Structuring and Sequencing Your Sales Discovery Questions Blog Feature
Dan Fisher

By: Dan Fisher on March 10th, 2017

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Structuring and Sequencing Your Sales Discovery Questions

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 In my previous blog post, How to Prepare for and Open the Sales Discovery Call, I discussed the importance of the sales discovery call itself (for the sales person), and how to prepare for and open the call. Now I'm going to walk you through the process of structuring and sequencing your sales discovery questions.

Remember, at this point in your discovery call you should have set the stage and expectations for a peer to peer relationship by opening the meeting like a thought leader and saying something like the following:

"Ms. customer, in researching you and your organization prior to our meeting it has come to my attention that you're trying to achieve the goal of <insert goal> and some of the challenges that stand in your way include <insert challenges>.  Your situation is very similar to the one we encountered when we worked with <insert client name>. In that instance we were able to help them overcome the challenge of <insert challenge> by <state your solution/work your consultant performed>.  All of this allowed the client to achieve <share the business results the client achieved>.

As I mentioned in my previous post, opening a sales discovery call like this has many benefits. Here is one additional and VERY IMPORTANT benefit. Corporate decision makers including the hiring managers you call on are interested in learning more about how you work with your customers who had similar problems, what your process was in working with them and how they benefited from working with you. Your prospects will not feel comfortable opening up and sharing sensitive information with you until you first share something of value to them. Sharing a customer success story in this level of detail is one such example.  This is what I mean when I say sales people must “earn the right” to the prospect's sensitive information (goals, challenges, projects, etc.) One of the most common mistakes I see sales reps make on discovery calls is they launch right into asking questions like "what challenges do you face," "what are your current vendors struggling with," or "what is keeping you up at night?" While the intention is good, the structuring and sequencing of the questions is all wrong. Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to structure and sequence your sales discovery questions.

Structuring & Sequencing Your Sales Discovery Questions. Current State and Desired Future State

Keep in mind that every prospect you call on is in a “current state” but has a “desired future state.” What this means is your prospects have either a goal or an initiative they’re trying to accomplish or a problem or pain point they are trying to move away from.  When it comes to structuring and sequencing your sales discovery questions, your first step is to understand their current state. What you are looking for is a prospect who has a pain point and is looking to migrate from their “current state” to their "desired future state”  As you will see below, the questions I suggest you ask have nothing to do with job orders and upcoming hiring needs.  While we will eventually arrive there, the process for how you arrive there is what is important and how you will differentiate yourself from all of the other sales reps. What you want to focus on is uncovering problems, issues or pain points because EVERY manager has problems they need help solving but they don't have budget-approved job orders. Our job is to uncover those issues and turn them into sales opportunities (job orders). For now, whether they need a consultant to solve these issues at this point is irrelevant. Remember, we're not "order-takers" seeking out pre-defined, budget approved job orders. That is a task for traditional, transactional sales reps. Top performers on the other hand focus on solving business problems for their customers.  That is the point of the sales discovery call and the questions I share below. We first need to find a problem because if there is no problem to be solved there is no sale to be made.

Uncovering the Current State

  • How content are you with your current situation?
  • Which issues need to be addressed today? 
  • How happy are you with the results of your project thus far?
  • How confident are you in your existing team?
  • How confident are you about hitting your goals for the next Quarter?

Notice these questions are pretty broad in nature and don't require the prospect to share senstive or confidential information. That is by design. The goal with these questions are to gauge at a macro level how happy and content the prospect is with their current state. Keep in mind that if your prospect is perfectly happy with their current state there really isn't much you can do about it. Again, no problem to be solved, no sale to be made. That being said, the real power of these questions is all in the execution of how you ask them, how effectively you disarmed your prospect at the onset of the conversation (and prior conversations) and how well you actively listen to your prospects reply. 

Uncovering Desired Future State

For the sake of our conversation let's assume the prospect does have a problem and is not perfectly content with their "current state."  Your job now is to determine what their desired future state is. You might ask:

  • Where do you plan on going from here?
  • What are your specific plans for moving forward?
  • What changes would you most like to see and why?

