Artful Discovery in the Sales Process, Part 4

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Welcome back once again to Whiteboard Wednesday, and this is part four in my six-part series on Artful Discovery. As you can see, the topic today is conversation or “interaction” logistics. I figured we’re doing lots of theory and concept and it would probably be good to give at least a little bit of very practical nuts and bolts. What do we do? How do we do this? How do we hold the meeting? Because after all, discovery of course does take place in the context of an interaction, of a human conversation. So it behooves us to have a good plan for doing that.

So you’ve got your discovery meeting set and if all has gone well, I would say you’re targeting somewhere in the 30 to 45 minute range for duration. I’ve written a couple of blogs on why I prefer multiple, shorter interactions than one longer one. So you can read those if you’re interested, but basically, we want to hold this to a certain amount of time and then of course secure another meeting.

So as we go through our best practices, if you will, get your meeting that you’ve negotiated, the conversation, almost the very first thing that you’re going to want to do is schedule for yourself time to prepare. So just as you’ve got a meeting scheduled with your prospect at a specific date and time, you’re going to want to make sure that you’ve got that preparation time allocated as well.

Too often discovery goes poorly simply because we walk in not having done the requisite number of minutes, hours, days, what have you, preparing. So, one of my general rules is, schedule your prep exactly when you’re putting this on your calendar. Then you will know it’s actually going to happen versus hope it happens that day if something comes up. So basically schedule a prep when you put the meeting on your calendar.

Pretty simple, right? Some ground rules here. In general, your prep needs to be a minimum, or at least as long as the meeting you’re going to be having. How are you possibly going to do well for this 30, 45-minute meeting if you’re prepped for five or ten minutes. The old joke of course goes, “When does the salesperson prep for the sales call?” and the response is, “Well, it depends how many floors the elevator ride is up to the client’s office.” I guess I should have said, how much time do they spend prepping for that?

Anyway, in general, we want to spend a good amount of time on our preparation prior to the conversation. Speaking of which, best practices for me is a minimum of three to five business days prior to the conversation. Why? Well, we want to be in a bit of a strategic mode. We want to have our head clear. We might want to bring in other resources from the company to help us out.

What else are good best practices? Well, I will say that one of the things that doesn’t get enough attention (and really needs to) is the concept of an agenda and objectives, sending them in a very formal way to your prospect, having thought through them in your prep session and making sure that both of you are on the same page and ready to have a successful meeting.

So sending out an agenda and objectives every single time is a key best practice in a formal email, and as we will talk about when we deal with what happens after the discovery call, the agenda and objectives can be an opportunity either to cement specific objectives already agreed upon or perhaps even shift objectives and agenda based on what they want.

We’re going to talk a little bit about managing the tension between our desire to gather information and their desire for us to show them and pitch them a solution. So we will talk about that, but essentially this is my opportunity to make sure that we’re not going to enter into the meeting with misaligned objectives.

Speaking of objectives, when we actually have our meeting occur, one of the key best practices that I always recommend salespeople pursue is ensure that when we’re opening a meeting, we do two very important things. One is a time check. If we’ve allotted 30 to 45 minutes for a call, that’s fine. We want to make sure that that still works for them. Too often, we get into a conversation and it’s cut short by a meeting that had just come up last minute, or worse, they’re expecting to spend a couple of hours with us and are disappointed when that’s not happening or we’re not whipping out our laptop to do the demo in the first 40 minutes or 30 minutes, what have you.

The other thing I will say is (one of my little ninja tricks if you will), “What’s new and different?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten to the end of the conversation with a prospect, a discovery call, and at the end of the conversation learned something very key about their job, about their company. Maybe they’re changing departments. Maybe they’re getting promoted. Maybe they’re leaving. Maybe the company has been merged or acquired. It actually would have been really, really nice to know at the beginning of the meeting.

So that’s a pretty key thing to ask here. So best practice number three is “time check” and “what’s new.” I will tell you, you do these two things in every conversation, and that in it of itself will dramatically change your game right there.

So I’m not getting into the specifics of holding a call and the questions we ask. We’ll do that in another session, but suffice it to say we’re getting to the end of the conversation, and now we’ve got to figure out how to bridge to our next conversation. Obviously you’ve heard me say lots of times that the most important aspect of sales is always ensuring that you leave a conversation with the next scheduled interaction. So when will that be? Who’s going to be there? That’s obviously a really key part of the process here, but there is more.

So I will draw a little calendar to indicate next meeting that we’re going to lock in on. (Next Disco) I’m running out of room there, and of course we’re going to deal with our prep session and all that kind of stuff.

So as we’re closing the call and setting up the next meeting, we really want to hone in on, what are the expectations for the next conversation? Is it going to be more discovery, which we really like? Because that’s what this process is all about and we probably have more questions to ask, and some thinking to do, or are we going to go down the road of the demo? Too many times, the prospect is really pushing us for a demo, proposal, etc.

