More Effective Discovery Conversations Lead to More Effective Demos

Highlights from a Wed-Nov-29-2017 panel of sales experts on how effective discovery conversations lead to more effective demos: Richard Smith of Refract, Peter Cohan of Second Derivative and author of “Great Demo,” Brian Geery of SalesNv and author of “How to Demonstrate Software So People Buy It,” and Warren Gouws of SumTotal Systems.

More Effective Discovery Conversations
Lead to More Effective Demos


What follows is an edited and condensed transcript from a webinar that occurred Wednesday, November 29, 2017. Hyperlinks have been added to relevant material authored by the appropriate speaker.

Defining Discovery

Richard Smith: How do you define discovery?

Peter Cohan: A simple way of defining discovery is the process of collecting information to enable a precise proposal of a solution to a customer problem.

Brian Geery: Discovery is learning what you need to know in order to deliver a winning demonstration.

Richard Smith: How do you distinguish between “discovery” and “qualification”.

Peter Cohan: I would suggesting there are really three related activities.

  1. Research is everything that you do without actually having a conversation with the customer. So, LinkedIn, Hoovers, customer website, and on and on, that’s the foundation. Everybody should, and is expected to be doing that, whether or not they’re business development reps, or SDRs, or if you will, sales people or pre-sales. That’s the baseline.
  2. Qualification is determining if it’s an opportunity worth pursuing. One good rubric for qualification is BANT–Budget, Authority, Need, and Timeline. Discovery is going way beyond that.
  3. Discovery is done to understand the customer situation sufficiently so that you can propose a solution with the knowledge that it’s going to fit. Discovery is also done to enable the customer to feel comfortable that you, as a vendor, have understood their situation, and you can deliver an accurate proposal for a solution.

Research is the baseline. Qualification determines if it’s a reasonable deal to pursue. Discovery gains an in depth understanding of the customer’s situation.

Impact of Discovery: More Effective Demos

two heads value cocreateRichard Smith: What is the impact of a lack of discovery on a demo?

Peter Cohan: It’s huge. I want to cite two actual examples:

  1. I was doing discovery with one of my prospects. This was actually the second call. We had talked for close to two hours and she essentially said, “You know, you’ve already closed me. You have completely covered things that I wasn’t expecting. You asked questions about things that I was totally unaware of. I’m comfortable with whatever you propose.”
  2. It’s a 10 to 1 difference in outcome. We ran the experiment with a couple of my customers. One customer put 620 sales projects on the forecast as closable over a six month period, and 110 actually closed. Of those 110, 100 had good, sufficient discovery done. This was measured by a complete Great Demo situation slide, versus 10 where there was insufficient discovery done, again as measured by an incomplete situation slide.

How to Improve Discovery Skills

Richard Smith: Some pretty compelling evidence for how much impact discovery has. How can sales teams improve their discovery skills?

Brian Geery: Create a master list of discovery questions.

  1. Start by having the sales team writing down all of the questions that love to ask up on a whiteboard.
  2. Consider the format of the questions, most of them should be open-ended.
  3. Prioritize the questions because neither the sales team nor prospects ever have enough time. Sales needs to ask the most important questions
  4. Convert the list into a checklist that each sales person can use during a call or glance at in a face to face meeting to make sure key questions were covered. [See What Are Your Top Five Pre-Software Demonstration Questions? for more on this.

Always remember that the more effective demos are still a conversation and each prospect is different.

Peter Cohan: I like to use question prompts, you need two to three words that jog your memory to ask the right question. The master list is a living document: sales teams will need to continually add questions, refine ones on the list, and remove others that are no longer relevant.

My experience is with larger complex sales–not transactional deals–so I will schedule an initial discovery call that might run for 30 minutes, and around the 25-minute mark, I’ll say something like, “You know, I’ve got a pile more questions I really need and would like to ask, are you willing to set up a second call?”

And this is actually a point of qualification, because if the customer says, “Yes, absolutely”, then this is a high-probability prospect. I’m doing a good job in that he’s engaged, or she’s engaged, they’re giving answers to questions, in many cases they’re actually learning things on their own, or realizing there’s gaps in their understanding.

