Executing a first discovery call with a potential buyer can be a bit of a tug-of-war on what's discussed first and second and so forth, but many times a B2B salesperson finds themselves in a call situation where it was not possible to set an agenda before the first discovery call. And just because the buyer is in control doesn't mean you're prohibited from asking permission to walk through a set of specific questions about their situation. While it's fair to assume at least a moderate level of seriousness coming from your buyer, keep in mind that that same seriousness and intentionality applies to you in taking the lead on questioning, or, asking for a redirect to another subject (so long as you state that you'll get right back to the question they asked that you're diverting from).
Intelligent questions not only disclose intentions, they reveal assumptions and place the burden of affirmation or denial on the listener. What's often overlooked is that a majority of all questions are in some way actually statements in disguise. Questions like ‘what is your need?’ or ‘How can I help you?’ are essentially translated as: ‘I want to know what’s bothering you.’ and “I’m here on this call to listen.” An easy name to remember this approach by is 'creative questioning', the word 'creative' meant to imply that you ask things that are not normally asked, but are related. In the field of inbound marketing (the services for which can sometimes take some time to fully explain), there is often only 60 minutes for a discovery call, or 15 minutes on an intro/qualifying call, to make better use of their time than anyone else they talk to that day.
Every question you choose to ask assumes that the subject of the question is crucial. There can be no extraneous or trivial questions with this type of discovery. Creative questioning assumes that what your questions reveal or assume are as important as the answers you get from them. Today I’m going to give you the 6 areas of creative questioning that, in chronological order, you can cover in a discovery call in 60 minutes or less.
Asking about needs on a discovery call is a given. But there are a hundred different ways to do it. Here’s what I ask and how I ask it, from the very start, without allowing my prospect to immediately thrust me into the deep weeds of their problem and without allowing them to skip the overview of the problem:
- Would you mind fully describing to me, until the point where you can’t add anything else, what the need, problem, or challenge is here, and who besides yourself has as much of a stake as you do in seeing this problem solved?
- How long has this been a problem, and how does this affect your role and work there?
- Let’s say you decide to work with us on this, and we meet this need with flying colors. “Once that’s accomplished, what will that mean for you? What’s next after success with this?”
Depending on how well you’ve mastered communicating about your product or service, and how long you’ve been in your field, answers to these questions can eliminate the need for other questions. They can tell you about things like related problems, their stake in it, the level of current pain, other decision-makers that may need to be involved in your foregoing discussions, and even whether they are solving for the right problem.
A good 10 to 15 minutes spent on the need or the problem should usually give you the level of urgency they’re working from, which then means that you need to immediately make sure that your company has the capacity to start working on ANY solution within the timeframe they’re expecting. This helps not waste your time or the prospect's time, and again is another gesture of respect accomplished by creative questioning. For timeline, ask:
- How soon did you want to decide on a partner and solution, and get this project started?
- Unless they give more than a date and/or timeframe, your next question should be:
- “Why so soon?”, or “Why later and not sooner?”
Know how soon you prefer to close a sale before you ask this. Nothing is more awkward and frustrating for both parties than a desperate salesperson. Today’s educated buyers are already aware that you’re not on the phone for your health, so use creative questioning as a means to align with their pace and rhythm, and work hard to find the question where they reply, “Now that’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about that.”
Talking about revenue or budget availability can be sensitive but crucial for mutually worthwhile discovery. What I’m about to say is going to sound counterintuitive: Salespeople today still make the mistake of think that you can talk about revenue at the same time that you talk about budget availability. Though related, they are different. For creative questioning, keep them separate. Let me explain. When you’re talking about revenue, or what their sales targets are, ask about it in these ways:
- (If/where applicable) Where would this company like to be financially one year from now? How many new customers/sales do you want, and do you have a number committed to that goal?
- I think it’s unwise to merely ask “Do you have any revenue goals?” It’s a fine question but it’s a bit rote and rudimentary. What my lengthier question up above is asking is this: Can you speak for the company’s direction and future? Rising costs in a more heavily services-based economy make assessing their budget availability a mandatory goal for the call. More of an art than a science, knowing how conservative or ambitious their revenue goals are will many times tell you their level of financial preparedness for your service.
Remembering that they just got through talking about goals, and if they are still engaged in talking about revenue, continue to press its significance by moving to strategy:
- Are you doing anything new or different with any strategy at your company that you think might, or could, inform the kind of work we do? (This assumes that they are by this point at least basically familiar with what you do.)
- If you happen to know, where did the inspiration or motivation for those revenue goals come from? In other words what, if anything, is driving the desire to consider a solution like ours to help meet those goals?
Most people assess interest first, before needs, timeline, or revenue. I don’t because they are already on the phone. But how serious they are is still an important thing to know, and you may not get another first chance to ask. Unless they give you a timeline that delays their decision by more than a few weeks, you really do need to ask the following interest-related question first:
- How did you find us, and who or what started the process of looking for someone like us to meet this need? (or solve this problem?) This question is important not just for taking good notes on their situation, but also for setting up the next question to strengthen or check their level of interest.
- If you chose to work with us, and we knocked it out of the park, what would your reputation stand to gain from us being successful on your behalf? People don’t buy 100 percent on emotion alone, but salespeople still don’t give enough credit to the often strong and personal emotions involved in a decision-maker’s choices.
I know what you’re asking: Didn’t you already talk about budget earlier? Yes, but no question was yet asked directly about it, and it was only in contrast with revenue. When it comes time for budget, do not ask: “So, how much money were you wanting to spend on this?”, or, “How much budget have you set aside for a service like ours?”. Ask this instead:
- “If any, what were your budget expectations for the kind of work we do?”
- Have you ever worked with an agency like us before?
- Or, if the revenue goals earlier seemed unrealistic to you, consider carefully whether to lead with “Would it be alright if I asked if you’re considering other agencies to engage with on this problem?” If their appetite is bigger than their stomach, then you’ll have to shed light on your industry and specific kind of work, and why it is so valuable, before you tell them what your price ranges are.
By now in a call, if you haven't gotten to decision-making authority as a topic, a good question set will itself tell you the authority level of the person you've been speaking with. However, if you're fairly certain even before talking with them that you're entering into a multiple-stakeholder sale, you can't skip decision-making identification. In any case, discussing authority is often more optional than not. Also, do not assume permission. Adding or subtracting parties to a sales discussion in an age where the buyer is in control is not a simple move. Here is a tactical example of how to word the question about decision-making authority:
- Would it be alright if I asked if the decision for this rests ultimately with you?
Walking a buyer through questions following these categories will both tell you what you need to know (the real goal of the call), but also equally show your prospect a sense of organization, focus, and forethought (a smart buyer will realize that you'll bring those same things to the work you do for their business). It will show them your desire and intent to be effective, efficient, unhurried (because great questions actually require pause for thought), and always putting them first when formulating a solution.