So we really have to think about what we’re going to say? How specifically are we going to frame what we want to do next year that we really want to drive towards this discovery? And more asking questions. We’re not ready to do the demo, to present, to propose, etc. We don’t want to go down that road.

So the framing and the words you say are really going to be important. You’ve got to have ideally in your prep session a good context for how you’re going to bridge the discovery versus stuff in the demo.

One of my preferred techniques is simply to ensure that the prospect knows that I’ve got a lot of information about their company. It has been really useful for me to hear what they have to say and to get the answers to some of the questions, but in my experience I’ve never left a discovery conversation without walking out the door and coming up with two or three more questions that I wish I had asked.

So a lot of times, I’m framing the discovery or the request for the next discovery simply as, “This has been great, but there’s no way that I can possibly have a complete understanding of their business, certainly enough to present a solution that truly will serve them simply by one conversation.” So I want to go back and think about this. I also probably want to go back and consult with / talk with others. Heck, I may even want to go back so I can do a little more research.

So in general what I found is it’s pretty hard for a prospect to push back on that kind of concept that the discovery process is about truly understanding their need, their buying process, how this is going to impact their business, and I’m going to need some time to go and research that, pursue that and make sure that I can really execute on that objective effectively.

We don’t want to go down this road certainly at this point sort of quickly. So I’ve got to have a good framing statement as part of my overall agenda. So I’m just going to say, closing the call and being prepped for that and basically being able to do that in a very artful manner is going to be really, really important.

Another component here, which is something I see salespeople far too often neglect, is the concept of a real, concise but impactful follow-up/recap. We’ve had this whole conversation. Lots of information was shared. Lots of information was exchanged, and I want to make sure to spit that back to my prospect so that first of all, if my understanding is in fact correct, they can confirm that and I can secure any commitments from them that are relevant, but also I want to make sure that I’m checking my understanding of what I think I heard.

So really the follow-up is really about what I heard and confirming that, and somewhat more importantly what “I,” “you,” or “we” agreed to. We call those commitments. What was committed to in this conversation, in this meeting?

Now obviously, simply sending a follow-up is not enough. I’ve got to make sure in my mind that you have a very strong, what I would call, “ask for confirmation.” When I’m sending a follow-up, it’s not simply for my own records. It’s to ensure that I heard what I heard, that they’re going to do what they said they were going to do, and obviously we’re going to meet when we say we’re going to meet

But I’m very structured in my follow-up approach and even in the subject will write something like, “follow-up and confirmation of understanding. Please respond.” So I try to make it a closed loop sort of process where I’m going to send them a follow-up and then I’m also going to get back a response that yes, we are in fact on the same page.

So follow-up and recapping is really, really important. I was mentioning this before that one of the opportunities here of creating a closed loop system, creating this need and ability to, if I kind of complete the picture here, I’m going to have another prep section here. I’m also going to have probably another agenda for the next meeting here.

It’s important to understand that as we manage the tension, the challenge between understanding them and them wanting to hear a solution from us before we’re ready to actually present something that’s meaningful for them, we might leave a meeting with an expectation or a desire by the prospect to go down this road. “Well, I want to see the demo.” “Well, I want to talk technical stuff.” “I want to get a proposal.”

If we follow this process and make sure that the next meeting is scheduled far enough out that we have our prep session here, that we do consistent and very professional follow-up, and we are in the habit of resending, or I should say, sending always an agenda and objectives to our prospects, we have the opportunity, a very unique opportunity to steer the next agenda, and really what I mean by that, another word we use is “guide” the next agenda or the next meeting.

Just because we agreed to bringing an S.E. onto the next call, sales engineer, or doing a demo, or presenting a solution, a lot can happen in between the two meetings and if it’s presented in a very professional manner, and if it’s rational, and most importantly the prospect sees it as in their best interest, (I’m going to put the word “guide” here. So that applies better.) then there’s a strong probability they’re going to go along with it because we are actually trying to understand their need, understand their buying process, understand the impact an investment with us would have. So if it is authentic, we can definitely guide the next agenda to a place that’s not just about figures and functionality, but really keeps us true to this concept of first, we diagnose, then we prescribe.

Anyway, I hope this has been helpful. This is basically a good framework, and you can use this in every one of your discovery conversations. Basically you take the same pattern and you repeat it over and over again. If you follow this and you make sure that your prep is on your calendar so you can actually get it done, if you make sure you got a good habit of sending follow-up emails and basically recapping what we’ve talked about and making sure that we’re on the same page for the next agenda, you can dramatically up the effectiveness of these very, very important conversations.

I invite you to look below. You should see a little link down here that you can click on and that will both subscribe you to this series of videos if you want to receive the rest of them automatically and/or it will also sign you up for my regular articles. I will probably be putting out a couple of things a week. So click the link below. I look forward to seeing you back on the next edition of Whiteboard Wednesday.

-By Townsend Wardlaw

photo credit: Marc Wathieu via photopin cc