I recently took part in an online Twitter chat regarding the topic of discovery calls. To perhaps start to distinguish how to run effective discovery calls, it would make sense to firstly define what the actual objective of doing discovery is.

I stipulated that that purpose of the discovery call is – ‘to  identify areas where a salesperson can help a prospect to warrant a further meeting/conversation.’

In essence, a discovery call is the exercise in which a salesperson can delve into a prospect’s situation to find out if there is an opportunity to add value or to problem solve. The priority here is not to pitch your product. Nor is it a guarantee of an opportunity to pitch your product at a demo stage. The discovery call is as much an opportunity to identify those prospects who cannot be helped by your company, and where investing further time in the sales process is not a valuable time for either yourself or the prospect. Pushing through ‘bad-fit’ prospects deeper into the sales funnel will only result in wasted time (of yourself or an Account Executive), and takes away from valuable time prospecting good fit prospects who have much more chance of closing and not churning. Furthermore, from a purely superficial POV, bad fit prospects making it past the discovery call will only go to make you look like you aren’t doing your job properly!

Here are my six key steps to running effective discovery calls:

  1. Set the Agenda – It’s important that from the outset of the call, you get your prospect clearly bought into the objective of the discovery call, and what next steps will look like if the call has been a success. This achieves two things; Firstly, it helps to start educate your buyer about your own sales process and presents an expectation of getting to the demo stage, if you achieve your objectives on the call. This I find has been crucial, particularly for inexperienced buyers who need direction and/or hand-holding through a sales process. Secondly, it prepares the prospect for questioning. If they buy into the agenda, they are likely to be bought into opening up and giving you answers. It warms them up. The other thing to always check here is how much time the prospect has for the call. If they have a ‘hard stop’ at 30 minutes, then make sure you don’t overrun on their time. The last thing you want is to show you have a lack of respect for their time.
  2. Rapport Build – It is debatable whether you start this off pre or post agenda setting, but I’ve found the most effective discovery calls I have had is where you feel like you have your prospect on side early on. Ok, so some prospects aren’t always big on friendly chit chat and that’s fine. But in the majority of cases, ‘breaking the ice’ with some social research is a brilliant way to showing your prospect you care and to get them talking. Take time before jumping on the call to find out their hobbies, where they are from, or a recent company update. Bring it up in discussion. Literally two minutes looking your prospect up on Twitter can result in a much warmer conversation and make you stand out from the other salespeople your buyer will be speaking with that day or week.
  1. Commence questioning- Start by asking what I call ‘level one’ questions about how they are currently setup internally before drilling down into ‘level two’ questions which start to probe pain or opportunity. As an example here, a level one question for myself would be:

“How many sales reps do you have on your SDR team at the moment Mr Prospect?”

OR

“How often do you invest time doing call coaching per rep on a weekly basis?”

My level two questions would then follow:

“How much additional call coaching in an ideal world would you like to be doing?”

“What are the main obstructions you face to coaching your reps on their discovery calls?”

Level one questions provide a picture of the prospect’s current situation or process, and level two questions start to give evidence (or otherwise) of where you might be able to help them.

Note the use of open ended questions here. Leading with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘why’ may seem obvious, but these are the questions which will drive your prospect to speak more, and allow you to spend more time doing what you should be focusing on… listening.

  1. Use storytelling to drive questions – Often one of the problems I  hear sales reps have, is trying to think of effective questions to use on their discovery calls. Asking effective free-flowing questions is a skill which does need to be practiced and mastered. However, one of the most effective techniques I have used to help here is to implement storytelling into my discovery calls. One method here, is to paint a picture of a common challenge your existing customers have faced – and to ask whether your prospect faces similar challenges. For example:

“When I ask Inside Sales Leaders why their new sales reps take so long to ramp up to effectiveness, they often tell me that they have a lack of insight into how to run effective discovery calls. What are your experiences of this in your sales team?”

Another method of applying storytelling, would be to introduce a success story your company has created for a similar profile of customer to the prospect you are selling to. This brings further relevance to the discovery call, as well as starting to build a picture in your prospects mind about what could be possible if they worked with you.

“One of our customers who had similar challenges to yourself with long ramp time of reps, was able to reduce the time it took to get reps up to speed by 25%, by building libraries of best practice discovery calls for them to listen to. What results do you think you would see if you were to have a similar resource for your team?”

As a rule of thumb which I tell my own reps – if you are struggling to think of what to say or what to ask…start to story-tell!

  1. Go deep – You’ve asked your level one and level two questions which have started to open up the opportunities. But how do you really create urgency to buy, and increased desire to actually see your product? I would call these ‘level three’ questions which start to really open up the level of pain/opportunity which exists and the quickest route to reducing sales cycles. Think of these as questions where the answers highlight what the prospect is missing out on by not using your product, or what they could achieve if they were using it. Examples of these in my case are:

“As a result of the amount of mistakes you think your rep’s are making on their sales calls, how many of these are leading to missed sales opportunities?”

OR

“If you could reduce the ramp time of your new sales reps by 25%, what would that look like in actual revenue generation or number of appointments booked?”

  1. The close out – A great discovery call with lots of questions and knowledge, is only great if you can close the prospect down to next steps. If you feel the discovery call has been successful, the aim here is to summarize the specific areas in which you feel your product or service will be of value. There are two ways I typically approach this:

A. The ‘assumptive’ close – This is a way of confirming back to the prospect how you think you will be able to help address specific challenges identified during questioning, without necessarily ‘over pitching’ your product. A confident tone and message can help here in gaining buy in from the potential customer.

“From what you have told me on this call today, I really think we might be able to help  you in two key ways Mr Prospect. Firstly, I think we can help you scale your call coaching output, without any additional time investment. Secondly, from similar customers we work with who had similar challenges with long ramp times, I think we could help you really cut that down through sharing of best practice calls. When would be a good time next week for 45 minutes for me to demonstrate how we would do that?

B. The ‘prospect buy-in’ close – This is less assumptive by nature, but closes the call by getting your prospect to confirm that addressing specific challenges identified is something they are willing to give you extra time for.

“Mr Prospect – you mentioned that your SDR ramp time of 6 months is too long for you right now and is hurting your bottom line. If I could show you how our technology can help start to reduce that quite significantly, is this something you would be willing to see?”

The other important aspect of the close (as well as getting a time and date locked down!), is the opportunity to engage other important stakeholders into the sales process. I’m amazed by how few reps actually do this, when it can be the key factor in involving a key decision maker to come to a quicker buying decision. Think about it – if you have built sufficient value in your discovery call, and have therefore increased urgency to buy, why wouldn’t your prospect want to involve other individuals in the demo? A great way of asking this question without coming across as too salesy is “Who else is this important to”. Simple but so powerful.

-Richard Smith-
Richard Smith is a sales professional of almost ten years, selling SaaS solutions to SME and Enterprise organisations. He is currently the Co-Founder and Head of Sales for UK SaaS startup Refract – sales coaching and insights technology for calls, demos, and emails. He has featured on sites such as SalesHacker and Hubspot. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn or alternatively on Twitter @richard_refract