To Sell Implied vs. Explicit Needs: Why Care?

Recently, I sat down and re-read (for the tenth time) my old copy of SPIN Selling. It was yellow highlighted and red underlined in key areas I wanted to remember and refer to later. SPIN Selling is one of those books that’s still relevant today.

Author Neil Rackman’s sequential questioning process is central to our ability to sell the prospect on the problem and make the status quo unsafe. One of the big takeaways from the book is “selling big things is a lot different than selling little things.”

Once, we urged prospects to recognize a problem, then we’d move right into selling to that problem. That’s not enough today.

If the prospect says “our current healthcare costs are eating into our company’s profitability,” it does not mean he is ready to change and accept your solution.

Why?  Because problems are not necessarily needs.

If you hit a prospect with his problem head-on, you’re likely to end up in the status quo, or the no-decision zone, a big mistake for salespeople today.

Think back to your own selling situations. You did your research, identified a prospect problem, even held a successful meeting where he agreed to his problem. Then, nothing happens.

Once you identify the problem, you must begin your needs conversation. Your prospect must need something before you can sell your solution.

Define this need as either implied or explicit.

People buy only if they need to fix, accomplish or avoid something. Needs almost always begin with a problem, issue, or dissatisfaction with the current situation. The clearer and more explicit the need, the more likely the buyer will buy.

Let me illustrate the point. Let’s go back to the example of “costs are eating into our company’s profitability.” This simple statement, the healthcare plan’s costs eat into the company’s profits, is the implied need, the need to be fixed.

However, if someone mentions “we need a new strategy to reduce cost,” he or she has jumped to an explicit need. It is a subtle difference. When your prospect admits he has a problem AND he wants or needs something, he has entered the buying zone.

Move From Implied to Explicit Need

How do you move the prospect from the implied need to the explicit need?

Problem questions. You develop carefully worded problem questions to learn more about the problem, difficulties or dissatisfaction the prospect experiences with an existing situation. His answers help you sell the need.

You may ask, “It sounds like the recent rate increase on your healthcare plan was more than you expected, is that the case?” “With the higher cost and lower profits, how has that impacted you and your department?”

After you identify a prospect’s problem or dissatisfaction with problem questions, continue to clarify until you and your prospect share a thorough understanding of the problem or implied need. In fact, get a few problems on the table to widen possibilities. If the prospect does not see a need to fix the one problem under discussion, you are dead in the water.

Be sure to develop good follow-up questions. As an example, you might say, “How big of an impact on corporate earnings is the healthcare costs?” or “It sounds like you are quite concerned about the rising cost of your healthcare plan. Is that the issue that concerns you most?”

Begin with the End

What does your product or service solve for the prospect better than any competitor? Begin with these answers, as you create your problem questions. Try this exercise:

See Problem from Different Perspectives

It is important to explore and understand a problem from multiple perspectives. How do other buying influences see the problem? This information can add weight to the problem. Ask your prospect how someone else in another function views the problem.

For example, “I can see how this impacts you and your department, how might this concern your CFO?” Questions like this uncover other decision makers; you can request they join follow-up meetings.

Grasp Full Implications of the Problem

To understand more about the consequences, effects, or implications of the problem, you need to use implication questions.

Implication questions help you sell by building on the seriousness of the prospect’s problem so that it becomes large enough to justify action now.

Get the prospect to focus on the consequences of not fixing the problem or problems; that is, prove the status quo is unsafe.

When the prospect directly owns the problem, implication questions are even more powerful:

“How has the increased cost and decreased profitability affected your stock price?” or “Has the rising cost of your healthcare plan impacted your ability to hire new people?”

Another nugget from SPIN Selling─the prospect needs to perceive his problem as bigger than the cost of your solution before he will decide to buy. Implication questions can help you build on the value, so he sees the need to change.

Prepare implication questions before your meeting using a variety of phrases such as:

  • What effect does that have on . . . ?
  • How often does that cause . . . ?
  • What does that result in . . . ?
  • Does that ever lead to . . . ?

Need-Payoff Questions

Finally, we need to bring our solution into the conversation with need-payoff questions, which ask about the value, importance, or usefulness of the solution. They help you sell by increasing the attractiveness of the solution.

In my experience, these questions reduce or eliminate objections because they trigger the prospect to explain how your solution can help him. In doing so, he convinces himself of the value of your solution.

In our healthcare example, the salesperson developed a strategy to present later to the prospect. He will recommend a wellness strategy to reduce long-term costs by raising deductibles, which will bring down current cost by 20 percent. Then, he will show where each employee cost reduces to fill in the gap for the higher deductible. Remember, we want to lead our prospect to our solution, not lead with it.

A salesperson using need-payoff questions might ask, “Suppose you could reduce the company’s cost by 20 percent and reduce the employee’s contribution, at the same time. Would that help to reduce the hit to profitability?”

To move smoothly from problem questions to implication questions to need-payoff questions takes considerable practice and patience. Using the correct sequence is essential and, above all, you must be subtle and natural in your technique.

Prepare well in advance and think through the sequence. Do not move forward until the implied need becomes explicit and the prospect commits to fix his problem or issue.

These recommendations all sound simple enough. However, you would be surprised how many salespeople either forget and fail to use a systematic questioning process to dig into the core of an explicit need.

Don’t risk missing quota by being one of them.

See you on the upside,


For more information, go to
Or call William L. MacDonald in San Diego at PleinAire Strategies LLC at 760.340.4277 or 213.598.4700


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