// Blog
A seller records notes during a discovery call.

How to Run a Successful Sales Discovery Call

blog author
Written by Mary Flaherty
Vice President, Research and Thought Leadership

For consultative sellers, having successful sales discovery calls is essential because they underpin the entire sales process.

These calls provide sellers with an opportunity to deeply understand their buyers' challenges, objectives, and operating environment. In turn, this in-depth knowledge of the buyers’ needs allows sellers to design solutions that are tailored to fit the unique circumstances of each buyer.

Unfortunately, only 26% of buyers say sellers excel in uncovering their needs, highlighting a gap in sellers’ discovery skills.

To fully uncover buyer needs, sellers must ask the right questions and actively listen. But listening is another problem area: only a quarter of buyers consider sellers good at listening.  Without effective listening, sellers miss opportunities to address buyers’ needs, limiting their ability to offer comprehensive solutions and maximize revenue.

In this article, we share how you can conduct a thorough and thoughtful discovery call, one that is collaborative and uncovers the full set of buyer needs. Plus, download a complimentary checklist of 10 powerful questions to uncover buyer needs.

What Is a Sales Discovery Call?

A sales discovery call is an initial conversation between a seller and a buyer, typically conducted over the phone or online. The primary goal of this call is to gather information about the buyer’s needs, challenges, goals, and buying process to determine if there’s a good fit between what the buyer needs and what the seller offers.

It's a critical step in the sales process because, in addition to identifying needs, it helps sellers qualify leads, saving time and resources by focusing on prospects who are more likely to convert into customers.

During a discovery call, sellers ask questions to encourage the buyer to share information about their situation. These questions may cover topics such as the buyer’s challenges, desired outcomes, decision-making process, budget, and timelines. The information collected during this call enables the seller to craft solutions that specifically address the prospect's needs.

Effective discovery calls require careful preparation, active listening, and the ability to ask insightful questions that reveal the buyer’s afflictions (pain points) and aspirations. How a seller facilitates these calls directly impacts the overall sales process.

11 Steps for Leading a Thorough Needs Discovery Call


1. Prepare for the Discovery Call

Equip yourself with an understanding of the buyer and their business so you can have a more meaningful and productive conversation.

Prepare for the call by:

  • Researching the Buyer’s Business: Gather information about the company, its industry, size, market position, and any recent news or significant achievements. Understand the challenges typical to their industry and how your solutions might address those challenges.
  • Understanding the Buyer’s Role: Know who you’ll be speaking with and their role within the company. Understanding their responsibilities, challenges, and key performance indicators (KPIs) will help you tailor your questions and solutions to their specific needs.
  • Identifying Potential Needs: Based on your research, identify areas where the buyer might need assistance. Even though the discovery call is about uncovering these needs directly from the buyer, having an informed hypothesis can guide your questioning and show the buyer that you've done your homework.
  • Preparing Tailored Questions: Develop a list of questions that encourage the buyer to talk about their challenges, goals, and the impact of current processes on their business. These questions should not only fill in the blanks, but also provoke thought and reveal deeper insights into the buyer’s needs.
  • Knowing Your Solutions: Be well-versed in the details and benefits of your products or services, including how they’ve addressed similar challenges for other clients. This knowledge will help you make connections between the buyer’s needs and your solutions during the conversation.

By thoroughly preparing for your discovery calls, you not only demonstrate professionalism and respect for the buyer’s time, but also position yourself to lead a more effective and engaging conversation. This preparation lays the groundwork for building a solid relationship with the buyer and moving the sales process forward.

2. Ask Questions in Advance

Prepare for a more productive conversation by using email, or even a survey if it’s right for your business, to ask some questions in advance of the discovery call.

Here’s what happens when you do this:

  • Assuming the buyer responds, you may get more answers than you could gather during a call.
  • It can potentially shorten the sales cycle, which means fewer meetings before a purchase decision.
  • The buyer engages with you before the call, initiating collaboration before you even meet.
  • The buyer may say, “I don’t have time to answer these questions right now, but thanks for sending them along. Let’s cover them in the meeting.” Even when this happens, they may read the questions and begin thinking about them.

