Gap Selling: How to Win More Deals With a Problem-Centric Sales Process
Gap selling is a sales methodology in which salespeople aim to position their product as the solution that “fills the gap” between a prospect’s current state and their desired future state.
The gap selling strategy relies on salespeople asking extremely effective and thought-provoking questions, primarily during the discovery process but also throughout the sales process as a whole. These questions need to be poignant, well-timed, and insightful.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about gap selling, including the specifics of the methodology, the exact questions you need to ask to determine a prospect’s gap, and how to start gap selling with your team today.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What is Gap Selling?
- Gap Selling Methodology Benefits
- Gap Selling Questions
- Is Gap Selling Right for Your Team?
- How to Start Gap Selling Today
- Example of Gap Selling
- Gap Selling vs. Common Methodologies
- Gap Selling Resources
What is Gap Selling?
Gap selling was defined by a sales figure named Keenan, CEO of A Sales Growth Company and author of the best-selling book on the gap selling methodology, Gap Selling: Getting the Customer to Yes.
Gap selling tasks salespeople with identifying three key components of a prospect’s buying scenario:
- Their current state
- Their ideal future state
- The space between where they are now and where they want to be — this is known as “the gap”
The methodology focuses heavily on prospects’ problems and pain points. The emphasis is on the customer, not the sale. It’s distinctly different from strategies in which salespeople put a lot of emphasis on the product itself. Inside “the gap” is where sales opportunity lives. It’s up to salespeople to identify all that exists within and on either side of that gap.
A prospect’s current state outlines their situation as it stands in the present. It describes what issues or challenges they’re facing now, and what impact those issues are having on the organization.
When working to identify the current state, sales reps should ask questions with the goal of understanding the following:
- Environment: Understand their physical and literal working environment. What do they sell? Who is their target market? What stakeholders are involved in this process?
- Problem: What challenges are they facing right now? Is their problem business-based (like low revenue), or a technical one (like inability to log complete data points)?
- Impact: How is this problem affecting the prospect and/or their organization as a whole?
- Root Cause: Why does this problem exist? What’s causing the issue? Are there fundamental issues within the organization that are contributing to this particular problem or pain point?
- Emotion: How does the prospect and/or their organization feel about the problem? Is it having an emotional impact on them?
The more a salesperson understands the prospect’s current state, the better they can position their product as the ideal solution to move them out of it.
A prospect’s future state is their ideal outcome. It describes what their environment and business processes would look like if their problem were solved.
Salespeople will identify similar components of the future state:
- Environment: What will their environment look like and how will it function when the problem is solved?
- Impact: How will the prospect or business change as a result of having solved the problem?
- Emotion: How will the prospect feel when their challenges no longer exist?
And the goal for salespeople when identifying the future state is to figure out what needs to happen to a prospect and/or their organization in order to get them to their desired future state.
“The gap” is where gap selling gets its name, and represents the space between the prospect’s current state and their future one. In that space, according to the gap selling methodology, is where sales are made.
It’s up to salespeople to quantify the gap as specifically as possible. What is this problem costing the prospect already? What specific impacts — in terms of real dollars or real, quantifiable time and/or effort — will a solution have on their business metrics? Identifying the gap means positioning the offer in a way that clearly demonstrates its value, making it as tangible as possible.
The wider the gap between a prospect’s current state and their future state, the more motivated they will be to make a purchase. It’s important to note that the gap selling process can take some time to complete. It also requires salespeople to ask extremely effective questions that get to the heart of what prospects really want.
Many prospects enter the sales process under the impression that they have a solid understanding of their own problem, but the reality is that many actually do not.
Instead, prospects may understand that they have a need, but problems and needs are different. When a salesperson helps a prospect define their problem, they can identify the impact their issue has on them and their organization as a whole.
Shedding light on the impact can help create urgency in the purchasing process, and can highlight the value of your particular offer.Dissect prospect concernsUncover what's resonating with prospects
Gap Selling Methodology Benefits
To be transparent, gap selling isn’t the right methodology for every sales team. It can be challenging to learn and master. And it also isn’t as effective for retail sales or sales that tend to be more transactional.
It can be, however, a very good fit for B2B businesses that sell solutions to complex problems. Gap selling is particularly effective for sales scenarios that often require a certain level of customization to the offer.
Gap selling can be challenging, but mastering the process is well worth it. The benefits of using the gap selling methodology include better seller/buyer relationships, more satisfied customers, and improved sales metrics.
