Discovery is dead – long live the business conversation

Kathleen Hartigan
Mountaineer on mountain

In today’s tough markets, finding new business is vital. But engaging with prospects should be about more than ticking boxes and persuading people to answer a raft of questions. Generating revenue is a process and that process needs to start with honest conversations about business. So says Kathleen Hartigan, Group VP International Revenue at Clari.

Let’s be clear, discovery isn’t actually dead. Getting to grips with what your prospective customers want has always been – and remains – a basic sales tool. But the idea that a prospect has some problem and you just have to turn up and offer a solution absolutely is. Things are simply more complex than that these days.

A sales rep should only be making a discovery call if they already have a deep insight into a client’s business, its revenue objectives and biggest pains. What the client often needs is a frank discussion about how to improve the revenue-generating process.

Take Doug Landis. He wants to kill discovery – that’s how bad he feels about the way some people go about it. I’m not sure we need to go that far, but the Growth Partner at Emergence Capital (he likes to call himself a ‘Go-to-market consultant’) has some intriguing suggestions about how to do things better. He starts with what he calls ‘hypothesis-based selling’ and that change in language away from ‘discovery’ is all about looking at things from the potential customer’s point of view.

“Discovery used incorrectly triggers the wrong behaviours,” says Doug. “It’s inherently selfish – much more for the seller than the buyer. [On a discovery call] a lot of buyers are thinking ‘when is this going to end?’ They tell you what you want to hear. They deflect, deflect, deflect, and get off the call as quickly as possible so they can do their own research.”

When someone expresses an interest in what you sell, a sales rep makes a call to find out more – that’s discovery. Actually, a good sales rep will do research first. They’ll have a list of questions they need answers to and this is where the problem lies. Because the seller may not see the benefit in answering a lot of questions.

Not everyone who shows an interest is going to end up being a customer. According to Sales Insights Lab, at least 50% of your prospects aren’t a good fit – they’re going to fall away at some point between that initial contact and the end of the process where they actually give you money. So, the goal of a discovery call should be to understand a prospect’s situation and figure out whether they are going to end up buying from you. This will help you allocate resources, forecast within your own business and come up with strategies that will benefit both you and the customer.

According to HubSpot: “Depending on who you sell to and what you sell, you could spend 10 to 20 hours with your prospect. You should have a good idea of whether the deal will close and for how much.”

The list of questions (from a classic discovery process) is essential. The answers will tell you whether this is a quality prospect, how likely they are to buy and, importantly, how soon they’re likely to buy. But you don’t want your sales reps starting your relationship with a potential revenue source by giving them the impression you have boxes to tick and an endless list of questions. You need to be a little more subtle in how you collect information. Your reps have to work just a little harder to get the answers you need.

For Doug Landis, you do this by moving away from calling it ‘discovery’ to having business conversations. Now, you and your prospect are having a chat about their business and how it’s all working out at the moment. In the process, you get your answers. Meanwhile, your new friend is starting to form the impression you are on their side.

Hypothesis-based selling

But how do you have a business conversation? Research is key.

“I’m [seller] building a hypothesis of what your [buyer’s] world might be like,” says Doug. “I’m going into a conversation with some hunches and you get to tell me whether I’m right or wrong.”

The assumptions should be based not just on solid research but on what existing customers in a similar situation are doing. It can be an effective conversation starter to explain how another company has tackled the same problems as the buyer faces.

This ‘hypothesis-based selling’ takes the burden away from the buyer to come up with detailed answers to generic questions. Now they’re just responding to a description of their business issues and that gets them talking more freely. And it feels good to them because they’re already getting value.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re [your hypothesis] is wrong,” says Doug, “because it shows you put in the effort. You should go into every conversation with a hypothesis.”

The business conversation is achieving two things. First it validates your understanding of the potential customer’s business and that helps you answer many of the questions on your discovery checklist. Second, it explores with the buyer why they might change from what they’re currently doing and that tells you how likely you are to end up with a deal.

During every conversation, you need to focus on three things, according to Doug:

  1. Building a connection
  2. Demonstrating credibility in what you do
  3. Showing empathy with your prospective customer’s point of view.

Keeping revenue flowing has undoubtedly become tougher in recent months and many businesses find themselves having to do more with less. The answer is to focus on the most likely prospects, to be spending your time and energy on the highest quality prospects. That means getting smarter at discovery – possibly to the extent of not even calling it that anymore.

“The volume we had 12 months ago doesn’t exist anymore,” says Doug. “We have to double down on doing more research and being more thoughtful about every interaction.”

Useful links:

How to Build Sales Pipeline for Predictable Revenue

All you need to know about discovery calls

Discovery Call: 6-Step Guide and 15 Questions To Ask

Photo by Sheshan R on Unsplash

Written by
Kathleen Hartigan
Written by
May 2, 2024