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Warning: Don’t Have Your Discovery Call Without Reading This First

Salesperson on the phone asking questions during a discovery call
Your discovery call should uncover your prospect’s wants, needs, and motivations, so you can position your solution as the thing that can help them win long-term. [Adobe]

A discovery call is more than a list of questions to check off. It’s your chance to uncover a pressing pain that only you can solve.

In 1905, Frederick Wells was 18 feet underground in a South African mine when he saw something shiny — a diamond. Half the size of a brick, it was the largest ever found. Today, the estimated value of the Cullinan Diamond is $400 million.

Imagine the sensation he felt in that moment, the sensation of discovery. If you’re a sales rep, you might recognize it. You’re on a discovery call with a prospect, searching for a justification to pitch your product, when all of a sudden, there it is: a bright, expensive problem that only you can solve. 

Below is the science of running a great discovery call for every deal — how to prepare, what to say, and how to make it shine.

What you’ll learn:

What is a discovery call?
Why are discovery calls important?
What questions should I ask prospects in a discovery call?
Tips for how to run a discovery call
Example of a discovery call script

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What is a discovery call?

A discovery call is a conversation with a prospect early in the sales process, meant to determine if a customer is right for a product and find motivations that will help you make the sale. The discovery call happens after the prospect has shown interest in your company and converted from a cold lead to a warm opportunity.

For more complex sales, the discovery call may run for multiple calls involving multiple stakeholders, requiring you to do deep dives with each. And, although we’re discussing discovery calls as a step in the sales process, discovery is in fact a constant from lead to close. Every conversation brings new changes in an opportunity, and sellers need to stay curious and keep verifying and digging as they sell.

Why are discovery calls important?

Discovery calls give the sales rep insights into the prospect’s pains and goals, which helps them pitch the right products effectively. The discovery call is also your chance to build trust, credibility, and rapport, qualities that will help you deepen the relationship and close the deal.

Here are the key benefits of a discovery call:

  • Finding a problem that only you can solve. This is the diamond in the mine. A discovery call helps you find the core pain point that allows you to pitch your solution in the most compelling way, and tell the story of how you can help the business.
  • Gathering information that will help you close later. Asking the right questions in discovery allows you to uncover the prospect’s buying process, the decision-makers who need to be involved, and the resources they’ll need to shore up before they can sign on the dotted line. This will help you prepare for the later stages in the sales process, including evaluation, negotiation, quote, and close.
  • Demonstrating trust, credibility, and rapport. Eighty-seven percent of business buyers expect sales reps to act as trusted advisors, according to the latest State of Sales report. They want to know that you have their best interests at heart, and that you know what you’re talking about. It’s why you never show up to a discovery call empty-handed. Come to the table with insights about their company, a vision for an ideal outcome, and ideas of how to get there.

What questions should I ask prospects in a discovery call?

The best discovery call questions help you find out where the prospect is in the moment (their status quo) versus where they want to go (their ideal state). It allows you to assure them that you can bridge that gap. If you’re feeling stuck, come back to the POWERFUL framework. It stands for: Problem, Opportunity cost, Wants, Executive influence, Resources, Fear of failure, Unequivocal trust (yeah I kinda had to turn a T into a U there), and Little things.

Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these:

(P)roblem

Your core task during a discovery call is to uncover the prospect’s pain and the root cause behind it. Imagine you’re at the dentist with some tooth sensitivity. The dentist gives you an exam and shares the diagnosis: You have gum disease, and if you don’t get treated now, the problem will only get worse. Now your focus has shifted from the symptom to the root cause, and you understand the urgency of solving it. 

Don’t end a discovery call without uncovering that level 10 pain. Go beyond the sensitive tooth and find the exposed nerve. 

Questions to ask:

  • What’s your biggest priority this year? 
  • What are the obstacles that stand in your way?
  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What’s the biggest problem you hope to solve?
  • How have you tried solving it and how did it go?

(O)pportunity cost

Once you’ve diagnosed the problem, turn it into a number. The opportunity cost is the amount of money that it would cost to not solve the problem. You want to show that the status quo is expensive. How will their current pain impact the business a year from now? Maybe they’ll shrink instead of grow, not be able to hire, or miss their goals. 

