Effective discovery impacts probability of success. During my time as a Special Agent with the FBI, the ability to gather critical information and act on the intelligence impacted results.

We applied a simple and effective process to gather needed information in any environment. We interviewed, interrogated, and negotiated with all types — criminals, informants, witnesses, subject-matter experts, and corporate executives. Our communication techniques changed, but the process remained constant. In situations where national security and public safety are at risk, a sound process to collect information is necessary to execute operations with speed and accuracy. The same principle applies to business.

Good discovery reveals problems, and people buy things to solve problems. In business, we must figure out what those problems are. We must define them, quantify them, and quantify the IMPACT of those problems on the buyers and their business.

“Discovery is more than fact finding. When done right, discovery forges an emotional connection with the buyer, and sets you apart from the competition.” – G.A. Bartick

A well-executed discovery process will uncover the buyer’s current and desired situations. It places a focus on the buyer (not the seller), reduces buyer resistance, builds trust, and creates a unique and memorable experience for the buyer.

Follow the four-steps below to master sales discovery and win new business:

Step #1. Discovery Preparation

Sadly, most discovery happens with little or no preparation. Instead, we jump into a discovery call or meeting and ask a few canned questions. Then, we rush to present the perfect solution since we know exactly what the buyer needs. Our eagerness to show what we know, prevents us from uncovering true motivating factors that drive buying decisions.

“It’s not the will to win that matters, everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” – Paul Bear Bryant

Preparation begins with clearly understanding the problems that our product or service solves, AND the impact of those problems to the people and businesses we serve. Problems cause the pain, and the impact of those problems motivates the purchase decision. The greater the impact, the greater the motivation.

Before any formal discovery meeting or call, learn about the buyer’s current situation. Is there increased competition? Are there recent federal mandates that impact them? What is happening in the industry? Use open source information and leverage relationships to better understand current structure, processes, projects, and initiatives in place. What problems and challenges exist? What works well? Where can they improve? Are they hitting targets? Review past successful implementations with similarly situated clients. Is this a company similar to a company we’ve worked with in the past? Is the person in a similar role to someone we’ve sold to before? Can we expect them to be dealing with the same challenges? Who needs to be included in the discovery meeting?

Information gathered up front helps create a unique experience and tailored solution for the buyer.

Ask Who Else

Prior to the discovery meeting, find out who will be attending. Ask who else should be included as it relates to the areas of business your product or service serves.

Try this: “Hi Sam, to make the best use of our time together next week, who else do you suggest we include to make sure we understand how your sales and marketing groups use competitive intelligence to make decisions?”

Step #2. The Discovery Agenda

People fear the unknown. A clear discovery agenda shared up front solves that. It also sets us apart, since most people fail to do this.

A well-communicated agenda shares the purpose of the meeting, confirms time allotted, outlines the topics to be covered, ensures the right people are present, and invites the buyer’s input and participation. Asking for buyer input is important – it gives them a sense of control and confidence in knowing their concerns will be addressed.

Acknowledge: “I’m glad we could make this meeting happen.”

Purpose: “The goal of our time together is to learn more about each other, and by the end, determine if it makes sense for us to consider working together.” 

Time: “We have 45 minutes scheduled to speak today, does this still work for you?” 

Outline: “Excellent. In order for us to cover everything in the time scheduled, I put together a short agenda. First, I’d like to provide some background on our company. Then, ask a few questions about your current situation. After that, we can discuss your desired situation (the perfect world state of your business in a year or two from now). Next, I’d like to know more about your expectations in working with a business like us; and if we all see a fit, we can talk about possible next steps.”

Input: “Is there anything else you’d like to cover or discuss? Pricing — absolutely. I’ll make a note to cover that. Anything else? No, okay great. Before we get started, is there anyone else we should include in our discussion?’

Step #3. The Discovery and Questioning Flow

Discovery is not an interview or interrogation. Instead, it’s a two-way conversation with our focus on the buyer.

