A new angle on Rob Bell story, The sales school debate

You have all heard a lot about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. And I am not going to cover the well worn parts of that debate here. But while I was reading something other day I noticed something and I think you all might like to hear me out on this.

It starts the other day when I click through a link in my twitter feed. It was a link that was offering up some harsh criticism of Rob Bell. It was a John MacArthurs Article where he questions if Rob is evangelical to the bone? In it he makes the following statement that jumped out at me.

So when he promotes Love Wins with the following words, why would we be surprised?

Rob Bell, Love Wins Promo Video: “And then there is the question behind the questions, the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message—the center of the Gospel of Jesus—is that God is going to send you to hell, unless you believe in Jesus. And so, what gets, subtly, sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that; that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good; how could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news.”

If you have seen the promo video, you know this is taken WAAY out of context. in the arc of the promo video, this is the point where the music turns, and changes pace and optimism. And Bell starts building up his case. It is basic editing, story telling. Get the person to understand the problem with the current scenario and then offer a solution. It is Sales 101. 

Or, and this is the part that got me thinking.. it is Sales 101 NOW. It hasn’t always been the case.

Pressure Sales, Consultative sales.

If you have ever been on vacation, and had an offer to get free golf clubs or something if only you just listen to a sales pitch, you are probably very familar with the sales technique that you will encounter there. It won’t be fun, and you probably will feel like you have to struggle to leave. They won’t take no for an answer. And for vast periods of American history that type of selling was the norm. You have a small room, you have a high pressure sales pitch, and you have to sign up right away. You can get the same thing on your door step with vacuum cleaners, or steak knives.. or many other things. Cars used to be that way, and if you go to certain towns, that is how they still operate car dealerships *cough San Angelo cough*.

But if you have been in professional large sales, or into a car dealership of any level of moderness, you probably have encounter something much softer than the hard high pressure sales pitches of yore. 

Most modern sales organizations use something like “Consultative selling” it is largely based on the work in this book, which is one of the most famous on the topic: Spin Selling

What is SPIN Selling?

Well first is isn’t just “spin selling”, spin is an acronym, so it is more correct to say S.P.I.N. selling. The acronym, spells out the steps in the process and the correct sequence for using the steps. They are roughly as follows.. with some examples:

  1. Situation: This is where you start with a non threatening description of the current situtation. The goal here is to understand the basic landscape, and to create a pattern of dialog without defensiveness, that lays the ground work for later steps.
    • Car Dealership example: Hey thats a nice truck you have there, How long have you had it? it is the v8 isn’t it?
    • Computer sales example: Hey thanks for having me, I looked around on the way in, you guy certainly have a lot of really nice PCs, are they all Dells?  
  2. Problem: Once you have established a dialog, you start to move to the phase where you are starting to explore the potential pain that their current situation might cause.  you want to start lightly with just direct first order pains. sometimes these will be enough by themsleves to create a buying attitude. but most times people won’t come right out and say, “goodness, I hate my current vendor, and I will give all my business to the next person who walks through that door” but this phase is critical to move from probing facts to shifting towards creating/exploring disatisfaction.
    • Example: So how is the gas mileage on that? 
    • Example: Do you have many problems with viruses on those? 
  3. Implication: Now at this point they may have given you some seeds of problems, but to really kick the sales process into overdrive, you need to take those seeds and really make them grow. Expand the circles outward, to second and third order problems the first ones may cause. At the end of this process you should have a customer that is ready make a change and will listen to potential solutions.
    • Example: Wow, with today’s prices how much are you spending to fill up? Are you going to be able to keep up if it goes to 5 or 6 dollars like they are saying? 
    • Example: How many hours would you say you lose a year to computers being down? Can you send people home or do you have to keep paying them even when they cant do any work? Do you have any technical support people that are dedicated to repairing viruses, or do you outsource that? 
  4. Need/Solution: Now at this point you have really only focused on creating disatisfaction, you haven’t really started offering anything. But this phase is where you start to get them to describe what an ideal solution would be, and if you have done this well, you happen to be a product rep for just such a handy thing. You help them out and are a hero, and get to go have a steak dinner tonight.
    •  Example: Have you thought about a hybrid? Would a EV that got 100MPG be something I could show you? well come over here, and let’s look at this Chevy Volt. you think this is something you would want to place an order for?
    • Example: Have you thought about moving to a non Windows based computer? Would being able to still run Windows programs be something that would be important for you? If you step over this way, our genius here with bedhead can show you how an iMac could reduce your virus downtime. 

