Gap Selling: Everything You Need to Know

Uncover the customer’s problem first, and then dig deeper.

Written by Brian Nordli
Gap Selling: Everything You Need to Know
Image: Shutterstock
Rose Velazquez | Nov 10, 2022

Gap selling is a sales methodology that focuses on closing the gap between a customer’s current state and where they want to be in the future. To close the deal, a sales rep must uncover the full scope of the problem or challenge standing in the way of a customer’s desired situation before they even begin discussing the product.

The gap selling framework was introduced by Keenan, who goes by just his last name, when he published a book on the subject in 2018.

What Is Gap Selling?

Gap selling is a problem-centric approach to sales in which reps look at the full scope of the customer’s problem and identify their “gap,” or the difference between where the customer is today and its ideal future. Closing that gap becomes the foundation for all future sales conversations.


What Is Gap Selling?

The gap selling strategy is based on two fundamental principles, according to Keenan, the framework’s founder: 

  • First, nobody buys a product or makes a change unless their current situation is untenable.
  • Second, it’s the salesperson’s job to influence that change, and they do that by getting a complete understanding of the customer’s current state and future state before they introduce the product.

Keenan hatched this problem-centric sales framework while running sales trainings for nearly a decade. It started with a spur-of-the-moment sketch on a whiteboard to help a sales team better understand his approach to discovery. Before you start trying to give the client advice, he wrote, you have to understand what they’re doing now. He defined it as the customer’s “current state.”

More whiteboard sketches and blog posts followed on how to identify the customer’s current situation, the impact of their problem and where they want to be in the future. Helping sales reps uncover that gap between the customer’s present state and their desired future state became the focus of his training.

“It was from there that I sat back and started putting all of the pieces in place and drawing it out,” said Keenan, who is the founder of the sales consulting firm A Sales Guy. “Everybody says, ‘I’m sure it’s similar to value selling and the other [methodologies].’ But then they go through it and realize that it’s not. The equivalent would be to say that a platypus and a goat are both mammals. Sure, but they’re absolutely nothing alike.”

Gap selling boils down to understanding the problems your product solves and asking enough questions to accurately measure a customer’s gap.

The key is digging deeper into discovery than most reps are used to doing. Once the right information has been gathered, gap selling can naturally change the customer’s relationship to the product, Keenan explained.

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How to Define a Customer’s Current State

For Keenan, a customer’s current state includes five elements:

  • First is the customer’s physical and literal situation. This includes things like where the company is located, who it sells to, the size of its team and the industry it’s in.
  • Second is the type of problem the customer is experiencing. For example, the customer’s problem could be that they have inaccurate Salesforce data.
  • Third is the impact of that problem. Maybe the customer’s data issue in the above example causes them to miss out on potential customers and $100,000 in revenue each month.
  • Fourth is the root cause of that problem, which could be that their sales reps are too busy prospecting to manually enter the information. 
  • Finally, the rep needs to collect information on how this problem makes the buyer feel.

Once the rep has all that information, they can then discuss the buyer’s future state, or where the company could be if they solved this problem. The difference between where the company is and where they want to be is the eponymous “gap” in gap selling.

That gap becomes the context in which you discuss the product, and it’s the customer’s motivation for buying it, Keenan said.

What Makes Up a Customer’s Current State?

  • Physical and literal situation. This includes details like where the customer is based, what they sell, who they sell it to and their team size. 
  • Type of problem. The issue the customer is experiencing, both from a technical perspective and from a business perspective. 
  • Impact of the problem. The ways in which the problem affects the company, and any quantifiable data associated with that, like the cost for not solving it.  
  • Root cause of the problem. The fundamental issue or misalignment that’s causing the problem to occur.
  • Emotion. How this problem makes the buyer feel.
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Gap Selling Benefits

The gap selling framework takes time to master. But in Ryan Scalera’s experience, it’s worth it. 

“[Gap selling] is not an easy process to follow, it’s something to aspire to,” Scalera said. “But if you can become an effective gap seller, you’ll be hired at more places, you’ll be paid more money and you’ll be better at selling.”

Scalera estimates he understood about five percent of gap selling the first time he read the book as a rep at the behavioral health software firm CentralReach. It wasn’t until he sat through an eight-hour team-wide training with Keenan that he started to grasp the methodology’s nuances.

“It just blew my mind how it was able to change the way I think about selling and how everything lives or dies on being able to diagnose business problems,” said Scalera, an account executive at Dooly.

