Why discovery calls must transcend the ‘problem solving’ philosophy

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The traditional approach to ‘sales discovery’

B2B sales professionals are well versed in the importance of the ‘discovery’ phase in a sales process. Regardless of the sales methodology leveraged, discovering the client’s needs is a bespoke phase in most methodologies. Sales discovery for a long time has been one of the most critical stages in the B2B sales play. The practice of asking prospects about their displeasure, or frustration with their current situation,  provider, the obstacles, and the challenges they face, has been a requisite catalyst to spark the solution-selling conversation.

The discovery phase has traditionally presumed that the client is dissatisfied with their current situation. To be successful as a sales professional, you have to convince them to acknowledge why they feel dissatisfied. The salesperson then progresses to demonstrate how – by leveraging their organisation’s products, services, and offerings – they could help the prospect achieve their business outcomes.

While discovery is still an essential part of the B2B sales play, sales professionals who execute the traditional discovery format find the efficacy of pain-oriented discovery has somewhat diminished. Over time, discovering pains and challenges, like any other, has lost some of its potency. Many variables have contributed to the lowered potency of ‘conventional discovery’.

The buyer is hyper-aware

With the advent of the web, buyers are better informed. Each year, more information surfaces in every domain, thus making the buyer even more aware. Buyers are incrementally more cognisant of the solutions to their problems. They are also aware of the solution providers in their geography who can solve their problems. They are conscious of the pros and cons of dealing with particular providers. They have read the reviews. They have asked their professional and social networks about similar problems and challenges, and they are well versed in the pathways to take.

We are no longer in an era where the ‘all-knowledgeable’ sales professional drops by to conduct a discovery session and help the client arrive at realisations of their situation. Prospects are also not waiting for the salesperson to show up and create a vision of the future state. Buyers today are very aware of their current state, the state they want to be in, and how to get there precisely.

For a long time, sales coaching focused on selling to pain

A significant volume of B2B sales literature over the past 30-40 years has guided salespeople to sell to pain. The focus of sales books, training courses, professional selling workshops and enterprise sales development programs has primarily been to coach professional B2B salespeople to uncover and sell to pain. A large percentage of sales leaders (and even business leaders) grew through the ranks, learning how to communicate their value proposition by positioning to pain. These business and sales leaders learnt the sales vernacular that fits aptly with uncovering pain.

Selling to pain involves bringing the pain to the surface by asking questions about a prospect’s existing situation, the problems they face and the implications of these problems if left unresolved. This style of selling involved (and still does) subtle degrees of manipulation and, dare I say, scaremongering. This style of ‘selling to pain’ worked for a long while. The entire buying-selling gamut operated with this philosophy. But things evolved, as they always do.

Enter the visionaries

The 2000s have witnessed a lot of innovation. The rise of the commercial web, the advent of social media and disruptions galore have ushered in an era of entrepreneurs and impresarios who want to create, innovate and disrupt. They are not necessarily waiting to hear from someone who will remove their pains and problems or eliminate their challenges. They are adept and skilled at solving problems. They seek partners. They seek enablers. They want to work with trusted advisors. People they can count on, seek advice from and bring into their inner sanctum to advance their mission. They are not only willing to collaborate, but it is also their preferred method of working. They want to grow themselves personally and professionally. They want their businesses to succeed and they want the same for the people they lead. 

This new generation of entrepreneurs also want good things from their supply chain partners. If you approach them through the lens of SPIN selling, you are almost certain to lose them. They are visionaries, and they seek visionary partners. They are disruptors and innovators, and they seek business allegiances with professionals who are okay to tell them how things are within their business and what (better) solutions might be available to them.

From Discovery to Exploration

In conventional sales discovery, the objective is to ask questions that induce your prospective client to reveal their dissatisfaction, which is required for you to generate an opportunity. A more apposite and collegial approach is that of Exploration. Here, the sales professional approach the prospect as a plausible partner. In exploration, the concept of discovery expands to embrace various ways and outcomes to approach the current state and chart pathways for the future state. Dare I say that exploration requires a higher degree of business acumen, know-how and sales expertise.

Exploration increases the likelihood of creating new opportunities by allowing for not only the exploration of known problems, challenges, or dissatisfactions but also by creating a positive space to explore the future steps needed to enable the client to arrive at the desired state. The client may not necessarily be dissatisfied with their current state. But the exploratory sales professional embraces the client’s desired journey and enables pathways to better outcomes on that trajectory. Furthermore, dissatisfaction is not the only trigger for change. The modern generation of sellers know this, and they live this. Their talk patterns are not negative. Their modus operandi is not fear-based. They investigate change through a positive lens – a lens of exploration with the philosophy of advisory.  

Exploration allows you to examine change when the client’s discontent may not yet be at a level that drives change, allowing you to convey the context that should motivate the client to act.

