A Guide to Gap Selling: How to Tap Into This Sales Methodology’s Problem-Solving Power

At Cedars-Sinai medical center in Los Angeles, a group of physicians runs a clinic called the Center for the Undiagnosed Patient

These doctors hail from a range of specialties and they take patients whose health problems have proved extra-puzzling.

When the team is considering taking a new patient into their fold, they move through an intense information-gathering phase.

To start, one of the center’s founders reviews the patient’s often-lengthy medical records, pouring over years of notes, reports, test results, and beyond. 

That founder then meets with the patient face-to-face, aiming to gather their full story and examine factors well beyond their medical records –– things like lifestyle choices, diet, and traumatic experiences they’ve endured. 

Throughout the process, the physician is trying to develop an in-depth understanding of the patient’s current state, determine what the future could look like for them if things improved, and answer one key question: Can our team do anything meaningful to close the gap between those two states? 

In other words, can they genuinely help the patient? 

That doesn’t always mean arriving at a diagnosis –– it could be ruling out some potential diagnoses, better managing symptoms, or helping them get treatment for anxiety or depression associated with their mysterious condition.

Each case is unique and, therefore, requires a highly personalized, careful approach.

Believe it or not, the gap selling sales methodology isn’t all that different from the process these clinicians move through at the Center for the Undiagnosed Patient.

Gap selling is a problem-focused, collaborative, empathy-led sales methodology. It focuses on partnering with the customer to get a deep understanding of their current challenges, develop a clear picture of their best-case-scenario future, and then find ways to continually narrow the chasm between those two points.

Throughout the discovery phase, sales reps ask themselves one core question: Can our products or services honestly close that gap?

Read on to explore how gap selling works, understand if it could be a valuable methodology for your team, and learn how to start putting it into practice. 

Gap selling, explained

Gap selling positions sales reps as advisors to potential and existing customers –– the expert guides who can usher them a little closer to nirvana. But only if both parties determine the product or service at hand is the right tool for the job.

It’s a tactful, holistic approach to sales that avoids pushing solutions that aren’t likely to yield a big enough payoff for a customer. On the other hand, if the given solution makes sense, the massive positive impact for the buyer comes into plain sight. 

Gap selling differs from a sales methodology like MEDDIC in that it’s tightly focused on people and a deep-dive on the problems they’re facing, while MEDDIC is more about qualifying potential opportunities and determining if a deal makes sense to pursue.

Gap selling was originally developed by Keenan, CEO and president of A Sales Growth Company –– and it’s extensively documented in his book, "Gap Selling: Getting the Customer to Yes."

Keenan acquiesces that gap selling is no cake walk. Plus, discomfort can abound along the way. 

After all, the process is meant to challenge buyers’ assumptions and unveil the true scope of their problems. But it’s all with the end goals of genuinely making customers’ (and reps’) lives easier, providing them with deep satisfaction, and forming long-term buyer-seller relationships.

To get there, gap selling goes deep into three areas: the current state (the problem or problems), the ideal future state (the dream that would result if those problems were solved), and the gap that sits in the middle. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of those states. 

Gap selling is about showing your value to bridge the gap in the prospect's mind

The current state

As Keenan writes: “Every sale starts with a problem.” In other words, a problem-free buyer is a non-starter in sales. 

In gap selling, the current state refers to the examination of that problem and the buyer’s existing situation. But it’s a wide and deep examination, not just a cursory assessment.

Consider, again, the medical mysteries coming into the Center for the Undiagnosed Patient. The scope of a patient’s problem doesn’t stop at the fact they have an undiagnosed ailment; it extends to things like each of the symptoms they’re experiencing, the financial implications of being under constant medical care, the social and lifestyle impact their condition has on their life and the lives of their caregivers, and so much more.   

Business problems are similar. For example, it’s not just that Salesforce updates are taking up too much of your time. It’s also the fact that the resulting inefficiency is detracting from the rest of your work, eating up time you’d normally spend having dinner with your family, and causing you to feel frustrated day in and day out.       

The current state is where a sales rep becomes a true investigator of these problems, peeling back the curtain and uncovering the litany of relevant angles, factors, events, barriers, and details related to a buyer’s current situation. It’s an exercise in getting context, unearthing influences, and picking meat off until you get to the bone. 