Scalera realized he was only gathering surface-level information from customers. He was closing the obvious customers, but missing out on those who weren’t at least partially committed from the get-go. Gap selling helped him close customers who may have been on the fence. 

Before gap selling, Keenan noticed sales reps spent most of their time pushing the benefits of their product and the cost of not implementing it. This forced the buyer to draw their own conclusions about whether it was worth it for their company to solve that issue.

And when that happens, the results are out of the sales rep’s control, Keenan said.

“If the buyer doesn’t [understand the cost and benefit] on their own, the salesperson doesn’t know it. And if they don’t know it, they end up losing a deal they could’ve won,” Keenan said. “It’s much more like throwing a dart with your eyes closed than people realize.”


Gap Selling Questions

While Keenan doesn’t provide a checklist of questions, there are three different types of questions you can ask to get at the information you need:

  • Probing questions
  • Validating questions
  • Process questions

Process questions get the client talking about how they approach a given task. They’re useful for getting to the root cause of a problem. At Dooly, Scalera might ask a question like, “Walk me through what happens when a new lead comes in,” or “What happens next?”  

Probing questions get the client to either think more deeply about the issue or consider something that they hadn’t thought of before. These are questions like “Tell me more about X” or “Have you considered X?” If Scalera hears the client mention that they struggle with customer attrition, he might probe them by saying, “Tell me more about this attrition.” 

Validating questions make sure you and the customer are on the same page. They are close-ended questions like, “Is this an issue you’re trying to solve now?” Peppering validating questions throughout the call helps you connect the dots with the customer so that you’re both on the same page, Keenan said.

Mixing those questions together will help you get a full picture of the customer’s gap, Scalera said. The key is knowing when to ask each question.

When Scalera is on a discovery call, he usually starts with a broad question and then lets the client talk. Once he hears something that aligns with his product’s problem identification chart, that’s where he’ll dig in. He knows he’s onto something when he hears a client say, “Wow, that’s a good question.”

His goal is to ask enough questions to identify the gap and quantify the cost it has on the business. This allows him to both qualify the customer and get buy-in from other stakeholders within the company. 

It can get uncomfortable asking the number of questions you need to ask to get a full picture of their gap, but it’s effective, Scalera said. His advice to other reps looking to adopt the strategy is to push through the awkwardness and keep asking questions. 

“For most reps, when you think you have enough information, you probably don’t. Dig deeper,” he added.

If you’re missing any information, go back and ask the client until you have what you need. Otherwise, you’ll waste their time and yours.

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Is Gap Selling Right for Your Team?

CentralReach’s SVP of Sales Mark Cope told Built In in 2021 that the framework helped his reps earn more trust from customers. His team started delving beyond the surface-level pain to ask questions that quantify the scope of the problem their customers were experiencing. It can be an uncomfortable exchange for some customers, but when a rep can take that information and add value, they get more buy-in from the customer.

Part of what drew Cope to the methodology in the first place is the simplicity of the framework, but that simplicity comes at a cost. It requires a rep to have the business acumen to adapt to each customer and ask the right questions to fully diagnose the problem. Cope calls the methodology a “double-edged sword.” 

Still, where other frameworks require checking boxes and administrative work before a rep even gets to discovery, gap selling allows them to focus on the customer, Cope said. It simplifies everything else so reps can work on their sales skills.

Keenan believes each discovery should be customized. Like improv comedy, it requires the rep to listen to the customer and intuit what questions to ask next.     

“Once you know what information you’re supposed to get, how you get it is up to you,” Keenan said. “That’s trial and error. That’s amazing listening skills and off-the-charts business acumen.”

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How to Get Your Team Started With Gap Selling

Understanding the problems your product solves is the most important piece to the gap selling puzzle, Keenan said. In most cases, companies don’t know what problems they solve. They’ll say things like, “We help customers do X,” but that isn’t a problem. It steers them to the future state rather than addressing their current issue, he added.

That’s why the first exercise he does with a sales team is to have each rep fill out a problem identification chart. The chart is split into three categories: problem, impact and root cause. He has the team start by listing examples of business problems that exist that their product solves. Then he asks the reps what the business impact will be if they don’t fix that issue.

Finally, he’ll have them write down why that problem exists, or the root cause.    

Once management sifts through the responses to come up with an accurate chart, the reps can use it as a blueprint for their discovery calls, Keenan added. This unifies the team’s approach to gap selling and qualifying customers. From there, it’s up to the rep how they want to gather the information. 

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