Gap selling helps salespeople build trust and credibility through the sales process.
By helping prospects identify and define their current and future states, and the gap between them, salespeople position themselves as expert advisors.
Gap selling is based on credibility rather than friendly rapport (though that’s important too!), so sales reps have a good opportunity to position themselves as experts in the industry when they use this methodology.
Gap selling helps salespeople sell the way buyers buy. It puts the focus on the customer, rather than the product, and it maps closely to the buyer’s journey and decision process that companies undertake internally as they determine when and what solution to buy.
The gap selling sales methodology is about selling the outcome. The process prompts the buyer to look their problem square in the face, and really consider the impact it’s having. It then helps paint the picture of what life could be like if those problems were solved. Framing the buying process this way helps eliminate most sales objections.
At the end of the process, most sales teams find that gap selling generates customers who are extremely satisfied with their solution.
Improved Sales Metrics
Sales teams that use gap selling have reported improvements in many sales metrics and sales KPIs, including:
- Shorter sales cycles
- Higher average selling price
- Increased overall revenue
- Less time wasted on deals that won’t close
- Increased motivation and productivity
- More accurate sales forecasting
Gap Selling Questions
Much of the gap selling process takes place during the discovery phase of the sales process. In fact, according to the gap selling methodology, discovery should account for about 25% of the sales process.
But the gap selling methodology requires more than just run-of-the-mill qualifying questions. There is an art and a science to asking questions in the gap selling framework, and it can take some practice. It can be particularly challenging because these questions can’t be scripted — each question in the gap selling framework should be unique to the prospect and their individual circumstances.
That being said, there are some basic frameworks around question themes and specific wording that will help you identify what you need to know in order to gap sell.
Gap selling questions generally fall under three main categories: probing questions, provoking questions, and validating questions. Each of those question types helps paint the picture of how the seller can fill the buyer’s gap.
Probing questions are designed to gather information. They’re used to gather as many details as possible about the prospect’s current situation and problems they’re facing.
Probing questions should be open-ended, and sellers should feel free to ask as many follow-up questions as they need to in order to understand the present circumstances fully.
Here are some examples of probing questions:
- You mentioned [pain point or problem]. Can you tell me more about that?
- How is [problem or pain point] impacting your day-to-day work? Have you noticed any wider-reaching effects that impact the organization as a whole?
- What parts of your organization work really well? What parts, in your opinion, need attention or change?
- What are you hoping to achieve with the kind of solution you’re seeking?
- Can you help me understand how your company currently does [process related to your product]?
The more you can get the prospect to share details about their situation using their own words, the better you’ll be able to perfectly position your product to fill the gap.
Provoking questions can be some of the most challenging for salespeople to master. They are designed to challenge the way a prospect has previously considered their problem, and encourage them to look at it from a different perspective.
For example — a prospect may understand how the problem affects their personal day-to-day responsibilities, but may not yet see how it affects the entire team or organization. A sales rep can ask a provoking question to help the prospect change their thought process and consider the bigger picture.
You may also need to ask provoking questions to encourage prospects to really sit with their pain and — to an extent — become agitated by it. Prospects won’t be motivated to buy with urgency unless their pain becomes too unbearable.
Here are some examples of effective provoking questions:
- Have you considered what would happen if [hypothetical negative or positive situation]?
- How could this problem potentially affect your team/organization?
- Have you ever considered [insight or idea]?
- How long will the situation, as it stands now, be tenable for you and your team?
Provoking questions are meant to get your prospect to consider the situation at hand in a way they haven’t before. Prospects need to understand the full extent of their problem, and how it impacts the bigger picture, in order to want to follow through with a purchase.
Provoking questions also allow salespeople to position themselves as trusted advisors and experts.
Validating questions are intended to help salespeople confirm the ideas and facts that the prospect shares with them. They help salespeople paraphrase and mirror back their own understandings so that they and the prospect are completely on the same page.
It’s okay for validating questions to be closed-ended.
Here are some examples of validating questions:
- It sounds like the main issue you’re facing is [problem], do I have that right?
- Last time we talked, your biggest complaint was [problem]. Is that still going on? Has anything else popped up in the meantime?
- Just to confirm, [paraphrase prospect’s talking points].
- I just want to make sure I’m understanding correctly — are you saying [paraphrase what the prospect shared]?
Sales reps should never make assumptions when using the gap selling sales methodology. Both prospect and salesperson need to be on the exact same page about what the issue is, how they would like it to be resolved in an ideal world, and how the offer can fill the space between those two states.