Consensus building is still mandatory

Whether you apply the lens of discovery or one of exploration, you still need to engage with a wider pool of professionals if you are to partner with your buyers. Traditional sales discovery, while valuable, tends to lose momentum across several parties. 

Not everyone in the executive committee you must convince of the problem shares the same views. Not everyone you are trying to build consensus with thinks in the same way about the problem or allocates the same degree of gravity to the problem. For example, you might communicate with a CIO regarding a specific challenge or problem. You might successfully uncover the pain of the CIO with their particular challenge; however, in the absence of the executive committee’s four or five other members, you will not accurately learn about the validity or gravity of the problem across the buying committee.

This is where exploration is a better approach. Exploring all plausible opportunities across the committee allows you to gain a good read on each committee member, what is important to them, what their goals and objectives are, etc. Exploration helps gain a distinct perspective on opportunity creation, beginning with the notion that you are investigating a change that will require the backing of numerous stakeholders.

Subtle as the difference between pain-oriented discovery and exploration may seem, the impact of executing on the subtlety is great. Pain-oriented discovery is not as potent as a genuine exploration of the buyer’s current status and where they wish to be. Discovery leans more on the questioning style and getting a client to the realisations surrounding pain and challenges. Exploration goes beyond the realms of insight selling and trusted advisory.

The journey to trusted advisory

The journey from pain-oriented discovery to collaborative exploration requires the sales professional to adopt an advisory mindset. Here are some tips to help salespeople navigate their next exploration call with finesse:

Assess the prospect’s existing assumptions

A question that challenges the client’s assumptions allows you to begin a conversation about change, as opposed to a question that elicits the client’s existing difficulties. A conversation about pain, problems and challenges is an inherently negative conversation. A conversation about the client’s assumptions around their business, situation, future state, etc., is not necessarily negative. It is a conversation querying the actual assumptions they make. It is a neutral conversation. Questions such as, “Which elements are most important to achieving the desired outcomes?” or “Which assumptions are included in your planning?” or “Which factors have you taken into account while creating the financial model?” allow for a more open and collaborative dialogue around the client’s assumptions.

Expose the conflict between the prospect’s existing state and a new reality

Questions that prompt the prospect to see the conflict between what they are doing at the moment and what a new reality demands will also enhance the conversation’s outcome. The aim here is not to point out the problems with the current situation and the impact of those problems on the prospect’s business. The conversation here is a collaborative one comparing the current state to the future state and the existing gap without dwelling on the pain. Questions such as “Have you considered making changes that would help to improve the end outcome? If you haven’t started yet, may I offer a few suggestions?” go a long way in commencing the camaraderie.

Connect the prospect’s environment with their present state

One strategy to go from “Why us?” to “Why change?” is to assist your prospect in understanding the relationship between their current state and the forces that are influencing, or will influence, their future state. This conversation here should stem from your knowledge and expertise of the domain, the industry, the PESTEL factors affecting the industry, etc. Questions such as “We find the following forces and trends are impacting the organisations in your industry. Which of these are impacting your firm?”

Replace the prospect’s existing assumptions

Changing a buyer’s assumptions and beliefs about their situation or best direction forward is difficult, especially if these beliefs have been in place for a while. To help break existing beliefs and predominant attitudes, leverage data. Questions like “If new data provided you with the chance to make different decisions, what would you be open to doing?” help replace the client’s existing assumptions or get them thinking about it. 

Assist the prospect in evaluating their readiness to change

Do not undervalue the prospect’s need for assistance navigating the necessary changes to deploy your solution. To maintain control throughout the journey, salespeople must ascertain what the prospect believes they must do to proceed. “How would you evaluate your team’s readiness to adopt a new set of assumptions and the necessary changes required?” followed by “Who must be included in discussions regarding the change?” are questions that can help. 

How can Resonate help transition your sales discovery from problem orientation to trusted advisory?

B2B salespeople must transition from ‘problem-oriented’ discoveries to exploratory engagement, which has a trusted advisor philosophy. Salespeople must audit their current approach to discovery before constructing an entirely new strategy that positions them as a ‘trusted advisor’ to their prospects. They must grow knowledge levels beyond the prospect’s problems to a more robust understanding of their customer’s business and industry dynamics. This domain expertise will prove invaluable to prospects, particularly compared to competitor salespeople still employing the outdated problem-solving technique. At Resonate, we have deep expertise in B2B sales. If you would like help assessing your current approach to sales discovery, please connect with me (rk@resonate.com.au or 0412 517 237).

RK is the CEO & Co-Founder of Resonate.

RK is Resonate’s chief strategist, thought leader, and IT industry veteran. Our clients depend on RK to advise on their business strategy, channel strategy, and sales strategy. 

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