In other words, you can move the process along more quickly, get more and better information, and impress buyers. Also, to the extent you can customize your questions for that specific buyer, you build trust and differentiate yourself from the competition.


3. Use a Mix of Needs Discovery Questions

It’s easy to ask questions. It’s how you ask them that’s critical. How you ask can determine the needs you’re able to uncover. To get the best results from your discovery calls, use a mix of broad open-ended, specific open-ended, and closed-ended questions.

Broad Open-ended Questions:

These questions get people to open up and start talking. For example:

  • “What’s going on in your world these days?”
  • “Can you give me some background on what’s happening in your division?”
  • “Thinking about HR at your company, where do you see the areas of opportunity for improvement?”

Specific Open-ended Questions:

Some buyers won’t share much information when you ask broad open-ended questions, or they just won’t know the answers. That’s when you move on to more specific open-ended questions.

These questions uncover latent needs—those needs the buyer may not even be aware of. These specific open-ended questions yield one of three answers: an expression of need, no perception of need, or lack of knowledge.

For example:

  • “You’ve mentioned that you’d like to improve your company’s efficiency. There are many ways to go about this. Let’s start with billable hours. How closely do your monthly actual numbers align with your projected numbers?”
  • “What about staffing? Do your current employees have the skills needed to move the company forward? Where are the knowledge gaps?”
  • “What would you like to be doing that you just don’t have the resources to tackle right now?”

Closed-Ended Questions:

These questions are great for diagnosis. Whether you get a “yes” or a “no” answer, it’s easy to follow up and get the buyer to elaborate.

By asking closed-ended questions you can uncover needs that buyers may not yet perceive as a problem, but when you ask so specifically, they sometimes reconsider.

For example:

  • “Do you feel like you’re hiring the best people fairly consistently?”
  • "Are you getting the pool of candidates you want when you’re looking to hire, and are you getting them fast enough?”
  • “Do you feel like you waste a lot of time sifting through the also-rans to get to the highest potential candidates?”
  • “When you make offers, do the best candidates accept them as often as you would hope?”

The idea is to move from general to specific questions, uncovering buyers’ perceptions of their needs, helping them express a broader set of needs, and finding out enough information so you can present ways to improve that drive interest and the desire to act.

Download 50 Powerful Sales Questions. >>

4. Ask Both Afflictions (Pain)-Based Questions and Aspirational Questions

Needs discovery starts with identifying a buyer’s problems, frustration, pain, irritations, and challenges—or as we call them, afflictions. Whichever term you use, you need to learn what issues buyers have so you can determine how you can help.

Uncovering afflictions is a crucial step in the sales process, and the reasons are simple: if a buyer communicates their afflictions to you, it’s likely they want them to go away. The buyer also must decide if it makes sense to invest the time, money, and brainpower required to get rid of them.

Each affliction you uncover gives you a chance to explore it fully to discover its true impact.

The more openly you discuss afflictions with buyers, the more those afflictions will take front-and-center space in the buyer’s mind. Uncovering and discussing one affliction can lead to other afflictions that the buyer may not have been thinking of in the first place. It’s like how brainstorming works: one idea tends to lead to another.

If the buyer believes they don’t have any afflictions, they aren’t likely to do anything that rocks the boat, including buying your products or services. If this is the case, it’s up to you to help the buyer understand that their situation may not be as good as they think and that they do have afflictions worth solving.

But uncovering afflictions is only half the story because afflictions only focus on the negative half of the buyer’s needs. If you focus only on the negative, you’re leaving opportunities on the table to generate new opportunities.

What do we mean by missing half the buyer’s needs?