Validating questions help eliminate crossed wires and show the prospect that you listened to their concerns carefully.
Tip: Make sure you’re asking the right questions with the right tone and the right words. Grab some psychology-backed principles below to ensure you’re connecting with prospects and building trust.Psychology Principles + 13 Power Words for Winning SalesData-backed psychological principles, nonverbal cues, and persuasive phrases to win more deals.
Is Gap Selling Right for Your Team?
Although gap selling can be a very effective sales methodology, it’s not necessarily right for every team or sales scenario.
Transactional and retail sales, for example, are a particularly poor fit for a gap selling approach. The typical B2C consumer simply does not have the time for or interest in the long sales cycle that gap selling requires.
Instead, gap selling is a better fit for B2B fields with traditionally longer or otherwise complex sales cycles, especially industries like:
- Commercial insurance
- IT services
- Project management services/software
- Sales automation software
- Payroll/accounting software
Even for companies that represent a good fit for the approach, gap selling can be difficult to master. It typically requires a good amount of training and (ideally) coaching to get it right. But the results can be worth it for teams that fit a certain profile and are willing to monitor and continuously improve their mastery of the method.
How to Start Gap Selling Today
Implementing the gap selling process is both simple and complex at once. It’s relatively straightforward to get the process started, but it can be difficult to master. Gap selling requires dedication, training or sales coaching, and a keen understanding of customer psychology in order to be utilized effectively.
The following steps will help you get started on gap selling today. Remember that this is only a starting point, and the process should be tracked and optimized as time goes on.
1. Research Your Customers
Just like any sales methodology, gap selling requires sellers to have a very thorough understanding of their target market. Sales and marketing should work together to create a detailed ideal customer profile (ICP) and buyer personas.
The ICP and buyer personas can act as a framework to guide salespeople as they discover more specifics about individual prospects they encounter in the sales process.
2. Create a Problem Identification Chart
A problem identification chart is a fantastic tool to help sellers with gap selling. The chart outlines the various problems that your product can solve, including the impacts of those problems and their root causes, if known.
Salespeople can also feel free to add additional columns to this chart. Some sales reps, for example, might add a fourth column for notes, where they can add what they already know about specific problems based on successful customers they’ve served in the past.
Here’s an example provided by gap selling founder himself, Keenan:
The problem identification chart should be created before sales reps reach out to prospects.
3. Uncover the Facts About Your Prospect’s Current State
The next step in the gap selling process comes when you meet with a specific prospect.
During this stage, the sales rep’s job is to collect as much information as they can about the prospect’s current situation. How does their business operate? What problems or challenges are they facing? How are they attempting to address those challenges currently?
This is not the time to mention your product; doing so will make you seem pushy. Instead, this phase is all about the prospect and their problem.
4. Identify the Impact of Your Prospect’s Problems
Once you have the literal and physical layout of how the prospect’s business is currently functioning (or, more likely, dis-functioning), you need to dig deeper.
Ask probing and provoking questions to get the prospect to identify what kind of impact the problem is having on their own work and the success of their organization. Is the problem affecting the bottom line? What other consequences have they faced so far as a result of the problem?
You’ll also want to attempt to get to the root cause of the issues. Part of this work should be done when you create your problem identification chart, but it’s best if you can get the prospect to do some of this work, too. The more you can get the prospect to share in their own words, the better.
5. Learn About Your Prospect’s Ideal State
At this point, the “hard” parts are more or less out of the way — at least for the prospect. Most buyers are eager to talk about how they want things to look once they’ve solved their problem.
Be sure to ask about the emotions behind their ideal, as much as the logistics. Why is finding this kind of solution so important to them? How would it make them feel? The language they use to respond to these kinds of questions will help sales reps shape their gap-filling solution when it comes time to present it.
6. Identify the Decision-Making Process
Before you present your solution, it’s important that you have a thorough understanding of how the buying decision will ultimately be made. What criteria is the buying team prioritizing? How will the process unfold? Who will need to sign off on the purchase?
Validating questions are particularly useful in this step. Sales reps will need to ensure they understand all the various steps and players in the decision process so that they can address them as they frame and present their solution.
7. Close the Gap
Once you’ve painted a complete picture of the prospect, their needs, and their ideal outcome, you have everything you need to frame your solution as the best option.