If they say, “No. No, I think you have enough”, then I put them on my “Nurture-marketing list” because they’re undiscovered, the amount of information I’ve gained at that point is insufficient. So, that’s one observation.

A counterpoint, when Brian suggested asking the most important questions first, my experience is that can make a prospect a little uncomfortable if you have not built some rapport.

Let me give you an example: when a sales person asks you the question, “What keeps you up at nights?”

My answer is often, “Idiots who ask that question at the very beginning of a discovery call is what keeps me up at night.”

I think there is a science to the timing and flow associated with asking questions. At the beginning of a discovery call, I’ll ask questions that are both easy to ask, and more importantly, easy for the customer to answer. I call these demographics questions. Tell me about your team, how many, where are they located, what are their backgrounds, what are their longevity with the organization?

All these are questions that are designed to get the customer comfortable with the conversation. It isn’t until fairly deep in the call that I ask anything having to do with pain, because I want them to be comfortable I want to have built trust by offering them some things back during discovery as nuggets or tidbits that they may have been unaware of as well.

I expect to do about two hours of just conversational discovery over a few calls in order to begin to have somebody ready to really move to the next step.

Warren Gouws: We did a detailed win-loss analysis about two years ago and while we lost for many reasons but the wins were principally the customer telling us, “You know, you understood us. We felt you got our business.” The best demo is no demo. It’s an illustration that plays back the key business objectives and how you can address them.

Peter Cohan: I agree, I believe that the greatest leverage is to do a truly terrific job in discovery: the less you need to show in a demo. The result of doing a better job of discovery is better for both parties. More effective demos require that we move beyond a baseline level of qualification and invest time in discovery.

Warren Gouws: I think the best way I have seen to do discovery/qualification is to always looking for the no. Lead with a disqualifying mindset: and the most effective way to do that is to have both a rep and the pre-sales consultant on the call together, so they can both hear the same thing. That enables a more effective “dress rehearsal” where you can war game out who is going to lead with what messaging based on what was learned during discovery. Two people also allows one person to be asking questions and the other listening intently and taking notes–trading off roles from time to time.

What is “Minimum Viable Discovery?

Richard Smith: What is the “minimum viable” amount of information you need to learn in discovery to warrant investing time in crafting a customized software demonstration?

Peter Cohan: I think it’s six elements:

  1. Job title and industry  of the prospect. This allows you to leverage what you have learned from similar prospects or customers for more nuanced and detailed discovery.
  2. Their top-level challenge or critical business issue: this is normally a goal or objective that is at risk.
  3. The reasons why it’s at risk–or the problems putting it at risk. , that’s what’s going on today, why is it a problem, what’s the impact, the pain portion of things, and that’s what most people can do fairly richly.
  4. The specific capabilities the customer’s looking for to solve their problems. That’s critically important from the standpoint of being able to enable a credible demo to take place.
  5. A credible shared assessment of the tangible value of the solution for this customer. We call that the delta. What’s the tangible driving force of making the change? It could be money, it could be people, it could be time, but it needs to be something that’s tangible. And it’s compared to their status quo and other alternatives available to them.
  6. There needs to be a critical date or event by when the customer needs to have a solution in place, otherwise that sales process will drag on for the next 17 years.

[see Stunningly Awful Demos – Insufficient Discovery for more on this.]

How to Manage Competition

Richard Smith: So, the delta is compared against the competition? How do you gain insight about the competition?

Brian Geery: My personal part of the sale would just be to say, “What options are you considering to solve these challenges.” Now, in my mind I know that they can either:

  • do nothing,
  • develop in house,
  • buy from a competitor,
  • buy from me.

But, I don’t know, the minute they start talking about competitors, I feel like we’re talking about something that I don’t want to talk about.

Peter Cohan: I always assume there is competition. At a minimum, the “do nothing” option is always on the table for a customer, so there is always one competitor–to live with the status quo.

