Conducting an effective sales discovery call

By Subraya Mallya - September 2014 | Topics - Sales

Sales discovery call is an important event in the sales process. Assessing and gaining an in-depth understanding of the prospect’s real challenges, mapping that to our offering to demonstrate positive outcomes, all will have a big bearing on how (if at all) you close the deal. While everybody involved in the sales process knows the importance of the discovery call, how it gets conducted leaves a lot to be desired.

Everybody is busy and they will only give you one (maybe two) sittings to discuss the needs.  The key goal of a discovery call should be to understand

  1. their current state
  2. what do they not like about it
  3. how widespread or deep the impact of the issues are to their business
  4. what, if anything, (solutions, workarounds) have they attempted to address those issues, and
  5. the future state they see and what help are they looking for
  6. to resist the temptation of getting into solution mode and try to solve the problem on the call.

As much as it is a discovery call for you, to gauge the prospects interest and imminency of a purchase, the prospects also treat it as a discovery for them to evaluate your ability to empathize and demonstrate that you can understand their challenges. So don’t lose sight of that.


  • You have this lead and your internal sales/sales development team has qualified the lead.
  • Now you, the sales person/account manager has to take it from there to close the deal.
  • The prospect wants to evaluate your product

The natural inclination is to say “let us schedule a demo”. Sales teams are wired to pitch their product at every opportunity. In a short window of opportunity they get in front of a prospect, they love to tell how great their product is. That unfortunately might be their undoing. More so, in the world of internet where prospects would have already done some research and learnt enough about your product. So for someone to go and parrot what is already out there, is redundant.

This where the Discovery Call becomes critical. Rather than jump into a demo and do a standard function/feature demo, you are better served to first learn more about the prospect and then bake that information into the demo flow, proposals you put in front of them.

So how does one go about doing a comprehensive discovery call?

Ditch the Pitch

Ditch the Pitch
The first cardinal sin of a sales discovery call is – Pitching. My advice to those conducting the discovery call is “Ditch the Pitch”.[tweetability]The discovery call is meant for learning about the prospect, their business and so stick to that agenda.[/tweetability] But… “we get this one opportunity and if we don’t tell them about what our product can do how will they know?” is the typical retort. To which I say, until and unless you have managed to learn about the customer’s specific challenge, the key stakeholders involved in their decision making, the timeline, budgetary constraints, keep the pitch in your back pocket. The prospect will not be interested in your “Cloud computing architecture, big-data based machine learning powered product that will do wonders”. Chances are they already know more about your product than yourself from your website or from those who use it. Your best bet is to learn more and then come back with a compelling, tailored meet-the-need pitch. Any time you spend talking about your product is the time you are loosing from learning more about the prospect.

When in doubt remember habit 5 from Stephen Covey’s- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

With that out of the way, here is how I would do a discovery call.

Ground Rules

Here are some ground rules to follow during the discovery call.

  • Besides not pitching your product, try and avoid using jargons that the technology industry spews out as is their wont. Also refrain from using terms that your company might have fabricated. Keep the conversation in simple english and try to get to the details.
  • Keep your questions open-ended. By that I mean – keep the questions broad and not multi-choice answers. By asking questions broad, you get the full low-down on the challenges they face and nuances of their business. Specifically don’t ask questions that have – Yes/No answer.
    • Bad Question: Would you like to run your supply chain planning process faster?
    • Good Question: You said your Supply Chain process is slow today. Can you tell me how does it impact your business?
  • Don’t be in a rush to schedule a demo. It is counter-intuitive, but doing a demo prematurely, before you understand their business is like playing Opera in front of a mule. It is completely misdirected. Once you have a better sense for the prospect’s business, their needs, the demo can be much more targeted.
  • Your goal is to understand the compelling event that is causing them to look for a solution, the detailed description of problem and impact it has on their business.


With the ground rules defined, here are some sample questions/templates. The questionnaire below is for a software product, adapt them to your specific area.

Tip: Don’t assume answers or think you know the answer. Ask them explicitly and confirm the answers you knew and also look for nuggets that you did not know. These questions are prescriptive in nature. Change the verbiage to make it conversational and open-ended.

Information about Customer

  • What business are they in? This might seem like a no-brainer question, something that you could easily infer from their website. Maybe. Maybe not. It is much better to learn from them as to what they think the business they are in. Starbucks, at the outset seems like a coffeehouse. It is a coffee house, in that they sell coffee, but if you ask them they will tell you they are in the business of creating an experience that people would want to incorporate into their daily life and creating an atmosphere which makes people come for coffee stay for the atmosphere“.
  • Who do they sell their product(s) to? Learn how they characterize their customer, the specific target customer segment they are going after, the specific persona of the buyer of their product and other stakeholders that have a say in the buying decision. Inquire if they have different products and if they sell them differently.
  • What is their pricing model? Subscription, Freemium, License, Ad-supported. Do they support trials?
  • Why are they looking for a solution? Inquire about the compelling event that is driving the need.   Also try to understand their motivation and appetite to fix/remedy it – time-wise and budget-wise?
  • Request a brief explanation of the team that will use your product. Understand the structure of the team, their significance in the company. How long have they been in existence? or a new Team? Also understand how the team (in question) is measured for their business performance.
  • Technology Ecosystem – learn about their existing technology ecosystem. Which product they use for Billing, Accounting, CRM, Support etc. This is necessary to make sure your product will play friendly in that ecosystem or cause additional friction.

Getting deep insights about the customer/prospect will help you craft better demos, pitches. That way you will be able better influence their decisions.

Problem Specific Questions

  • Without alluding to your solution, establish the fact that they have the problem that your product solves. Start with why they think it is a problem? How is the problem impacting revenue/cost?
  • If the prospect intends to remedy multiple problems with your product, dig deeper into each problem. Gauge the intensity of each problem and identify resolving which results in the best rewards.

Understand your Competition

  • Are you replacing another software vendor’s product ?  Why?
  • If you are replacing a manual process – understand why the manual process is not working any more. Also inquire about what top 3 milestones the prospect expects to achieve and in what timeframe.
  • If you are replacing a home-grown solution, then understand what the current owner thinks. She/he could be a big input in the decision process.

Validate your Value Proposition

  • Now that you have understood their problem and the impact of the same on their business, and you are confident that your solution will meet their need – time to confirm that. You match your solution to their problem. At this point, resist the temptation to use your terms, jargons or processes and make it seem like you are selling. Remember, you are still in the mode of helping them find a solution, not necessarily yours.
  • Ask them thought provoking questions such as “If you were to have a solution of your choice, and it did <your value proposition>… how do you think it will remedy the <issue you have>”. What you are doing here is making them draw the conclusion that “a solution that does <your value proposition> is the perfect solution”. You will then use the verbiage/statements as part of your close during demo.
  • After having validated that your solution meets their need, you now request the opportunity to present your solution.

There you go. That should give you a framework for understanding your prospective customer and if you still had more questions, don’t hesitate to call them back and ask for follow-up discussions. What you would have essentially done by the way of asking comprehensive questions is help the customer frame the problem and also the reinforced the need for a solution. Now with a tailored demo that hits those points, your sale should be that much more easier.

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