Executive Sales Training | Artful Discovery | Closing Deals

Executive Sales Training – The Art of Mastering Discovery

Artful Discovery – Why Telling Ain’t Selling

For the past four months, I have been focused on a significant client project. Like most of my engagements the charter is simple – repair an ineffective sales organization within an otherwise healthy company that has a valuable and highly differentiated service offering.

To date, we have rewired the demand creation / lead generation process and are generating as many qualified opportunities as our sales executives can handle at a cost that is less than 3% of the first year revenue for a closed-won opportunity. For those of you that don’t stare at these numbers all day, I’ll just say that is above world-class performance. Additionally, we have framed the opportunity management and forecasting process to provide a degree of forward-looking visibility and predictability that this company has never seen before.

So Why Is My Client So Pissed Off at Me?

To be fair, pissed off is probably not the right term. We have spirited debates on a regular basis and last week we got into it a bit deeper than we usually do. You see, he is frustrated because we have set a land-speed record for fixing what appear to be the two most vexing components of the sales process (lead generation and pipeline management). However, we are not yet generating the level of revenue necessary to justify the investments he is making to grow the company.

The Problem:

Stated simply, we are generating a significant volume of (truly) qualified leads AND converting an appropriate number of pipeline opportunities to closed-won. However, we are struggling with the conversion of qualified leads into to a pipeline opportunity.

By the Numbers:

For those wondering how I can be so confident of what is working and what is not I’ll disclose we have very specific and objective qualification criteria. Additionally, each meeting is audited and every completed meeting is ‘graded’ by the sales executive as well as audited by a sales admin resource to ensure process compliance.

To Date:

  • Less than 18% of meetings result in a ‘Not Qualified’ rating – meaning a warm body showed up but the qualification criteria were not met and the meeting should never have happened.
  • 25% of meetings result in a ‘Qualified – Opportunity Advance’ designation – meaning that specific opportunity advances to the pipeline and will be worked through to closure (win or loss).
  • The balance – 57% – result in a ‘Qualified – Future Opportunity’ assessment. This means a fit exists but, for whatever reason, the sales executive was unable to advance the opportunity to pipeline status.
  • A sub 20% ‘bad meeting’ rate is world class. It is the last category – ‘Qualified / Future Opportunity’ and its impact on the ‘Qualified – Opportunity Advance’ category that represents our current dilemma.

This is, in fact, a very common problem and is also the most challenging to solve because it requires a sales team that can perform what I refer to as ‘Artful Discovery’.

Fundamentally, the difference between a ‘qualified-now’ versus ‘qualified-later’ result is the degree to which a sales professional can probe for need (pain/gain) rather than rely on the prospect’s own conscious awareness of need.

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

In a typical ‘discovery’ meeting, the sales executive will spend 3-5 minutes on introduction and framing. This is followed by a whopping 7-10 minutes of ‘needs analysis’ questions followed immediately by launching into full product-pitch-demo-feature-dump-assault mode.

Keep in mind, our typical client prospect has been in business from 10 to 15 years. They are successful and extremely knowledgeable within their chosen field. For any sales executive to believe the information they gather in less than 15 minutes earns them the right to propose a solution that meets the clients needs and ask them to invest in that solution is laughable.

Where Has Artful Discovery Gone?

The majority of salespeople have been trained to pitch first and ask questions later (or sometimes not at all). The number of companies I have worked with who insist ‘just show them the demo’ is the fastest path to revenue are too many to count. As a result, buyers have been conditioned to expect a sales pitch and resist attempts to genuinely engage in a dialogue that might uncover their true needs. The salesperson-client relationship has devolved to a cheap game of ‘show me what you can do and I’ll decide if it’s something I need’.

I’m not going to bother explaining why this approach is fundamentally dysfunctional and wastes time and resources except to quote the statistic that more than 75% of lost deals are a result of No Decision!

Most organizations, it seems, have forgotten the maxim: ‘Telling ain’t selling.’

What’s So Complicated about Artful Discovery?

At the core, Artful Discovery is a completely different process than demand creation prospecting and closing. It requires a completely different set of skills and may even require a different set of DNA.

Demand creation prospecting is a linear process with a finite number of variables. In practice, effective prospecting is a result of scenario mapping. The reason my approach to this works so well is that it maps demand creation prospecting into a repeatable process.

With respect to closing, I don’t believe closing represents a rare or complicated skill in the context of a high intimacy, relationship sale. Once a prospect’s specific need has been identified and captured in a quantifiable manner, selling itself is a fairly straightforward matter of solution presentation and value justification.

The challenge and the art lie in uncovering true need, this requires mastery of a technique I refer to as Directed Inquiry, which requires non-linear thinking and takes lots of training and coaching.

Similar to psychotherapy, the objective of Directed Inquiry is to navigate past symptomatic or presenting issues and probe for the underlying cause or true need. Expecting a prospect to acknowledge their true need during an initial discovery is a lot like a therapist expecting a patient to acknowledge a ‘deep anger and resentment towards their parents’ during the first visit.

Artful Discovery is a process rather than a single event. It can take 30 minute, three weeks, three months or three years! As I to say to the sales teams I coach, “it’s done when it’s done”. The ultimate goal is to postpone pitching until you fully understand the prospect’s need in terms that are both specific and measurable.

Understandably, it is rare for complete and thorough discovery to take place before we succumb to pressure, whether that is from the prospect, our superiors, or our own impatience, to present a solution.

For me, the key metric is how long a salesperson can ‘last’ before entering into their pitch. This is something we can focus on and measure and improve upon week-over-week and year-over-year.

Mastering Artful Discovery

As with most skills or behaviors, simply drawing attention to the key metric puts you on the road to improvement. Start by measuring how long into your client-prospect conversation (measured in minutes) you can hold out before you find yourself telling them about yourself, your company, your product, and how you can help them.

Notice your own natural ‘pitch reflex’, and don’t beat yourself up when this happens. Instead look for ways to redirect back to Discovery. When you find yourself rambling on about product features or easy financing options simply use a ‘self interrupt’ technique to get back to asking questions. Nothing fancy, just stop yourself mid-sentence and try something like, “but I’m getting ahead of myself. Tell me more about your plans for…

Finally, accept that a true discovery conversation will feel very different from what you and your prospect are accustomed to. You should expect a certain degree of discomfort and anxiety from the process. This discomfort, in fact, means you are on the right path – seeking answers to questions others have not and developing a degree of customer intimacy that your competitors will envy.

By Townsend Wardlaw
photo credit: hebedesign via photopin cc