One of the biggest mistakes of my early sales career was not understanding that sales had nothing to do with me and everything to do with my customer. My first job out of college was to sell a location-based mobile game to colleges and universities for orientation programs, alumni events, student affairs, and recruitment tours. I was very good at it: I managed over 300 customers and built a profitable little business within the company. At 23 and 24 years old, I was deemed a thought leader in the space of Higher Education and Geo-Location and was invited to speak at many higher education and tech events. I accurately predicted that social applications for geolocation like Foursquare would become irrelevant and that practical applications like Uber and Tinder would become mainstream. But I still made a vital mistake.
That vital mistake was that I was so wholly convinced that the product I was selling was good for everyone that I interpreted my sales job as a job of persuasion rather than a job of listening. In retrospect, had I taken a different mentality back then, I probably would have been 2 or even 3x more successful in terms of my numbers, because I would have qualified my opportunities better, had more productive conversations with prospects, and would have better positioned myself as a thought leader with more serious clients.
The first opportunity you generally have to try to understand the customer need is in a discovery call. This is where you “discover” key information about the client, like their business goals, their constraints, any short and long-term objectives from their executive leadership team, and even other relevant information like the technology they currently use and past initiatives.
Some sellers use these meetings to qualify leads. Simply put, some customers are not a good fit for the technology you sell and you can determine that fairly quickly by filtering them out with good questions. For example, if your technology is best-suited for customers who use a specific tech stack (say, Salesforce for CRM), and the customer uses HubSpot, you know immediately that you should not continue the conversation.
But it is also true that thoughtful discovery is impactful for the sales process well beyond the discovery call. If you skip steps in your selling process, it is likely to come back to bite you later on. As it pertains to the discovery call, if you do not surface a lot of relevant pain, it is likely that later on you will lose out on the opportunity. Why? Because no matter how great your product demonstration is, the customer is not linking your solution back to a sizable pain that they need to address. It’s like showing someone a Ferrari when driving to work is not nearly their biggest problem.
With that, I want to offer five things I try to do in a discovery call to make them effective.
- Be Up Front
It’s important to lay out your objective for the meeting and to be up front about your goals. The goal of the discovery call is not to sell anything to anyone. The goal is to figure out whether or not you are a good fit for one another. I find that being up front about this helps to build trust. No one likes going into a meeting feeling like they are about to be sold something. When customers feel that you are genuinely looking out for them and trying to be respectful of their time, they appreciate it, grow to respect you, and are more willing to work with you. Even if it turns out that they are not a good fit for your product today, they will be grateful about your approach and more likely to work with you in the future.
What this means is that if I am getting information in the discovery meeting that is antithetical to the product I offer, I tell the customer that. Sometimes I find that the ideal customer for me has been using a certain tech stack and for a certain period of time, because those types of customers feel the proverbial pain that my product solves for. When customers are not yet on that tech stack, I tell them the truth: “You will benefit from our product, but I have found it is easier to sell our solution to customers who are a little further along, because they feel more pain.” This may feel like radical transparency, but from the customer’s perspective, it actually just makes you seem honest (which you are) and knowledgeable (which you also are).
For many salespeople, it is hard to walk away from any lead. More experienced sellers begin to understand that they need to be thoughtful about where they spend their time, and that they need to respect the time of their buyers, too. You are doing no one any favors unless you are coming into the meeting with the right intentions. Those intentions are not to sell. Those intentions are to understand if you should spend more time together. Tell the customer that, they’ll appreciate it.
2. Understand the Person and the Business
This one probably goes without saying, but you fundamentally need to understand who you are talking to, what their role is in the organization, and what matters to them personally. You need to understand all of the same things about the business, too, like what products they offer, what their mission is, and if they have any strategic objectives they want to accomplish.
You will often find that the person’s individual objectives are somehow tied to broader organizational goals. For example, you may sell an AI solution for their Customer Service team, while there may be a broader organizational initiative from the Chief Digital Officer to embrace AI technologies across the business. In other words, company initiatives trickle down to individual initiatives.
In discovery, you are thinking about three things: the individual and what matters to them, their team and what matters to them, and the broader organization and what matters to it. This means you need to ask questions that uncover truths about all three.