To define the opportunity cost, quantify their expenses and deficiencies of doing business today (for example, operational inefficiencies or distraction from strategic work). Then, compare that to the return on investment that your product can deliver instead. This may take time and require more conversations later in the sales process.

Questions to ask:

  • What is the cost of your current solution? And the cost of running the team using it? 
  • If you stick with the status quo, how much will you spend in the coming year?
  • What are the metrics you use to measure success and how does your solution impact it?
  • What are the benefits (e.g. revenue growth, cost savings, operational efficiency, productivity) you hope to achieve with a new solution?

(W)ants

Your discovery call should uncover your prospect’s wants, needs, and motivations, so you can position your solution as the thing that can help them win long-term.

Prod them to go beyond their immediate problem and see the long-term dream outcome for their career and company. For example: “It would be great to solve this problem.” Why? “So we’ll hit our target.” And then? “Then we’ll get funding.” After that? “Then we can add a new product line?” And then? “We can go public.” 

Questions to ask:

  • What are your goals for next year? What do you need to get there?
  • What’s your long-term vision for the company?

(E)xecutive influence

Use the discovery call to identify stakeholders you’ll need to involve later to get the deal done, so you can start nurturing those relationships early on. Find out the economic decision-maker (the person responsible for the budget), the champion (someone at the prospect’s company who can advocate for the sale on your behalf), and the approvers (people from departments like finance and procurement who are responsible for approving new vendors and products).

Questions to ask:

  • For similar purchases, who was involved in the decision-making process?
  • What evaluation criteria are you using for this solution?
  • What’s the purchase approval process like? 
  • How will you make the case to your manager and colleagues?

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(R)esources

Confirm that the prospect has the funds available to purchase your solution. If the prospect can’t confirm they have the funds, don’t let that stop you. The task turns to making the case for why this would be a transformational deal with big ROI. Re-articulate the pain if they stick with the status quo versus the benefit if they go with your solution. The contrast should be strong enough to open even the tightest wallets. 

The fact is, we can find the resources to relieve level 10 pain, even if those resources are not available right now. A few years ago, I got a surprise tax bill for $15,000 after a stock event. I hadn’t budgeted for that $15k, but you can be sure I found the money to pay it!

Questions to ask:

  • What’s your approximate budget?
  • If we were able to help you solve your problem, would you be able to access more funds?

(F)ear of failure

As you dig on the discovery call, you’ll eventually hit that bottom we all have: fear of failure. This fear goes both ways. It’s the fear of inaction as well as the fear of taking the wrong action. Guide them to face this fear objectively by looking at the things they’ve already tried to solve their problem and the results they’ve had so far.

Questions to ask:

  • What have you done so far to solve the problem?
  • What has and hasn’t worked with those efforts?

(U)nequivocal trust

Trust isn’t just about knowing the answers. It’s also about showing that you care. Think back to the dentist example. Would you want a dentist who rattles off a bunch of disease names and treatment options? Or would you want a dentist who listens to your concerns intently and asks follow-up questions to ensure your concerns are addressed and you feel comfortable with the treatment? 

Build trust by coming to the table with knowledge of the industry, the business, and your contacts inside and out, and demonstrating genuine concern. That means taking time to get to know the person you’re talking to, listening authentically, and being authentic in how you respond.

Questions to ask:

  • What drives you to feel satisfied in your role? 
  • I talk to a lot of people in x role in y industry, and here’s what I’m seeing. Does that resonate with you? 
  • Is there anything I can do to help you in the short-term?

(L)ittle things

It wouldn’t be a discovery call without taking care of the housekeeping. Identify the important details you’ll ultimately need to finalize the proposal, like the number of seats or users for a software license, the current state of their supply chain, or the cadence of their professional services. You’re trying to get a sense of things like whether customization will be needed and what pricing structure you should propose later on. 

Questions to ask:

  • [Depending on your offering, ask about the specifications that will determine the product or service tiers and bundles you eventually pitch.]