Does Rob Bell Really follow that?

Lets look at the video, and see if you can pick up signs of a spin selling technique.

I think that the pattern is pretty clear, lets see where I think the cuts are.

Situation (0:00 – 0:36) — He starts with a situation, describing a believable sounding event. The Gandhi story is a pretty good intro to the topic.  There is a pretty clear pause at the end of the story and we start immediately into the next phase.

Problem (0:36 – 1:16) — Here starts with some of problems that the story bring up, the obvious first one, Did Gandhi go to Hell?. Then moving to nearby topics, if he didn’t who does? and how do we know? and what do we do to go from Hell to Heaven? This “how can we be saved?” line of questions, is a first round of questions, and the section like the first one ends on a long pause, this time after the words “the few”. And then he moves right into the next phase of the pattern.

Implication (1:16 – 1:56) — This section I think that announces what it is doing the most clearly. “the question behind the question” phrasing says to me, we are going to stop talking about the direct problems, and moving into the problems that the first questions imply. Also worth noting is what he identifies as the thing he is kind of railing against, and it is basically the “turn or burn” approach to evangalism. This confirms to me that the battle is one of “what sales and marketing techniques should we use with our sales force”. It is also worth noting is that the phrasing of this section, is what the author of the post I linked to at the top starts with. Which is like I said more than a little unfair, at this point he is still taking the “Saying Gandhi is in Hell” situation and spinning it into a bigger problems and bigger implied problems, Bell has not yet started the phase where you would describe or offer a solution. And he really lays it on. This section like the previous two ends on a pretty dramatic pause, this time after the phrase “good news”. 


Need/Solution (1:56 – 2:40) — This section is the turning point of the process, we have basically gotten the listener to the point they should be deeply wanting to resolve these questions, and get back to a happy place. This section announces its different tone in several ways, but the first one that jumped out at me is that the music changes abruptly here. There is a happy and optimistic guitar riff that starts almost at once. Rob begins to lay out what a solution would need to do, it wouldn’t be a string of contradictions etc. and then moves from that to the solution around the 2:18 mark with the phrase “what we discover in the Bible..” and from there until the end tries to cover all the positives that he believes a faith in Jesus provides.

To answer the question in the header of this section, yes 100% Rob Bell follows with out much variance the S.P.I.N. selling approach. I think that the pattern is really, really clear. Dramatic pauses to highlight gear shifts, and even some non subtle music cues.  

Can we take this analogy even further?

So could it be that is all this debate is about?

That there is one camp of people that were trained in an older style high-pressure model of sales school, and they want to force people to make a trip to the alter call. They want to confront people with their sin, talk about fire and brim stone, and the coming tribulation, and they want to make sure people know “It could be any day, it may have even started already”. And let me be clear, this type of sales technique works to sell cars, and lots of other things. It can create a buying moment where one did not exist before. 

And in the other corner is a group of newer people that are trying to rewrite the playbook, create a new script that talks in a different way, about the EXACT SAME underlying theology? I think that is certainly the sort of sales school Rob Bell subscribes to, and so does Carmax, Saturn, Apple. 


Now some of you are probably saying “They do have theological differences”.. I am not totally convinced of that, for the most part the biggest frustration with Bell is that he won’t commit to one position or the other. Which I think helps make my argument. He is not trying to shift theology, he is trying to shift sales operations models. The exact underpinnings of the theology is not his battleground. (also he has more than a little financial incentive to keep the market for his videos as wide as possible and not alienate people.)

In the long term I think that there will be over the next decade far more people that will respond to a SPIN selling type approach, and fewer and fewer that will respond (postively) to a more traditional sales technique. So the future I think belongs to people that regardless of their theology adapt the way they treat and talk to people into a more modern sales approach, if for no other reason than this: everything else they encounter is training them to expect that treatment from a professional, respectful organization. The are taught over and over that “this is how people should engage you”. 

What about the future, is there more?

I think that SPIN selling, as awesome and well researched as it is, is only one of a handful of schools of sales management that are out there. Certainly the high pressure close will always have a place where it is the best option. out side of North America it might be the best way now and in the future. I think that anyone designing a communucations strategy and mass outreach should also look at relational selling strategies (think something like sky boxes and golf outings) because there are probably some communites where that will work better. I also think that there should be some study of the branding, lifestyle sponsorship approach. That is still pretty new, and may be one of the harder ones to adapt to a church setting, but again, there are probably places where that is the best option to engage and evangelize.