from cutting rope to changing car tyres, they are not expecting to see me again. They are playing by a completely different set of rules from those used in a Business to Business (B2B) context. This involves interactions where, for example, the person selling a complex piece of software will be cohabiting the same industry as their client for the next 20 years.

Just as a sensible CFE would not use deceit to pass off a poor engineering solution to a customer, an experienced salesperson will never try to dupe their client. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but they are short-lived ones, in my experience. That is, authentic behaviour pays in the long run.

Rackham starts his book with an introduction to the (expensive) research upon which his theory is based and a discussion of Investigation in the sales process. He observes that effective Investigation is a precursor to nearly all successful sales, and then asks ‘what type of questions are used in effective investigations?’ This question, it turns out, does not have an easy answer. In fact, I was interested not only by the solution, but also by Rackham’s account of his early failures to find it.

His solution, SPIN, is an acronym describing four question types—Situation, Problem, Implication, Needs-payoff—for use in the order given. Rackham gives clear explanations of each question type and also makes a distinction between two types of needs: Implied Needs and Explicit Needs. The former are obvious needs that become apparent as soon as a problem is identified. A customer whose junior engineers do not understand how to use my software need training, for example. Explicit Needs, on the other hand, are measurable and specific. Before any type of concrete action can be envisaged, it is necessary to elucidate some Explicit Needs—in the case of the junior engineers, a means to teach them both the basics of High Level Synthesis and my tool’s graphical interface, for example.

SSPIN selling, which is said to have sold over 150,000 copies, can therefore be applied directly to Technical Support, where the clarification of needs before providing solutions is of paramount importance. The book may also be useful to CFEs for the insights that it affords into sales, since they often work in collaboration with salespeople.

Readers of Client Encounters and those familiar with Nonviolent Communication (NVC) may notice the similarities between SPIN and the Situation, Problems, Needs, Solution process that underpins the SUBROUTINE tool and also the Observations, Feelings, Needs, Request phases of the NVC protocol. I have found it extremely helpful to learn and compare these three systems. While they were conceived with different purposes, they seem to come from the same mould. In all three cases, Needs are the pivot around which all the rest revolves, and SPIN selling skilfully dissects this concept in a B2B context.

The link to NVC should remind us of one final, inescapable truth: that becoming effective in the use of any of these protocols is not just a matter of learning the protocol itself, but also one of personal development.