Tips for how to run a discovery call

To run a great discovery call, research the prospect’s company and industry, set an agenda, follow the POWERFUL framework, and end with an action item to keep the conversation moving. Speed the whole process up with software that takes notes for you and recommends best actions to take. Here are guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Know your prospect. Prepare for the call by understanding the state of your prospect’s business. Try to step into their shoes if you can. (Literally. If you’re trying to sell to Adidas, go buy a pair of Adidas shoes and experience them for yourself.) For industry insights, connect regularly with customers and subject matter experts at your organization. For insights about the individual prospect, use internet research. (A CRM that serves you relevant account and opportunity insights before every customer interaction would also be a good bet.)
  • Keep the calls under 60 minutes, and 30 if you can. The length of a discovery call depends on the type of product you’re selling. A discovery call will be 20 to 30 minutes for a simple transactional sale, and up to an hour across multiple calls for a complex enterprise sale. That’s because larger deals will generally require more in-depth discovery and a deeper relationship.
  • Prepare an agenda in advance. Whatever the length of your call, it’s often the case that it goes by way too fast. To prevent it from veering off track, share an agenda before the meeting and spend the first couple minutes of your discovery call going over it so everyone’s on the same page. Ask the prospect if they have anything to add before you begin.
  • End with a clear action item. To make sure your discovery call converts, leave a full five minutes at the end to properly set up the next step. Common action items at this stage are giving a demo, having a technical conversation with a broader group, or sending a follow-up packet of supporting materials. If your next step involves a meeting, try to schedule it right there and then. 

Example of a discovery call script

The best sellers will begin with an example discovery call script like the one below, and switch it up to make it their own. You’re not just adding your own spin, but also adapting to the prospect’s needs and communication style. 

Here’s a script for you to get going:

Hi, Patty Prospect. [Introduce yourself and your company.] I know you’ve [shown X interest and are coming here by way of Y].

I [read your article about X; believe that we both know Y person; can see that you have two fluffy cats fighting in the background]. Can you tell me more about that?

Today, I want to discuss [agenda]. Does that sound good? Is there anything you’d like to add or focus on in particular?

First, can you tell me about your role? What are your priorities this coming year? 

I speak with a lot with folks in X roles in Y industry, and I hear a lot about Z challenge. Do you also face that challenge? How does that impact your day to day?

What have you done to try to solve it and how did that go?

What are the benefits you hope to achieve with a new solution?

What are the costs involved with your current setup? What are the metrics you use to measure success? And how has your current solution stacked up so far?

[Share relevant insights about how your product is uniquely positioned to help address the prospect’s challenges. Describe the return on investment that your product can offer.] 

To achieve [desired outcome they mentioned], it can range between [provide price range]. How does that align with what you had in mind?

Can you tell me a little bit about the purchasing process at your company? Who else will be involved and what are they looking for? 

I’d love to show you how our solution works and how it can help. Can we schedule a demo for next week? Is there anyone else we can include? 

Great! We’ll get that on the books. In the meantime, watch out behind you. Your cats seem to be staring at you in a pretty menacing way. 

Every closed deal begins with great discovery

After Wells discovered the Cullinan Diamond, the mining company still had work to do. They had to find a buyer (the King of England eventually), transport it, and cut it. So yes, the discovery was just the beginning, but one thing was for sure: A few people were about to get rich. The discovery call may just be one step of many, but the information you gather and the early trust you build will carry you through to the end.

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Your prospects want to engage with you over their preferred channels and during their preferred times. Let them. Sales Engagement helps you meet your buyers where they already are with automation and insights to speed everything up every step of the deal. 

sales influencers marcus chan
Marcus Chan Founder and President, Venli Consulting Group

Marcus Chan is the Founder of Venli Consulting Group. He helps account executives sell and earn $100,000+ each year through his coaching and training programs. Marcus is an official member on the Forbes Business Council and has also been featured in Forbes, Yahoo! Finance, MarketWatch, and more. He is a 3X Salesforce Top Sales Influencer and Wall Street Journal Best Selling author of Six-Figure Sales Secrets.

More by Marcus

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