It’s important to stick to only a few features when you’re giving the pitch that closes the gap. Your product may do many things wonderfully, but they won’t all be applicable to each and every prospect. Stick to a small handful of features — six at the most — that are most likely to resonate with the prospect’s needs and desires.
It’s also important that when you’re closing the gap, speak in terms of business solutions, not technical ones. Your CRM may very well log data points in milliseconds, but how will that impact the company overall? Sales reps may spend less time prospecting and sifting through data, making more time for selling and closing deals.
Highlight the outcomes, not the technical solutions.
It will likely take several prospect meetings and discovery conversations before this process feels comfortable and fluid for sales reps who are new to gap selling.
One of the best pieces of advice for sellers new to gap selling is to listen more than they talk. Top closers spend more time listening than talking, while bottom closers do the opposite.
Most of the sales reps words should come in the form of questions or paraphrasing information shared by the prospect.
Example of Gap Selling
Gap selling can be applicable to just about any sales scenario.
Let’s say you sell a robustly capable CRM system. One of its features is that it automatically crawls the web for contact updates and outdated information.
You learn through your questioning that your prospect’s organization wastes significant time sifting through outdated or erroneous contact information. Through further provoking questions, you learn that sales reps at the prospect’s company spend upwards of 8 hours a week updating and deleting bad CRM data.
They hope to ultimately get themselves to a place where their data collection and management are automatic and running in the background.
Gap selling can help the sales rep in this scenario fill the gap by presenting the solution as one that generates an entire workday’s worth of otherwise-untapped sales productivity.
Gap Selling vs. Common Methodologies
Oftentimes gap selling is confused or conflated with a number of other sales methodologies, but it’s actually entirely unique. Here are some of the ways gap selling differs from other common sales methodologies.
Gap Selling vs. Solution Selling
Solution selling is usually reserved for businesses that sell highly customized solutions. This approach is all about knowing that the buyer has done their own research and, accordingly, meeting them where they are. This helps solution selling reps dial in on their specific needs.
Gap selling, on the other hand, can be effective for a broader market. It doesn’t necessarily apply only to sales of custom solutions.
Gap Selling vs. Challenger Sale
The Challenge Sales approach asks sales reps to take command of a conversation by acting as a trusted advisor. They educate the prospect and tailor the solution to what they believe the prospect needs.
Gap selling, on the other hand, gives buyers more opportunity to control how they describe their challenges and their overall circumstances. The seller asks a lot of questions, which gives the buyer ample opportunity to command the conversation.
With that in mind, gap selling usually requires a longer sales cycle than the Challenger approach.
Gap Selling vs. SPIN Selling
Gap selling and SPIN selling have at least one thing in common: they both task the sales rep with asking plenty of questions to uncover more about the prospect.
SPIN selling has the sales rep guide the buyer to their own conclusion through skilled questioning. But the primary focus of SPIN selling is all about building rapport and pinpointing challenge areas.
Gap selling, on the other hand, uses lines of questioning that are designed to highlight the space between where a prospect currently exists, and where they ultimately want to be (and how the proposed solution can help get them there).
Gap Selling vs. Sandler Sales
Sandler Sales is all about qualifying the prospect early on by building strong buyer-seller rapport. The Sandler Sales approach is very relationship-centric.
Gap selling, on the other hand, focuses heavily on the problem at hand. It is more problem-centric than relationship-centric.
That’s not to say that gap selling doesn’t focus on building rapport or trust; these are important concepts in the approach. But much of the conversation in gap selling revolves around the problem, and how to solve it (a.k.a., “fill the gap”), rather than the relationship between the two parties.
Gap Selling Resources
The following resources can both be very effective in helping your team master gap selling. Both the book and the training are published directly by Keenan, the creator of gap selling, so all of the material is highly relevant and authentic.
Gap Selling Book
In Keenan’s 2018 book Gap Selling: Getting the Customer to Yes, the author & gap selling founder explains the approach in complete detail, including the “why: behind the method. Keenan’s book helps sales reps pace their sales process and find an appropriate cadence (which is one of the trickiest parts of mastering gap selling).
Gap Selling Training
Keenan also offers an online training program that provides video lessons (and accompanying activities) for a six-part curriculum with a special focus on the discovery process and identifying buyer problems. The training is offered for both individuals and teams, and ranges in cost from about $500 for individuals to nearly $15,000 for large enterprise teams.
Do you use gap selling in your sales strategies? What kinds of deals has it been most effective for? Are their prospects in your pipeline with whom you can try this sales methodology?
This guide was updated on July 18, 2023.
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