The questions we ask, and how we ask them, matter. We need to know the real problems and challenges buyers face in their current situations, and the impact if not addressed. This information is key to understanding the buyer’s desired situation, and the gap between the two states. The wider the gap, the more likely a buyer will purchase the solution to address it.

Sometimes the gap is not clear to the buyer. Proper discovery will help buyers see these gaps, and the associated impacts if they fail to act. This happens with good questions. It also requires even better listening.

The Buying Criteria

People make decisions based on what they want and need. We justify why we want and need things based on emotional feeling and attachment. In his book, Silver Bullet Selling: Six Critical Steps to Opening More Relationships and Closing More Sales, G.A. Bartick refers to three criteria buyers use when making a purchase decision:

  • Buyer’s Needs include specific factors that must be met for a solution to make sense to the buyer.
  • Buyer’s Wants include factors that would be nice to have, if possible, but not necessary to solve the buyer’s existing problem or challenge.
  • Buyer’s Emotional Criterion includes the dominant buying motives behind why a buyer wants the product or service.

Most discovery ends after we learn what the buyer needs and wants. We create the perfect proposal and nothing comes of it. What went wrong? We found out WHAT they wanted and needed; and we didn’t find out WHY. Failing to do this prevents us from understanding their dominant buying motives. As humans, we make decisions based on emotion, then rationalize our decisions through logic. The discovery process helps to identify these emotional motivators that will drive buyers’ purchase decisions. It’s not easy. People are guarded and cautious to reveal sensitive information, especially with people they just met. Implementing a strategic questioning flow will help break down barriers and gather information in an organized and natural pattern.

The Questioning Flow

Bartick also uses a questioning flow to organize questions from general to specific. The flow moves the buyer through a funnel of logical questions to help us understand the buyer’s current situation and possible challenges faced. This helps us expose the impact of those challenges if not addressed. Then, we discuss the buyer’s desired situation, and expectations of a solution provider in the event implementation happens.

The Buyer’s Current Situation

People are comfortable and confident talking about things they know. Starting with questions around the buyer’s current situation is logical to them, and gives them the feeling of control. Resistance drops and opens up opportunity for us to ask specific and candid questions.

Use questions to make the buyer think and contribute to the discussion. Create altitude by demonstrating we understand their business and industry. If we ask surface questions, we get surface answers. If we dive in and ask buyers if they are happy with their current process, they will say yes. If we ask what ‘pains’ or problems exist, they say none. These questions are vague and don’t work.

Use information learned from preparation to create relevant questions for you and the buyer. “What” and “how” questions will help open lines of conversation — they require thought and create more engagement.

  • “What stage of the evaluation process are you in?” “Have  you been looking for awhile?” “Did you just start today?”
  • “What about us interested you in meeting today?” “Why now?”
  • “Most of our clients use X, Y, and Z resources to plan promotion cycles, HOW do you approach this process?”
  • “WHAT resources do you prioritize in your promotion planning?”
  • “We’ve learned when teams are set up in this way they do well with A and B, and seem to struggle with C and D; Do you encounter the same types of challenges?” “How do you handle them?” “What do you do?”

Even if we ask excellent questions, answers don’t always come easy. Chris Voss, Former FBI Agent and Author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, uses selective word mirroring to subtly encourage additional input from a buyer around a statement they just made. This involves repeating back, in a question-like manner, key words from the buyer’s statement.

For example, if a buyer says, “Our sales team manually collects competitor prices across retail and ecommerce.” We might respond by saying, “Manually?” This communication approach will encourage additional input around the selected word. When mastered, this is a powerful information gathering tool.

Another method to ensure you’ve received all possible elements of an answer is to simply ask “what else?”

While exploring the buyer’s current situation, quantify where able and get to impact of challenges and problems faced. If the buyer says, “We need to grow our brand presence in the U.S.,” dig deeper.

