at the network computing company Sun Microsystems highlighted the importance of
understanding customer needs as it moved from a product- to a solutions-based
Founded just 20 years ago, Sun Microsystems has grown to become one of the
world’s leading providers of network hardware, software and services.
Today, Sun helps companies in virtually every sector to leverage the full
power of the internet in improving their competitiveness.
Yet in an increasingly tough marketplace, Sun recognised it could not
maintain market leadership by standing still. In mid-2001, in the North Europe
Region – comprising Scandinavia, Benelux and parts of the former Soviet bloc –
the vice-president, together with senior managers, recognised the need to take
selling skills ‘to the next level’. This was especially important in such areas
as negotiation and account development, if the region’s broader business
strategy was to be achieved.
As the company’s in-house training services provider for the region, Sun
University’s (SunU’s) EMEA office was approached to source a suitable external
training provider who could meet the following objectives:
– in replacing a large number of existing third party trainers, to provide a
fully integrated programme with a common sales language and consistent messages
– to ensure a common level of high-quality training across a broad
– as Sun shifted its focus from a product to an end-to-end solutions-based
offering, to help the company move from the existing transactional sales
approach to one based on relationship building and understanding customer needs
– be recognised as an established and credible provider of sales training
Huthwaite was chosen because its SPIN¨Selling programme was identified as
offering the ideal combination of the strongly research-based and customer
needs-focused approach which was required.
At the outset, the Huthwaite team, led by training consultant Graham Short,
held several meetings with senior managers to establish the region’s business
goals and the sales skills required to deliver them.
Rather than follow the more common route of developing separate training
modules, what emerged was a business school approach.
This took the form of a linked training programme comprising five training
sessions spread over a year and incorporating a range of selling and account
Critically, each three-day training model was followed by a period of
coaching and project work, to ensure that the skills learned were practised and
refined to become part of each participant’s instinctive selling technique – to
what Huthwaite calls the level of ‘unconscious competence’. The next training module
would also incorporate these newly-acquired skills acquired as part of the
reinforcement and development process.
The first of the new business schools, each comprising two groups of 12
account managers identified as having ‘high potential’, was launched in August
2001 and its success led to the establishment of a second within a short time.
The third is already underway and has been extended to other client-facing
staff, including pre-sales and professional services.
The importance attached to this comprehensive, and costly, training approach
was underlined in that, throughout the extended training period, each
participant had both a coach – typically their line manager – and a mentor,
generally from the senior management team.
In addition, Huthwaite ran several courses for coaches. Initially, this
focused on the key issues covered in the business school training.
However, for the third business school it has been extended – in response to
requests from line management – to incorporate specialist coaching skills.
The reaction to this new training approach has been overwhelmingly positive
throughout northern Europe.
In particular, as the company moves towards solutions selling, the SPIN¨
approach has been generally recognised as offering the ideal skillset for
identifying and agreeing customer needs.
Within EMEA, as elsewhere, individual regions operate with a strong degree
of autonomy and, as a result, there have been a number of different reactions
to the visible level of success the programme has achieved.
A strong part of the Sun ethos is to extend this autonomy down to an
individual level – ‘to seek permission is to ask for denial’, as the company
As a result, employees are ’empowered to… escape their own career’ and, in
particular in the UK over the past year, the response to SPIN¨Selling’s
availability as an open enrolment option for any salesperson has met with a
very good response.
Simply by accessing the SunU website¼ under the relevant region, all courses
scheduled for the next six months are listed and may be booked with agreement
from line management. As a result of the UK experience in particular,
SPIN¨Selling is now a standard part of the sales curriculum, as part of SunU’s
list of available training options in EMEA.
Within a culture in which training traditionally has not been mandatory, the
response throughout Sun’s global sales operation has been very positive.
In summary, both SPIN¨ and the business schools concept have been
Furthermore, there is general acceptance that the introduction of more
precise evaluation tools in future will only serve to prove the strong returns
delivered by such training investment.
The Spin¨ Approach – Identifying the need
Within the business school, the first
of the five three-day course focuses on SPIN¨Selling, the principles of which
underpin much of the remaining training.