Here’s an example:

Riley is meeting with Greta, the owner of a medium-sized business, dissatisfied with her firm's tax services provider. The conversation reveals the issues: missed deadlines, lack of personal touch, and outdated tax knowledge. Riley’s firm, known for its industry expertise and stellar customer service, clearly outshines Greta’s current provider. Through his questioning, Riley identifies how their firm can assist, laying out the next steps and feeling positive about acquiring a new client.

As the meeting concludes, Greta invites Riley to join her for lunch with her company's lawyer. At lunch, the lawyer's forward-looking questions reveal the business owner's ambitious plans and unlaunched initiatives.

These forward-looking questions—focused on future aspirations not problem-solving—include questions like:

  • “So, what’s going on at your company lately?”
  • “What do you want to get done in the next year or so?”
  • “What are your stretch goals for the business?”
  • “What do you think you need to do to get these things done?”
  • “What don’t you know yet that you need to find out?”

Listening, Riley discovers several strategic areas where his firm’s expertise aligns perfectly, including a niche company valuation, an area where Riley excels and which promises significant fees. This encounter opens new avenues for collaboration, leveraging Riley’s expertise in ways not anticipated during the initial sales conversation.

So, what happened here? How did Riley not uncover these opportunities earlier?

During the initial sales meeting, Riley focused on uncovering and soothing the buyer’s afflictions. He did a good job of learning about the buyer’s problems and found out how he could help.

During the lunch meeting, however, the lawyer focused on the buyer’s aspirations. And by doing so, the lawyer uncovered a whole other set of needs that Riley neglected to bring to the surface. The lawyer focused on the second half of business needs—the positive, the future, and the possibilities—the aspirations.

For your next needs discovery call, find the areas of your buyer’s pain and problems that you can fix, but also focus on their aspirations and how you can help achieve those. You’ll find the conversations to be richer, the relationships deeper, and your sales success greater.

5. Ask “Why?” to Get to the Root Cause

An especially valuable approach to needs discovery is called the Five Whys. This is an essential component of a world-class needs discovery, as knowing the root causes of problems will define your solution and the success it'll have.

The Five Whys is a design-thinking technique where you ask “Why?” five times. It goes beyond putting bandages on the symptoms of a problem and instead helps business leaders to address the underlying causes, thus permanently solving the problem and creating a lasting new reality.

This method helps you collaborate with buyers to uncover the root cause of what is driving their needs and craft the most compelling, powerful, and lasting solutions.

The Five Whys is to problem-solving and critical thinking what removing weeds by the root is to gardening. Fix a symptom in business but not the underlying cause and, much like a pulled weed with the root left in the ground, the symptom is bound to sprout up again. Fix the underlying cause of a problem at the root and you'll see lasting improvement.

6. Seek to Uncover Both Rational and Emotional Needs

Selling is about change. It's about persuasion. It's about helping buyers move from their current state to a better future, their New Reality.

If you don’t understand your buyer’s needs, you won't know how to inspire and persuade. You won't be able to accurately juxtapose the buyer's current reality with their possible New Reality.

There are two categories of buyer needs:

  • Rational Needs: These are explicit rational needs stated by the buyer, usually financial, technical, or strategic. Rational needs may also be hidden and yet to be disclosed by the buyer.
  • Emotional Needs: These can also be explicitly stated needs, or just suspected. Common themes of emotional needs are professional, social, or psychological, and they can be just as powerful as rational ones.

Emotion is a powerful driver of sales. It’s often said that people buy with their hearts and justify with their heads. Buyers may not even be aware of the emotional needs underlying what they think are rational decisions.

For your solution to truly resonate with buyers, you must be aware of the emotional needs underlying rational needs. Emotional needs often drive the final buying decision. If you can appeal to the right emotions, you can inspire your buyer to make a change that will impact their business for the better.

7. Transcribe Needs in Real Time

As you facilitate the discussion on a discovery call, write down the needs for the buyer to see. If the call is virtual, you can do this by sharing your screen, and if in person, use a whiteboard or flipchart. Let the buyer see how you’re interpreting their words. Let them see how you’re thinking and how you’re processing what they’re telling you in real-time.