Notice these questions are also pretty broad in nature and and still don't require the prospect to share overly sensitive information. Again, that is by design but more importantly the answers to these questions give sales people the insight they need to understand their prospect's vision for their team, project or department.  Now that we understand the prospect's current state and desired future, we want to lead the customer through a discovery process that will help him or her determine the best way to go about arriving at their desired future state. 

The sales person's job is NOT to be the "solution architect" who prescribes the solution. The sales person's job is to ask the right questions to help the prospect determine:

  • If solving this problem/achieving this goal (arriving at the desired future state) is worth the investment
  • The best course of action for solving the issue and arriving at their desired future state
  • What solution is the right solution (including your offering) to achieve their goals or objective

Keep in mind that managers don't have all of the answers to their problems. While sales people might not have them either, the job of the sales person is to be their sounding board and to help them see and understand all of the options available to them and offer ideas and suggestions based on the prospect's responses to our questions.

A quick word of caution here. Often times when a prospect tells a sales rep they have an issue the sales rep assumes the prospect needs to resolve that issue and subsequently prematurely launches into a sales pitch.  Have you ever had a personal need in your life go unfulfilled?  Of course you have.  Sales people need to understand that customer business needs go unfulfilled every day.   So instead of making the all too common mistake of asking the prospect "how is this impacting you?" or launching into some pitch, we first need to ask some additional questions.

Qualifying the Compelling Event

Now that you have discovered your prospect's "current state" and their "desired future state" it is time understand and qualify what exactly is compelling them to take this action (migrate from "current state" to "desired future state"). We must ask questions that qualify their compelling event.

A compelling event is a direct response to moving away from a business pressure or problem that has an economic value associated with taking no action. The action taken to resolve the compelling event is expected to deliver a significant business result that is quantifiable either in money saved or an increase in revenue, or profitability and is time-bound. In my opinion, qualifying the compelling event is the most important aspect of qualifying a job order or any sales opportunity for that matter. 

Keep in mind that in corporate America (most companies and certainly the Fortune 2000) when a manager puts in for budget approval to bring in external resources (services or products) to solve a problem and/or achieve a goal they have to submit a business case. That business case has to show an ROI (to have any chance of being approved). For example, if a hiring manager is going to hire a third party consultant (software architect), he or she will need to demonstrate how the benefit (end solution) will outweigh the cost of hiring the 3rd party consultant.  If your prospect cant articulate to you the pain or problem they need the consultant to solve and/or a quantifiable result, then the compelling event may not be "compelling enough" to justify the investment. But this is where the art of asking your sales discovery questions come into play for qualifying the compelling event and helping the prospect determine if solving the problem is even worth the investment. You should be asking:

  • What is the compelling event taking place that is driving this initiative?
  • Who are the business drivers behind this initiative? Why is this so important to them personally?
  • Why is achieving the goal of <state goal> so important?
  • Why is solving the challenge of <state challenge> so important?

Discovering the Prospect's Level of Commitment

As I mentioned previously, needs go unfulfilled in corporate America every day. So instead of launching into a pitch (this is what most sales people do at this stage), the next step is NOT to offer a solution but instead to qualify the prospect's level of commitment to leaving their "current state" and "achieving their "desired future state." The questions now start to get pretty specific and require the prospect to really open up and make themselves vulnerable by sharing sensitive information with the sales person. 

You should be asking the following questions to discover and qualify level of commitment:

  • Are you and your team committed to taking action on this?
  • What have you done so far?
  • When do you need to start taking action on this?
  • When do you and your management team need to start seeing results on this?

Remember, people in general including corporate America can be pretty good at creating work-around's and find ways to justify for "getting by."  After all, the status quo is your biggest competitor. Just think about all the little things around your house or with your car that need to be fixed but go days, weeks, months and maybe even years before you bother fixing them?  Corporate America is no different, leaving the status quo is not easy which is why sales people need to qualify their prospect's commitment to solving the issue and achieving their "desired future state."