A lot of sales methodologies and organizations focus on handling objections, but to me that means that you’ve really failed somewhere along the discovery process. [see Stunningly Awful Demo Outcomes – Why Objections Shouldn’t Need To Be Overcome for more on this.] Assume that you’re battling your typical competitors and prepare explanations and discovery questions that will enable you to outflank the competition.

If there is something that a competitor is not doing during their pre-sale processes explain why you do it and what that enables. So, it’s effectively outflanking them right from the beginning.

For each capability you have that you believe gives you a competitive advantage, you should have one or more example questions in your discovery document that is specifically designed to either rule in, or alternatively rule out, that capability. Just asking a need question like, “How often do you have situations where…?” can lead the customer to answer, “Oh gee, I’d never thought about that. Yeah, that’s really important.” You talk about it a little. You could say, “Well, we have that capability. We’d be delighted to show you that in the demonstration.” You’ve now put a check mark or a tick mark in the box for that capability in discovery, so that now in the demo it becomes a required point of proof, and if your competition can’t offer that same capability. If they don’t have the need you can then shorten the demo to focus on what they care about more. [see Competitive Demo Situations – Biasing Towards Your Strengths for more on this.]

Tips for Effective Discovery Immediately Before a Demo:
How to Handle “Can you just give me a demo?”

Richard Smith: Should discovery should be conducted as a completely separate activity to the demo, or can it be the first part of the demo? Is there a place for discovery to happen momentarily before the demonstration, or is that just madness?

Peter Cohan: Best case, discovery is done separately. And if the customer’s willing and engaged, that’s just a terrific sign. It means that the sales process is going very well, and the buying process is going very well from the customer’s standpoint. They want to be diagnosed. They want to have that conversation where they really want to solve their problem.

However, there are lots of people, and I’m one of them, who want the vendor to get to the point very rapidly. In many cases, I’ll simply say to the vendor, “Just show me a demo.”

There are two techniques you can use in this situation or others–for example on a trade show floor–where you’ve been asked to do a demo without sufficient discovery.

  • Vision-generation is collecting enough informal success stories about how you’ve helped other customers solve their problems, so you can use one or two of those, show an example of a key screen or two to give the customer a vision of what’s possible. And then, the conversation can actually turn very naturally into a discovery session. [For more on this see “Vision-Generation Demos, The Crisp Cure for Stunningly Awful Harbor Tours.”]
  • Menu Approach is particularly useful for organizations that offer broad range of solutions that can be offered, is to use the menu approach. Just as if they the prospect had walked into your restaurant you offer a menu that enables the customer to see what’s possible, and to choose what’s most interesting to them. [For more on this see The Menu Approach – A Truly Terrific Demo Self-Rescue Technique]

You can also do discovery via email: you can begin the discovery call even before you start the conversation. One thing to consider is sending a list of topics in advance, asking the customer identify which they are most interested in covering–this can be yes/no, high/medium/low, or a rank ordering. If they do that, you already know that they’re stepping into the process willingly. If they do it and they give you information where they’ve ranked these things, for example, you’re just that much further along in the process, and it makes the discovery call that much more fruitful. So, you can begin discovery even before you pick up the virtual telephone.

Brian Geery: I’m completely onboard with the vision-generation demonstration concept. I think our job as sales professionals is to persuade prospects it’s in their best interest to have a separate discovery conversation. And prospects will always come, “Oh, hey look. I just want to see the demo, I don’t have time for that.” Well, don’t stop there, explain to them what takes place on a discovery call, how long it takes, how you’ll be efficient with their time, why it will make the demonstration more effective. Don’t simply agree at the first “No, I don’t want to have a discovery call.” Try hard to persuade the prospect, “Hey, it’s in your best interest. It’s in both our best interests.”

Warren Gouws: The menu approach is extremely effective. If they don’t want to offer any information about their situation or needs the other option is to retract. You want to go into this cautiously, but this has been effective for us too, “Without us really understanding and knowing you, Mr. Customer, we have to respectfully decline and step aside, and good luck with the venture, we’re always here for you.”