  • “What do you mean by that?”
  • “How do you measure brand presence?”
  • “What do you want to grow it by?” “When?”
  • “How do you plan to do that?”
  • “What do you need to achieve that?”
  • “What happens if you do not achieve this?”

“The illusion of loss stings more than the possibility of gain.” — Chris Voss

Exploring the impact or loss if the buyer does not address existing challenges is powerful. Voss also explains that most buying decisions are actually made to avoid loss. “The prospect of losing $1,000 is far worse to most of us than the potential of gaining $1,000.” As we ask questions to identify the challenges and associated impact, consider using labels such as, “It sounds like you are concerned about…” and “It seems like you’ve put a lot of thought into this,” to help disarm the buyer. The focus is transferred to them and not us, and invites them to agree or make a correction.

The Buyer’s Desired Situation

After we clearly understand the buyer’s current situation, transition to the buyer’s desired situation. This means getting the buyer to clearly communicate what they want to see happen that’s different from their current environment. This part of the discovery can be difficult for both buyers or sellers. First, this area of questioning exposes existing issues, inefficiencies and problems with the buyer’s business. It’s not easy for people to communicate their problems openly and clearly. Second, the buyer may not know what their desired situation actually is, and may need help. More often than not, buyer’s simply don’t know what’s possible. Great discovery helps buyers identify the critical gaps and clearly understand the impact of not solving the problem.

The Buyer’s Expectations

Expectation questions often get skipped. Gathering information related to the buyer’s expectations helps to understand and plan for what they seek in terms of working together. It also helps identify whether the expectations can be reasonably achieved by us and our solution. Buyer expectation questions will help us create a solution to solve their problems, and do it in the most efficient and effective way for them.

  • “What do you need to see from a company like us to feel comfortable?” “How would you measure success?”
  • “In the event we get where you need to be and the money is right, how do you see the implementation happening?”

We are taught to ask questions that lead buyers into responding with yes. People see yes as a commitment, which can create anxiety and diminish receptivity. On the other hand, people feel safe with no. It creates protection and a sense of control. In fact, my one-year old LOVES to say NO. Try phrasing questions to get a ‘positive no’ response. No questions also encourage additional information from the buyer you’d otherwise have to ask for.

  • “Is it crazy for us to consider implementation by the end of this month?” Not at all, we just need A, B, and C signed off before moving forward.
  • “Are you against finding a solution to this now?”

Step #4. The Summary and Catch All

A clear discovery summary sets up the buying position. We learned the buyer’s dominant buying motives, uncovered key challenge areas for the buyer, and isolated the things they want and need to solve them. We also discovered WHY these are key issues to them, and the possible impacts they face if not addressed. The discovery summary is also a good time to invite the buyer to confirm if we accurately understand their situation. Doing so allows us to make corrections if we missed something important. People want to be heard, and communicating a clear discovery summary demonstrates that.

Now is an appropriate time to thank the buyer. Notice the difference from the agenda step in which we acknowledge the buyer (e.g. I’m glad we could both find time to meet). Begin by thanking them for sharing the information they provided. Next, summarize the buyer’s current situation, desired situation, and impact of not addressing any existing problems or challenges. After that, quickly review their expectations in achieving the desired situation. Finally, ask questions to confirm the summary is accurate and invite them to include anything you missed.

Try this: “Sam, you’ve provided me with a lot of good information. Thank you for being candid. I’d like to quickly review what we discussed to make sure I captured everything and fully understand your situation. It sounds like…. Does this sound accurate? Is there anything I missed you’d like to add?”

Successful discovery requires time, attention and work. The investment will pay off. We will earn the buyer’s trust and lower their resistance to solutions that actually matter to them.

For more than 16 years, gap intelligence has served manufacturers and sellers by providing world-class services monitoring, reporting, and analyzing the 4Ps: prices, promotions, placements, and products. Email us at info@gapintelligence.com or call us at 619-574-1100 to learn more.