What’s the single most important stage in any complex B2B sales process? Is it the “close”? The commercial negotiation? The delivery of the proposal? The product evaluation? The solution demonstration? The credentials presentation?
Depending on what we are selling and who we are trying to sell it to, these can all represent significant events in our sales campaign. But there’s one activity that - at least as far as I am concerned - is critical to any complex B2B sale.
It’s the discovery process. What we do, what we say and what we accomplish during this initial period of our customer engagement establishes the foundation for everything that follows. If we do it well, we create a platform for success. If we screw it up, we may never be able to recover.
I regularly have conversations with CEOs and sales leaders who believe that their sales organisation currently has a "closing problem". But you might (or might not, depending on your experience) be surprised to learn that most of these issues turn out to be not closing problems but “opening problems”.
The initial discovery process is absolutely pivotal to success in complex B2B sales. If we rush it, there is a real risk that we will fail to uncover some piece of information that later turns out to be critical. If we choose to prematurely propose our solution, there may be no going back.
Here are my recommendations for running an effective discovery process:
RECOGNISE THAT IT’S A TWO-WAY PROCESS
Too many sales people behave as if the discovery process is primarily a one-way exercise with the objective of qualifying the prospect. We need to recognise that discovery is a two-way process in which our potential customer is as interested in learning about us as we are in learning about them, and seek to strike a healthy balance between giving and getting information.
DO OUR RESEARCH UPFRONT
There is no excuse nowadays for asking our prospect questions that could be answered relatively easily via a few minutes of targeted on-line research. In fact, it’s completely disrespectful (and a waste of the time of all parties concerned) to ask questions we should already know the answer to. At the absolute minimum, we need to visit the company's website, review their corporate profile and news announcements and take a look at our contact's LinkedIn profile.
AGREE AN AGENDA
Before diving into the detailed conversation, we need to mutually agree an agenda with our prospect that covers all the most important elements that we are each interested in covering, establishes expectations as to how our time together can best be be spent and sets out our respective objectives for the discussion.
If possible, we should seek to establish a simple upfront commit that pre-defines what we both agree would represent a reasonable next step if our mutual objectives have been achieved. This can serve to set both party’s expectations for what might be reasonably accomplished during the conversation, and where - if successful - our interaction might go next.
FOCUS ON THEM
Other than trying to qualify whether we might have a potential opportunity with them, our next most important goal must be to persuade an apparently promising prospect that it is worth their time to invest in continuing our conversation. This depends on them looking back on our initial interaction and regarding it as a valuable use of their time - i.e., they must believe that they have learned something useful.
START WITH A HYPOTHESIS
I can hardly imagine a less respectful (or less effective) question than asking the prospective customer “what keeps them up at night” (or any other tired variation on that all-too-familiar theme). If we expect to establish our credentials as a trusted advisor, it is far more effective to approach the conversation with a hypothesis - based on our experience of similar situations - about what they are likely to be or ought to be interested in.
THINK ABOUT WHAT WE INTEND TO TEACH
We also need to go into the conversation with a clear sense of what our prospective customer is likely to be interested in, and what we would like to share with them. This might include relevant insights, customer stories and anecdotes, case studies, key market data and any other information that leaves them thinking that the interaction has been a good use of their time and taught them something valuable.
BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT WE WANT TO LEARN
This is probably the most obvious element of any discovery conversation - but it’s still worth planning in advance. What do we want to learn from them? What are the most useful questions we could ask them? How will we use the information we learn? Maintaining a conscious and appropriate balance between situation, problem, implication and need-payoff [value] questions can help.
PROBE FOR THE PAIN
Assuming that our initial contact is willing to acknowledge a problem or opportunity that we can help them address, rather than rushing to offer our solution, we need to continue to explore the underlying circumstances and the consequences and implications of their current situation. In particular, we need to try and identify the other influential stakeholders that are likely to be impacted by the problem - and try and judge the relative importance of the issue.
BE PREPARED TO ADAPT
No matter how well and thoughtfully we prepare, we cannot always anticipate what direction the conversation may go in, and we always need to be ready to adapt to whatever useful information or insights we manage to glean from our contact, whilst still keeping our original aim in mind.
TEASE OUT A FUTURE VISION
It’s usually premature to propose a detailed solution during an initial discovery conversation - but what we can start to do is to help them visualise what they could potentially achieve with our help and contrast that positive future vision with the negative consequences and implications of sticking with the status quo.
CONFIRM A NEXT STEP
Assuming that both parties agree that the discussion has been positive, we need to agree a specific next step before we close and put the event in our respective diaries. Of course, this task is made significantly easier if we’ve already negotiated an upfront commit, but we can’t afford to be vague about this. It's often helpful to have thought through what our "best case" and "minimum viable" next steps are.
PREPARE FOR SUCCESS
It should be obvious that the essential foundation of effective discovery conversations is go into the exercise having thought carefully about what we want to achieve and coming up with a plan that we are then able to adapt as the discussion unfolds.
Investing a few minutes ahead of the discovery exercise to ensure we have a clear end in mind and an adaptable plan to achieve it can help us to avoid the pitfalls that are often associated with either a make-it-up-as-we-go-along or a follow-a-rigid-script approach to discovery.
But perhaps the most important thing we can do is to recognise that discovery is a two-way process that all the involved parties need to be able to look back on and agree that - whatever the outcome - it represented a good use of their time.
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