In many cases, the buyer isn’t even aware of the gravity of their situation –– and how nuanced it actually is –– until a rep starts unpacking details.

There are five key areas that comprise the current state –– and that require close examination during this part of gap selling:

  • Environment: The buyer’s physical environment, business environment, and things that are happening in their world every day
  • Problems: The challenges the buyer is up against
  • Impact: How the buyers’ problems are affecting them
  • Root causes: Why these problems are happening
  • Emotional state: How the buyer feels with these problems at play

The success of the rest of the gap selling process hinges on how thorough and attentive you are about the current state; it’s the set up for the future state and everything that follows.

The future state

The future state is what it would look like if the buyer was livin’ the dream –– if all their problems were alleviated. 

In gap selling, the sales rep collaborates with the buyer to define and outline what that ideal end-state would be for them. What would the impact be on their company, business results, environment, emotional state, and overall life? 

Now, for the most part, humans hate change. When we consider making a change, we wrestle with the answers to questions that usually hold us back –– no matter how terrible our current state is. Questions like:

  • Is the near-certain pain of the journey worth it based on the anticipated outcome?
  • What if the outcome is worse than what I’m experiencing now?
  • What if horrible things happen at any point?

We’re only willing to jump in and actually make a change if we have a vivid mental picture of a better future –– an image that’s concrete and irresistible. And ultimately, we have to believe that the upsides of arriving at that future state trump any potential downsides of the journey we’ll have to take to get there.

A well-defined future state tends to open a rep’s eyes –– and, in turn, the prospect’s eyes –– to the full scope of the situation. It also opens the door to a host of potential opportunities to close the gap.

The gap

The gap is essentially what it says on the tin: the crevasse that exists between your buyer’s current state and future state.

Power lies in your ability to fully illustrate and codify that gap for a buyer. Once they have an exhaustive and clear picture of where they are and where they could be, it’s much easier to determine and communicate the potential value of a problem-solving product or service.

At the end of the day, a wider gap can mean a bigger payoff.

Keenan sums this up: “There is no way customers can understand the value of your life-saving pill if they don’t realize they are dying.”

In addition, a vivid, motivating mental image of a glorious future state, helps make any pain points that could pop up while traversing the gap more palatable –– and realistic to surmount.

The benefits of gap selling

It’s one thing to understand the theoretical concepts behind this sales methodology; it’s another to determine if it’s the right approach for your team. 

Gap selling might not make sense for every company or sales cycle, but for other businesses it offers a slew of potential benefits for sales teams –– and, of course, buyers. 

Consider a few of the upsides:

  • The ability to anticipate buyer hesitations and decisions: In gap selling, you move through an in-depth evaluation of the buyer’s situation before the “selling” even begins. As such, you’ve already turned over every stone and explored every corner of their mindset and challenges, so there shouldn’t be any surprises along the way.
  • A highly customized buying experience: Gap selling requires reps to go deep during the discovery phase. So, the details that emerge naturally lead to a personalized experience and, in turn, solutions that are specifically tailored to each buyer’s situation.
  • The ability to inspire change: The thought and care that goes into expanding the buyer’s vision of their current and future states, as well as shaping the gap between those states, helps them wrap their minds around the immense value a potential solution could provide –– and motivates them to make changes to get there.
  • Sales rep indispensability: The gap selling process makes for an intimate, empathetic, and profound experience. It also tends to build an unbreakable bond, turning the rep into much more than just another salesperson in the buyer’s eyes. Instead, the rep becomes an invaluable guide and resource for the customer during the sales process and beyond. Everyone involved becomes invested in the relationship and nurturing it long-term.
  • Shorter sales cycles, better close rates, and increased predictability: The potential value increase illustrated by the gap leads to a true sense of urgency, ultimately pushing deals to close faster. Plus, the quality and volume of information gathered during the process helps reps identify deals that won’t reach the finish line early and makes the whole process more predictable, so there’s never an eleventh-hour panic about making quota.
  • An improved approach to troubleshooting: In gap selling, you essentially troubleshoot as you go. This ensures the sales rep doesn’t unexpectedly lose control of the situation at any point along the way.

If these benefits are piquing your interest –– and your business deals with complex problems that could benefit from an in-depth discovery phase –– gap selling might be the sales methodology for you.