It can be a strong play because when you take something away they want to know, “Wait a minute, this guy’s willing to walk, what has he got?” This is harder to do when the pipeline is low and targets are at risk but it can definitely improve the ratio of demos to wins because it allows you to do more discovery. If you adopt a “disqualify first” mindset a prospect who does not want provide any details has effectively disqualified themselves.

Delivering More Effective Demos Requires Discovery in Advance

Richard Smith: Absolutely useful approaches there that I think everyone can use. From my personal perspective, you cannot do an effective demo without some discovery in advance. As salespeople, we have to think about our own time. Why do we want to go and spend one hour, an hour and a half, or longer, presenting a solution to someone who has no real need for our software?

Recently I was in a discovery conversation with a sales leader and about 15 minutes into the conversation it became clear that there was no real opportunity and I just ended it there. I know that I’ve seen so many salespeople–I’ve been guilty of this myself–where even though there was a poor discovery call, still push for the demo anyway. Our hope is that our fantastic software will win them over. The reality is that rarely, if ever, that ever happens.

Brian Geery: We only have so many sales minutes in a day, use your sales minutes wisely.

Peter Cohan: Let me offer an observation and a time saving tip. While most sales teams are good at uncovering pain, very few are good at quantifying that pain. Let me give an example of what happens when you uncover pain without quantifying it.

A prospect says, “Our no decision rates are far too high.” And we, as salespeople say, “Great. Let me tell you about a solution that we have for that problem.” Well, it’s too early. When somebody admits pain, you should gently, but firmly, ask two additional questions:

  • What is it today?
  • What would you like it to be in the future?”

This allows you to quantify one element of the value of your solution. Knowing the difference between today and the desired future level allows you to establish a delta that is a tangible expression of value. This delta can now be multiplied by the number of sales people or the number of projects or other relevant and objectively measurable elements to calculate an economic impact for your solution. So, quantifying the pain, getting the delta, is something that sales people could do much better. [See Let’s Talk About Value – Uncovering the Delta for more on this.]

Brian Geery: I would just agree. I like to think of it in terms of what are the consequences of the status quo. So, when I hear a business challenge being expressed, my natural reaction is, “Okay. I’ve got to go further with that.” That’s what I’m thinking in my mind. So, “Tell me more. How long does it take? How many people? What are the … If that didn’t happen, what would you accomplish?” So again, getting to the consequences of the status quo, ideally expressed in dollars and numbers, or percentages. And to your delta, that helps fill the business case for those prospects where you want to have a return on investment, cost justification conversation.

Can You Have Too Many People in a Discovery Conversation?

Richard Smith: A question from Susan in the audience, “We’ve got a lot of groups that want to pile on to our pre-sales discovery, the value engineering, the implementation team, do we push each of those individual teams to have their own respective calls? Or do we just risk the potential of the opportunity going longer?”

Peter Cohan: That’s a tough one. It depends on the complexity of the solution. But I would suggest that you really need to bifurcate this into the business side and the technical side. Generally speaking, that’s sales versus pre-sales. Both may have elements of value engineering and implementation. It’s important to understand when the customer first see value, and it’s not when they cut the purchase order, that is typically a point of high anxiety. It’s important to develop a transition vision jointly with the customer. It’s one of the things we teach in Great Demo Workshops, how to sketch out–in the latter stages of discovery– the key steps of moving from where the customer is currently, through deployment, all the way to the point in time where the customer can declare an internal victory. That has elements of the value equation and implementation embedded into it. [see Transition Vision – “We Love It – But How Are We Going To Get There?” for more on this.]

My experiences are that the people that typically do that process well are salespeople who have a strong understanding of customer’s perception of value and the implementation process. They don’t have to understand implementation in detail, but they need to understand it sufficiently. We teach the same thing to pre-sales folks because, very frankly, the salespeople often have less longevity and lower skills than the pre-sales folks. It’s often incumbent upon pre-sales folks to really drive those whole discovery conversations.

Related Blog Posts and Articles by Panel Members

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Image credit: Liselotte KeizerCo-Creation for Better Idea Generation

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