On the personal level, you might seek to understand how the individual is measured and what KPIs ultimately matter to them. On the team level, you might seek to understand what recent software purchases have been made or if there are any projects over the next year or two that they are focused on. From the organizational standpoint, you can ask what the leadership team is thinking about or if they have tasked the team you are working with to accomplish anything specific. Oftentimes you can discover information about the broader organization by doing your own research prior to the meeting especially if you are selling into enterprise accounts.
3. Understand “Why”
I’m a big fan of “Why.” I talk a lot about it in my mentorship of people trying to break into tech sales. Lots of times people go into interviews prepared to talk about all the wrong things. I tell people to be honest about what truly motivates them, even if it has nothing to do with the company they are interviewing with. This means flat out saying what you really want for yourself in your life. It shows you are honest and that there is a real reason you have actually thought about as to why you want the job and how it will help you get to the thing you really want.
This is true for your customers as well and you need to understand why they care about doing whatever it is they want to do. Certainly it is to accomplish a specific objectives. There is a compelling reason behind everything, and the longer you focus on “what,” the longer you are taking your eye off the ball.
Ultimately, everyone resonates with the “why.” People align with people who share their “why.” In marriage, we often associate people who share our core values, even if we are very different people in our daily lives. It is no different professionally.
4. No, But Really, “Why”
Behind every “why” there is another “why.”
In a lot of my discovery calls, I admit that I am about to ask a stupid question.
Let’s go back to our AI Customer Service example. I may be having a conversation with a prospect about their customer service experience as it exists today, and they may tell me that they have a goal to resolve more of their phone calls in the first conversation. If I ask them why that matters to them, they might tell me that improving their First Call Resolution metric is a way of enhancing their Customer Experience.
Now, most rookie sales reps will stop there, because they sell a customer experience product and they have happy ears. “Good,” they think to themselves, “the customer just told me that they value customer experience, and I sell a customer experience product. This is going to be easy.”
But stopping there is entirely the wrong thing to do. It might be a stupid question, but “why” do they value customer experience so much? You need to ask the “why” behind the “why” here. Perhaps you find out that they feel they are in a commoditized market and that they need to differentiate from competition through the experience they provide. Through that lens, the client does not actually value customer experience – they value revenue. This actually shifts the focus of the conversation entirely. This is a growth-oriented business that believes they can make more money by providing a better experience to their customers. The way you sell against this pain is fundamentally different.
5. Implicate Pain
This is a big one. Again, novice sales reps are excited just to hear that pain exists. But just because pain exists does not mean that it matters. No one is motivated to do anything unless the pain they have is so great that they feel they have no choice but to act.
Now, there are always going to be two types of prospects: prospects who already understand the magnitude of their pain, and customers who need to be educated about the magnitude of their pain.
Imagine you go to the dentist because you have a toothache. In this scenario, you may already understand the magnitude of your pain because your tooth hurts. But while you are there, you may take some X-rays and find out you also have a cavity. The cavity does not hurt you, so you are unaware the pain even exists. It is the dentist’s job to explain that the cavity can lead to long-term damage that is well beyond anything you are currently experiencing with the toothache. Through that lens, the cavity is actually the far larger pain.
Some prospects will already know they have pain and they will already have done the research to understand how much the pain is costing them. In these situations, there is certainly more work you can do, but in some ways you are a glorified order taker. You’re kind of just there to show them that you have the best solution.
But in most situations, the prospect will need help to understand what the implications are of their pain. This means you need to dig in and ask them what specifically happens as a result of their pain. And when these things happen, what does it mean for them quantitatively?
In my AI Customer Service example, it may be that the customer wants to improve their First Call Resolution. Perhaps they are trying to improve their bottom line because there is a directive from leadership to slash costs. Well, what are the implications of the pain then? You need to find out what the average phone call costs the business. Maybe the average call is five minutes long, and every minute equates to a dollar. So every phone call they can save is $5. Now you need to understand the total number of calls they receive, and you can back into what each additional point of increase leads to in terms of a net dollar outcome. Now, in your discovery call, you already know precisely what the customer stands to gain in terms of dollars and cents for each point they can increase this metric and you understand why they need to do it.
All in all, there are many things that need to happen to make discovery successful. These are five of mine and I hope they come in handy.