Qualifying the Means & Determining Fit

Once your prospect has shared with you that they are in fact committed to leaving their "current state" and taking action and achieving their "desired future state," including your prospects

  • Current state
  • Desired future state
  • Compelling event to take action (leave "current state" and achieve "desired future state")
  • Level of commitment to taking action

it's time for you to discover the means in which your prospect can take for solving their issues and achieving their "desired future state."  By asking these discovery questions sales people can understand what options the prospect is considering or may consider to solve their challenges and/or achieve their goal. By asking these questions sales people will also gain insight into understanding how the prospect perceives the sales person's solution and how strong of fit they feel they are. Questions to determine means and fit include:

  • What options are your considering for this project or achieving this goal?
  • What plans are already in place to address these challenges/achieve these goals?
  • How confident are you in your existing plan?
  • Where do you feel you need help?
  • Based on what you know about me and my firm, how do you feel we could help?
  • How well do you think me and my team and our offering would fit with you and your team?
  • If we had the right solution would you consider working with me and my team?
  • Is there any reason why you wouldn't or couldn't do business with me?
  • What additional steps would you need to take in order for us to get started working together? Who else would be involved in that process and what role would they play?
  • What do you see as a next step?

Summarizing and Closing the Sales Discovery Call, Establishing Next Step

You probably noticed that I didn't include any questions about budget and funding. Those question of course would still need to be asked in which case I would suggest you ask them after the prospect has indicated you and your solution are a fit (assuming there is an immediate opportunity). At this stage of the discovery call the sales person and the prospect should have determined whether or not there is a fit to do business together. If it was determined there is not a fit than the sales person can simply part ways gracefully by thanking the prospect for their time.  If on the other hand it was determined that there is a fit  then the sales person should summarize and close the call. For example, the sales person could say, “Mr. customer, to summarize today’s discussion, I understand

  • Your current challenges include <insert challenges>
  • You’re looking for help with <insert what they need help with>
  • Your desired future state is <insert desired future state>
  • Your compelled and committed to taking action to achieving your goals for <state reasons>
  • The options you are considering/reasons for considering me and my team include <insert answer>"

After you summarize you want to make sure the prospect is on the same page as you by asking for their feedback. You might say "is that your understanding or is there something I overlooked?" If there are any misunderstandings be sure to address them and clarify them now, not later.  Once you have confirmed your both on the same page, you want to establish a next step. Compelling the prospect to commit to a next step (action) is the key to preventing any sales cycle from stalling.  simply recommend a good option to move the discussion or process forward. This is the logical next step you were working toward from the onset.

You might say, May I make a suggestion?  Typically when we begin a new relationship with a new client the next step is to set up a follow up meeting to gain a better understanding of the project goals and plans already in place and assess what gaps might exist.  How would you feel about setting up a meeting in the next couple of weeks to do this?”

When executed properly, a sales discovery call will clearly uncover if a sales opportunity exists and whether or not there is a fit between the sales person's solution and the prospects goals or if the opportunity needs to be disqualified (or no opportunity exists). Either way, sales people should come out of discovery calls with a much deeper understanding of their prospect’s business goals and objectives and the challenges that stand in their way and where they need help.

How do you run your sales discover calls? What questions do you ask during a discovery call? Let's start a conversation in the comments section below.

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About Dan Fisher

Dan Fisher is founder and owner of Menemsha Group, a provider of sales enablement solutions dedicated to helping IT staffing firms improve win rates, shorten their sales cycle, and increase revenue per sales rep. Since launching Menemsha Group in 2008, Dan has consulted with over 200 IT staffing firms and has invested over 5000 hours coaching IT staffing sales reps. He’s authored is his own proprietary sales methodology and has previously spoken at Staffing World, TechServe Alliance and Bullhorn Live 2012. Prior to launching Menemsha Group, Dan spent 16 years in the IT industry running local, regional and national sales teams. Dan worked for Kelly Services, Oracle Corporation and Alliance Consulting. Dan currently resides in Boston, Ma.

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