Time to boil the ocean: Sales Discovery 2.0

Time to boil the ocean: Sales Discovery 2.0

I believe that the way the vast majority of sales people sell their product is wrong. I say this having had experience sitting on both sides of the table, muting sales people and swearing at my phone, as well as falling asleep whilst personally reciting the same thing over and over again. I read a lot, but like to focus more on founder stories than sales books. I’ve only read one sales book in my life, The Challenger Sale. I’ve spent the past 2 years trying to run away from conventional/textbook approaches, and this post is about what I’ve learnt.

Here’s the fundamental problem with sales: you’re trying to sell! I’m not talking about feature selling vs solution selling vs consulting selling – the issue with all of this is it’s just a different phrase preceding the word ‘selling’. A general rule of sales, whatever the technique, is that it’s crucial to match the prospect’s needs to your product/solution. Whilst that matching process is obviously a crucial requirement to any end transaction, it definitionally means you’re moulding the prospect’s needs to your needs, which means you’re not really listening… you’re waiting!

Consider this problem from a different angle:

  • If you’re a customer/prospect:  When was the last time someone pitched you their product and you didn’t say ‘but can it do X?’ I’m willing to bet this has never happened. When you first see a product that’s even vaguely related to your business, you want to push the boundaries and see if it can do all the things you’d want in an ideal solution, regardless of what you’ve seen before. My assumption is that when you ask these questions, you’re met with a variant of ‘no, but…’. Does that make you angry? Does it change your perception of the product? Does it change your perception of the person you’re speaking to? Does it sometimes kill the conversation instantly?
  • If you’re a salesperson: When was the last time someone asked you ‘but can it do X?’ and you thought… ‘seriously?? This is the best product you have ever seen and you’re asking things that don’t exist anywhere on the market?’. Does this question drive you crazy? Does it make you think like you’ve lost the deal? Do you pick up on a change in tone afterwards?

The below will hopefully strike a cord with everyone reading this post. Here’s how different types of reps respond to the simple question of ‘can it do X?’ when the short answer is no:

  • Feature: ‘No, but we can do Y and nobody else can’
  • Solution: ‘That’s not supported, but let me show you how {competitor name} is using our product’
  • Consulting: ‘We can get to the specifics later, but tell me how you’d use that data’
  • Challenger: ‘Why would you want to do that when you can do this instead, which is 500 times more powerful?’
    • People think the challenger is a very specific type of salesperson. They try to turn the whole approach on its head. Rather than discovering with the client, you tell the client what’s wrong with their industry and how you can solve that problem. Whilst this is much closer to a good response, it assumes you know more about specific aspects of the client’s business than they do, when ultimately what you’re doing is just a basic variant of solution selling where you’re inverting the discovery.

Did any of you cringe at those responses? Did anybody shout or swear or simply sigh? Personally, this stuff really grinds my gears. Maybe it’s because I’ve led these conversations and been on the receiving end of them too. It’s just so ‘textbook’. I can’t stand sales people that sound like they’re following a playbook, maybe even reading a script, and all of the above answers are somewhat scripted and likely based on ‘what approach causes the customer to drop their comment as quickly as possible?’

So what should everybody be doing? Like any relationship, things can only get better if both sides of the conversation change their approach. Whilst this is a ‘sales’ problem, it’s not helped by customers being so output-driven.

Sales people – know your value! 


Stop trying to sell and start trying to add value. Regardless of whether the person you’re speaking to buys your product, they should leave every single conversation thinking how they can optimise their business, regardless of who you work for or what your product does. As a salesperson, you need to treat every conversation like you’re a management consultant NOT a salesperson for product X. Management consultancies go into client’s businesses, speak with the stakeholders to understand GENERAL challenges, then tell them what to do to fix/improve everything.
Now – I know you’re not a management consultant, but the core of what they do in discovery is where this example comes into play. Your new job is to understand the customer’s pain points in general and get them thinking about solutions. That’s the key – your job is to get the customer THINKING, which is not the same as smiling about how amazing your product is.

How can you do this? Earlier I said that challengers have a major issue in that the approach requires them to understand the customer’s business better than they do. The same would therefore apply to management consultants. The concept of the challenger is intriguing, but for me, it misses the real value proposition – it’s the age-old adage: ‘knowledge is power’.

