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If the intention of your discovery questions is to elicit a problem so you can sell your "solution," you are not really doing discovery. Instead, you are positioning whatever it is you sell. While there is nothing wrong with asking questions about your client's challenges, this line of questioning doesn't create value for your contacts, as they are well aware of their problems.

The Intention to Identify the Root Cause

There is a difference between asking a question to elicit a problem and a question that cause your prospective client to understand why they have the problem in the first place.

Let's use an example from our domain, consultative B2B sales. You sit down across from your prospective client, a Vice President of Sales. This VP suggests that her team is struggling to acquire new meetings, even though they have a lot of activity. Your intention is to help the client uncover the root cause of their poor results. Because you know it's not an activity problem, your client needs to look elsewhere to identify the root cause.

When your intention is to help the client realize the nature of their problem, you might ask: "What is the value proposition for the meeting your team is pursuing?" You can accuse me of leading the witness, and you wouldn't be wrong. But your accusation would expose the view that your questions are supposed to provide you with information about their problem instead of asking a question where the client learns something important to their future results.

african american man in sales meeting

The Intention to Differentiate

When there is no difference in experience between one salesperson's approach and another's, the discovery call has been commoditized, something that was accomplished by the wide adoption of solution selling. When the topics are always in the same order and delivered the same way, you are differentiating in the exact same way as your competitors.

It helps to have better discovery questions, ones that lead to an experience that is valuable to your client, and questions that help them recognize what they need to improve their results. A question like, "Have you already decided which model in our industry you believe will serve you best?" You can be certain your prospective client doesn't know there are four different ways companies deliver the value.

The One Up strategy you will find in Elite Sales Strategies: A Guide to Being OneUp, Creating Value, and Becoming Truly Consultative, is built on the idea: "I know something you don't know. May I share it with you?"

Just by asking the question about the choice of approaches available to the client, you have taught them something important about their future decisions and the better results they need. You might ask a follow-up question in this same line designed to differentiate and position you as the right partner: "There are a few companies that create value by having the lowest price, and it's important to know the set of concessions you will need to make. Are you aware of these concessions and how they harm your overall results?"

Now, without naming any competitor, you have already taught the client to be wary of the low price options, putting them on guard by informing them they will be consenting to a set of concessions that were not disclosed. This is not the right approach if you happen to have the low price, high concession model.

businessman showing clients documents

The Intention to Update Your Client's Assumptions

Imagine ten years ago your client made a decision like the one they are now pursuing. At the time, they had a set of assumptions that were used to guide their decision. Over the last decade, so much has changed in their industry, your industry, and just about everything else in the client's world. The outdated assumptions need an update. You have to break their anchor and replace it with a new one.

I prefer to ask clients for permission when it is not necessary and to not ask for permission when it is necessary, as it seems to produce better results. A question like, "Has anyone briefed you on the current data and the implications you might expect over the next twelve months?" Your client is going to answer in the negative, allowing you to ask the follow-up question, "Would it be helpful for me to share it with you?"

The question here is designed to replace old assumptions with new ones, ones that will allow the client to make a better decision for their business, and that will allow them to improve their results. I don't want you to miss the value of this approach. While the outdated approach to discovery is focused on finding a problem, these questions are removing problems.

In these three different intentions, we have exposed the root cause, we have differentiated our approach and helped the client avoid a bad decision, and replaced their outdated assumptions.

client learning from salesman

The Limit of Your Discovery

The limit of your discovery is the limit of the value you create. There is little value from an approach where your questions are only designed to extract a problem that is solved by whatever you sell. The legacy approach believes the solution is the value, even though the solution creates no value until your prospective client buys it.

This means all the value you need to create is going to be limited to the sales conversation, with the largest opportunity to create value in discovery. The better your questions, the better your results. But designing those questions means first determining what is the intention of your questions and how best to ask the question.

The art of discovery is not to ask only about a problem, but to help your prospective client improve their results. While some part of those better results will be delivered by whatever you sell, a broader set of intentions will allow you to create the greater value that would cause your prospect to prefer to buy from you.

Post by Anthony Iannarino on April 23, 2022
Anthony Iannarino
Anthony Iannarino is a writer, an author of four books on the modern sales approach, an international speaker, and an entrepreneur. Anthony posts here daily.
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