This allows you and the buyer to ensure you’re on the same page, sometimes literally. Even better, they can help you refine or clarify anything they said that you didn’t transcribe properly, saving you time later.

It’s simple, but the effect of seeing thoughts and ideas written down can be powerful. When you write what the buyer is saying and they see it, they know they’re being heard. They know you have it covered and that you’re on this journey together. You’ve created a shared understanding of needs.

8. Keep the 30+3 Rule in Mind

According to the 30+3 rule, you have 30 seconds to grab people’s attention, and if you don’t re-acquire their attention every 3 minutes or so, you risk losing it. Within the first 30 seconds after the call kicks off, start with questions, and immediately engage.

You might say, “Big picture: what are you hoping to accomplish?” It may be basic, but it’s an effective way to get your buyer talking.

Share your screen and begin screen journaling or take notes on a whiteboard if in-person. This is an effective way to encourage attention.

If you’re on a call with multiple people, as people start talking, make sure you facilitate by directing the question to anyone who hasn’t chimed in. “Terry, you’ve been quiet thus far. I’m curious, what’s on your mind?”

When facilitating, it’s great if you show pre-planned categories of common needs and start immediately categorizing the buyer’s responses in a variety of areas. Then you have people focusing on the responses and thinking of their own needs in the various categories.

9. Use a Checklist

Display a visual that outlines the variety of needs that are common to buyers in your industry or of a certain type. An example of this is a checklist you’ve created based on your research that you review together with the buyer to ensure all relevant categories of needs are covered.

If the buyer doesn’t comment on an area that you think is critical, you can ask about it and talk about why it’s critical. Then, you can follow up with something like, “It seems to me that these three areas, if we tackled them solidly, we’d end up with huge gains in performance and ROI. Do you agree? Where else should we focus?”

This is a way to gain immediate engagement and set up a rich discussion to help you drive needs discovery.


10. Establish Clear Next Steps

After spending valuable time with your prospect, be it 30 minutes, 45, or longer, what next?

Jumping straight to a proposal might seem like the next logical step, but it's often too soon for such a commitment. A more strategic approach involves sending a summary email or discussion document that confirms the shared understanding of needs from the discovery call.

In your follow-up email:

  • Outline your understanding of their current situation.
  • Confirm the shared understanding of needs:
    • Summarize what you heard and list the core needs as you heard them.
    • Take the opportunity to highlight any gaps and offer insights. For example, maybe you discussed needs A, B, and C, and from your experience, you know there are two common pitfalls when addressing these issues. Ask to open a discussion to probe further.
    • Ask that the buyer respond confirming the needs and if there’s anything you missed. This will help solidify the shared understanding of needs between you and the buyer, demonstrating your listening and effective needs discovery skills.
  • Share your evaluation of how your solutions align with their challenges.
  • Propose next steps. Communicate clearly and concisely what you consider to be the most beneficial next step. This involves seeking the buyer’s agreement on this proposed step, scheduling a specific time for it to occur, and fulfilling any promises made during the discussion. This proactive approach not only demonstrates your commitment, but also keeps the momentum of the sales process moving forward.

11. Embrace Ongoing Needs Discovery

Needs discovery doesn't conclude with the discovery call; it's an ongoing journey throughout the sales process and into account management.

After a sale closes, effective account management hinges on continuously adapting to your client's changing needs and maintaining an open line of communication. By regularly revisiting and updating your understanding of their needs, you become more than a vendor—you evolve into a trusted advisor committed to your client's long-term success.

This ongoing discovery process not only cements client loyalty but also ensures your solutions remain aligned with their changing goals.

With your buyer’s needs discovered collaboratively and effectively, you’ll be one step closer to suggesting solutions and closing another sale.

Published May 8, 2024

Topics: Sales Conversations