How to give gap selling a go

Fully embracing this sales methodology –– and implementing it into your team’s sales process –– is no small feat. After all, gap selling requires careful attention and a significant time commitment.

To fully understand gap selling, you’ll want to read Keenan’s book (or, better yet, participate in his training). But these core action items can help you get started:

  • Create what Keenan calls a Problem Identification Chart: This is a tool that acts as a reference resource in initial calls with a prospect and helps a rep assess the buyer’s current state. The chart should feature three columns: a laundry list of problems your product fixes, another list of the detrimental impact those problems could have on a customer’s world, and a list of known root causes for the set of problems you already outlined.
  • Unearth the prospect’s problems: This is where you begin to do a deep dive on your prospect’s current state. There isn’t any selling happening yet –– it’s all about understanding the problems your potential buyer is up against. Aim not to look at this piece of the puzzle as a moment in time, but rather an ongoing conversation about the situation your buyer is in.
  • Assess the impact of the problems: Get to the root cause of each problem and evaluate the impact each one is having. Don’t forget to evaluate how the problems at hand are affecting the prospect’s emotional state.
  • Define the future state: Team up with the prospect to understand their dream state and why they see that state as the ideal outcome. What would their life be like if you could take away the problems they’re facing? Stack the future state up against the current state to define the gap –– and the value that would come from closing it.
  • Understand decision criteria: What pieces of information is your prospect (and their team members) using to make buying decisions? How are they evaluating potential solutions to invest in?
  • Seek to narrow the gap: If there’s agreement on your solution being the right one to solve the problem, this is when the selling happens. Position your solution as the missing piece that can close the gap between the prospect’s current and future states.

4 question types to apply during the discovery phase

In gap selling, the discovery phase makes up about 25% of the process –– and the outcomes serve as critical jumping off points for everything that happens from there. 

To become an expert information gatherer, you need to become an expert interviewer. These four types of questions will help you level up the quality of information you collect during discovery. 

Pro tip: Don’t forget to ask plenty of follow-up questions to ensure you’re being as thorough as possible. 

Probing questions

Probing questions are open-ended and intended to help you get the full picture of a buyer’s problems. Don’t just settle for the initial answer –– continue probing until you’ve assessed the full scope of the problem.

Some examples:

  • “You mentioned you have [current solution]. What’s working well with [current solution] in place? What improvements would better support your team?”
  • “How do members of your team react when [problem] happens?” 

Process questions

Process questions are part of a deep dive into any operational issues a buyer might be facing. This could be issues related to workflows, service-level agreements between teams, or technical challenges. 

Some examples:

  • “Walk me through –– step by step –– what happens when [process].”
  • “How has [process] changed in the past year? Two years?”

Provoking questions

Prompt “a ha” moments and new ways of thinking about a problem with provoking questions. These questions are intended to get the buyer to step outside themselves as a way of looking at their challenges from different angles and considering these challenges from other people’s perspectives. 

Some examples:

  • “Of the details you’re sharing with me, which ones might surprise your teammates? Why?”
  • “How would you feel if all the problems you’ve described to me suddenly went away?”

Validating questions

Corroborate details you’ve already collected with validating questions. These are questions that will prompt your buyer to repeat information back to you –– or confirm or deny accuracy with a “yes” or “no” –– so you can ensure you have a deep understanding of what they’ve revealed to you throughout the process. 

Some examples:

  • “Last time we spoke you mentioned [existing information]. Is that still the situation or have things changed?”
  • “Let me make sure I have the steps of [current process] correct. I’ll repeat them back to you and please correct me along the way if needed.”

Let today’s sales technology help you close the gap

Gap selling offers many advantages for sales teams trying to solve complex buyer problems and maximize business results in today's competitive market. 

It helps reps anticipate customer decisions, provides a highly customized experience for the buyer, pushes everyone involved to think differently about the sales process, and turns sales reps into true partners with invaluable expertise. 

This sales methodology isn’t a flash in the pan –– it’s about establishing meaningful, long-term customer relationships, becoming an expert in a buyer’s situation and industry, and continually finding new ways to help customers unlock added value.

Scratchpad can support you as you implement gap selling across your team –– and beyond. 

Explore the power of a modern revenue workspace and how it can help you close gaps for your customers. Book a RevOps strategy call today.