You’re never going to know the customer’s business as well as they do, but you do have one major advantage – you experience your industry across multiple geographies and more importantly, verticals.

Example: The company I work for, SimilarWeb, is a market intelligence tool, meaning they give data on how any website in the world gets traffic. If we were approached by a customer like a consumer electronics company, we obviously don’t know anything about manufacturing games consoles or the intricacies of selling them online. But we do know a lot about how our customers use our data to optimise their strategies, and we know this for other electronics companies, FMCG companies, apparel companies, eCommerce companies and so on. That gives us a unique perspective on online marketing in general, and that’s where the value is! We know how to get customers thinking and how to drive productive two-way conversations without following anything from a sales manual – simply by talking about our experience and asking the right questions based on instinct and experience, not a pre-fabricated list.

Being a multi-industry expert within your domain means you can confidently drive the conversation in terms of value. Every time something slips to output-driven, you can wrestle it back towards value, towards the end use-case even if it’s 10 steps down the line. The question of ‘but can it do X?’ disappears and never gets asked because it would have been addressed in discovery, not the product demo. And it wouldn’t have been a functionality question, it would have been more like ‘one thing we really need and haven’t seen on the market is a way to know for sure if X will drive ROI’. Suddenly that ‘annoying question’ is now driving an intellectual conversation, which is making the customer think.

If discovery is done correctly and the demo/walkthrough is super tailored to what you discussed in terms of value (not output), then everything becomes simple. I’m going to say this one more time – your job is to drive thought. Your customer/prospect needs to leave every single conversation engaged and thinking.

Customers – communicate the value you’re looking for!


Like it or not, we live in a demand-driven word. You can go to a search engine, type in whatever you want and quickly find what you’re looking for, i.e. ‘best games consoles’ or ‘sport news’. This behaviour filters into all walks of life, including sales calls. Human beings are naturally curious, always want more and have been conditioned to just ask for it.

A very wise man once famously said ‘every action requires an equal and opposite reaction’ – so in sales discovery terms, that means every question like ‘can you do X?’ will be met with a simple yes/no or an excuse/pivot as listed above. Here’s the catch – if you take this approach, you very rarely get to say what you’re looking to achieve with said feature. The actual point of your original question is instantly lost and never revisited.

One thing you may not have noticed is as you go deeper into the sales process with a provider, you stop asking these questions or you change the nature of these questions. You start to form assumptions (consciously or otherwise) as to the limitations of the product or even industry. You’re learning what’s ‘not possible’ because you’re getting a solid understanding of what is possible (as communicated by the salesperson).

For sales meetings and calls to be more beneficial for both sides, you need to do the same thing sales people need to do – relate everything back to value and your endgame, not output. It may sound a little cheesy and awkward, but I believe everything should be more question-led. ‘The real thing we’re trying to answer: is X better than Y? Once we know that, we’ll be able to put $Z spend behind that channel to drive change and improve ROI’. This is the kind of lead question that prompts a real discussion and not a textbook discovery call where the salesperson is ticking boxes. It’s impossible to answer that question with ‘this feature does this’. It’s impossible to answer that question with ‘we can’t do that, but we can do this’. It’s an incredibly simple shift that cuts out all the BS and get’s to the real goal.

Remember – the salesperson has a unique perspective, which you likely do not. They deal with your competitors, but also tangential businesses and completely different businesses. There may be a different, stronger, higher ROI solution to your question, and unless you ask the core question, you’ll never know!

I’ll leave you with this – I believe this is the most powerful way to get the point of this post across, although it’s very specific to SimilarWeb. 

‘Forget everything you know about analytics – forget SimilarWeb, forget our competitors, forget Google Analytics, forget the lot. You’re sitting in a room opposite the CEO of {relevant company}. They will give you whatever you ask for. What do you ask for AND WHY?’

What’s incredible here is the customer typically leaves out at least a couple of things that the salesperson was expecting them to say. If an output approach is taken, the salesperson would never be aware of that blindspot and would never be able to communicate the added value from that data point. When questioned on why customers didn’t include X in their answer, the most common response is ‘Ah, I hadn’t even thought of that! I assumed it wasn’t possible’. I think this speaks to the issues and solutions discussed in this post.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic and will respond to every comment!



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