Huthwaite’s approach to the IT sector, as with any other, is
based on nearly 30 years’ experience researching what sales people do
differently to make them successful. From an analysis of this unrivalled
database – now numbering more than 40,000 sales interviews in 27 countries and
studying 116 possible influencing factors – the company developed its
Put simply, this encourages a more consultative approach,
making full use of what is often limited time spent face-to-face by asking the
right questions to explore – and get agreement on – the client’s needs. As
such, it has equal relevance to any employee involved in the sale of goods or
services, which are seen as high-value, important decisions by the buyer.
Based on a repetitive cycle of input-practice feedback, the
objective is to teach skills and match trainees’ behaviour ever closer to the
success model and so improve effectiveness.
The programme includes:
– persuasive needs analysis – planning in advance key arguments
(and therefore questions) likely to influence the buyer
– structuring the call – establishing the purpose of the call
at the outset, investigating needs through a strict questioning framework,
demonstrating how the product/service can meet such needs and obtaining the
The right questions
Key to this are the four types of questions which effective salespeople
ask as part of a consultative approach:
– situation questions ask about the customer’s operating
context and business solution
– problem questions ask about the customer’s difficulties,
dissatisfactions or problems with the existing situation
– implication questions ask about the consequences, effects or
implications of the customer’s problems
– need-payoff questions probe for explicit needs, either
directly or by exploring the payoff or importance to the customer of solving a
At the end of the programme, the participants:
– had analysed the strengths and weaknesses of their present
– were able to describe the psychology of customer needs
– were able to describe the key behaviours or skills used by
effective sales people in their interactions with customers
– had a framework for planning sales calls in terms of those
– had frequently practised using the skills to develop customer
needs in a way that greatly reduces the likelihood of objections
– had a strategy for dealing with difficult customers who raise
objections or have low reaction levels
– had measured objectively their performance compared to the
skill model and created an action plan for continued development of the skills
after the programme
Business school Approach pays off
Working with Huthwaite, Sun developed
a phased year-long training programme comprising five three-day sales
development courses with intensive follow-up coaching and reinforcement in the
field. Each course, tailored to meet Sun’s specific requirements, was built
around simple models based on extensive research and geared to achieve the
company’s broader business development goals:
– SPIN¨Selling – provided a better understanding of customer
needs as a firm foundation for consultative, partnering customer relationships
– account strategy for major sales – addressed the strategies
and tactics required for success in complex, competitive, multi-tiered and
multi-influencer long-cycle sales
– negotiation – enabled the achievement of ideal ‘win-win’
outcomes, through a combination of preparing a negotiating position, planning
tactics – including evaluation of the power balance and creative ‘trade-offs’ –
and face-to-face skills
– persuasive sales presentations – provided the tools necessary
to ensure maximum impact and memorability for the presentation to ‘stand out
from the crowd’
– effective sales proposals – took the form of a hands-on
workshop addressing the often-neglected area of effective proposal writing
You cannot ignore the customer
Following each training session,
assessments by the participants have been uniformly positive, writes Claudia
King, SunU Northern Europe education manager. In particular, they have praised:
– the quality of the trainers and their willingness to share
– the importance of being able to share their own experience
with other attendees
– the relevance – and value – of the role-plays in mirroring
their everyday experience
– the importance of SPIN¨ ‘s research-based methodology in
turning the traditional approach to selling on its head
In short, the key to its success has been in forcing
participants to take a step back and ask the questions needed to get to what
the customer really wants.
This has resulted in a real attitude change and a willingness
to accept that ‘the old way of doing things’ just won’t work anymore. With such
an extended programme, line managers have been encouraged to work with
Huthwaite in providing regular assessments on improved skills and those which
need further work.
Word has also spread well beyond the boundaries of the northern
region. In addition to the strong take-up of SPIN¨ in particular in northern
Europe and elsewhere, Germany has plans for introducing its own business
school, in conjunction with Huthwaite Germany. Sun’s operations as far afield
as the US and the Far East have also expressed interest in the business school
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