Sales Discovery Process and The Power of Good Questions

This article is an episode of my podcast, The Liston.io Show. Feel free to listen while you read.

There’s a pretty common medicine metaphor used to describe the role of consultants and service providers, and it goes like this:

You go to the doctor, and they ask you some discovery questions. They need to understand your situation, symptoms, and the context of your illness before they can diagnose.

Once they diagnose, they can prescribe. That is, they’ll tell you what to do to address your diagnosis.

After prescription comes treatment: the actual steps that will be taken to improve your condition, like medicine, physical therapy, surgery, rest, whatever.

Now let’s say you’re the doctor.

Most consultants get into a conversation with a potential client and skip diagnosis completely. They instead go straight to prescribing a treatment, then want to get paid to give the treatment.

Here’s the problem, though: how do you know it’s the right treatment?

That’s why questions are most crucial part of your sales discovery process, where – you guessed it – you’ll discover your client’s problems and challenges, and come up with a diagnosis to fix it.

This Article Talks About

  • What is Sales Discovery?
  • Why Should You Use Sales Discovery Questions To Learn?
  • How Does This Apply To Sales?
  • How To Ask Effective Questions?
  • Example Questions To Jumpstart Your Conversations

What is the Sales Discovery Process?

When I think about the sales discovery process, I think about it in a few steps. Let me show you:

First, you have your leads, which, simply put, are the people interested in speaking with you about your product or service. They reached to you through your different marketing channels and agreed to talk to you about their business.

The second part of the sales discovery process is the discovery.

Let me tell you a secret: discovery is just a fancy word for the first conversation. The discovery process is where you learn about your potential client. It’s when you start asking questions about their business to see if you’re a good fit for each other.

But, from a consulting perspective, discovery can be broader. I focus on the following things during discovery:

  • Who is this person, as a human, who wants to talk to me?
  • What’s going on in their business? (This should be the focus in your conversation)
  • What would they like to happen instead?
  • What’ the value of achieving that better future?
  • What have they tried to achieve it?

As you can see, the point of discovery is to learn about our client.

Which leads me to another crucial piece of advice: don’t pitch during discovery. And I say this because discovery is only to learn about our client.

Actually, it’s important enough to make it a rule:

Don’t Pitch During Discovery

Sure, you can offer them an abbreviated version of what you can do, but don’t pitch them in the sense of trying to “win them over.” Making an offer is step #3, and then you tie it together with the things you learn in the discovery process.

Why Should You Use Sales Discovery Questions To Learn?

By now, you know there are several things you want to learn, but why is that?

Let me take a broader approach for a minute and ask you a simple question:

What is the point of a conversation?

I don’t want to get lost in the intricacies of communication theory, so I’ll focus this on sales. In sales, there are two main functions of a conversation:

  • Information Exchange (Learning)
  • Impression Management (Liking)

Asking questions is the best way to accomplish both. And that means limiting the amount of time you spend talking.

It turns out that people who ask more questions tend to be more successful in conversations and achieve both learning and liking.

For instance, there’s this study where researchers separated people into two groups and asked one of those groups to ask 9 or more questions in 15 minutes. In the second group, they asked people to ask 4 or fewer questions in 15 minutes.

What did they find?

They found that people who asked more questions were more liked. The people who ask more question actually learned more about the other person’s preferences.

But maybe you’re not convinced yet…

Let’s take a look at another study, shall we?

This one is about speed daters and online daters. In this case, the researchers found that speed daters who asked more questions were more likely to be preferred for a second date.

This is advice you can apply to every conversation, not just your sales conversations. Not just in your life as a consultant, but in your life generally.    

All of this comes from an article in the Harvard Business Review called The Surprising Power of Questions.” You should check it out because it’s fantastic.

How Does This Apply To Sales?

At this point, you might be asking, “but, Liston, how does this apply to sales?”

Well, there’s a company called Gong.io. It’s a software tool that records and analyzes calls for sales organizations.

The thing with Gong is that they leveraged all their data and conducted a study that found that top-performing salespeople spoke less than their underperforming counterparts.

This implies that successful salespeople listen more. In fact, it’s mandatory.

In order to listen more, you have to prompt your potential clients to talk.

How To Ask Effective Questions?

I’ve already told you that the point of discovery is to learn about your customers and, more importantly, know what to ask. And, also, how important conversations are when it comes to managing your clients’ perceptions and create liking.

The way I see it, there are two types of questions that spark conversations:

Open-Ended Questions

I favor open-ended questions because you get to hear whatever is on the other person’s mind. It allows you to be open to whatever they’re thinking about.

However, these questions might fall short. But, in most cases, you’ll see that people are willing to tell you a lot if you’re willing to sit and listen.

Follow-up Questions

Follow-up questions are important because the person you’re talking to might’ve said something that seems insignificant to them but it’s extremely valuable and insightful to you as a consultant.

If your potential client opens a door, you have to be ready to walk through it by asking a follow-up question: “Hey, can you tell me more about that?”

With these two types of questions, you’re creating a meaningful conversation. So, when you go into discovery, start with an open-ended question and continue with a follow-up question. Then keep asking follow up questions until you’ve learned everything you can!

By the way, this also applies to any other conversation you’ll ever have in your life.

Example Questions To Jumpstart Your Conversations

Here’s a list of 4 questions that I recommend you ask during your discovery in order to uncover the minimum amount of information you’ll need.

What’s Going On?

Ask them why they wanted to have this conversation. In fact, this question sets the tone of the conversation and helps your client open up and tell you what’s on her mind, and improves the exchange of information.

What Have You Done To Fix It?

This question helps you uncover past attempts and shows you what worked and what didn’t so you can help your client focus their energies on the problem at hand.

What Would Success Look Like?

This question uncovers the value of improving their situation. How do they think about the difference this will make in their lives? How do they think of the business and the emotional impact? Better yet, do they have a clear vision of ways to evaluate the relative success of the project?

Would You Like To Continue The Conversation?

The days of brute force sales and marketing are over. What we need to do is focus on how we can get people to give us permission to continue a conversation. What we want here is to understand whether or not these potential clients want to continue the conversation, then give them permission to leave if they don’t. This question also puts both parties on the same page and bolsters rapport and liking.

Key Takeaways

A consultant’s work, much like a doctor involves asking the right questions so you can prescribe the right medicine. But, you can only do this if you discover their problems. To discover, you need to ask the right questions. A well-timed follow-up question can help you find the best way to actually serve your client’s best interest.

Here are some tips for you before you leave:

  • Don’t pitch during discovery
  • By asking more questions, you will be more successful in both your sales conversations and any conversations outside of sales
  • Be willing to sit and listen
  • Ask plenty of open-ended and follow-up questions

 If you want to learn more about how to change your consulting mindset, check my first episode: Serve, Don’t Sell 

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Liston Witherill

Hi, I’m Liston. I help freelancers and consultants sell with confidence. My vision is for every freelancer, consultant, and agency owner to sell with confidence.