How to Run a Great Sales Discovery Call (Best Practices + 19 Questions to Ask)

Discovery calls are a lot like jigsaw puzzles; as much about the big picture as they are about every little piece. And they demand a healthy dose of deliberation, discipline, and dedication for them to provide value.

Image of Richard Smith's Linkedin post about discovery call

When Richard Smith, VP – Sales at Refract, posted the above question on LinkedIn, over 90% of respondents agreed on the importance of discovery calls.  Here’s what the top responses said: 

Image of Richard Smith's Linkedin post's top responses

In the SaaS world, where prospects have a plethora of options to choose from, a good discovery call can help them find the right solution, and help salespeople set the course for long-lasting relationships with buyers.

In this article, we share how you can conduct an effective discovery call, the key components of a discovery call, the questions that should anchor it, and what the right set of activities is to do – before and after the call. 

Table of contents

  1. What is a discovery call?
  2. What is the objective of a discovery call?
  3. The key elements of the discovery process 
  4. How to structure your discovery call
  5. 4 Best practices for SaaS discovery calls
  6. Conclusion

What is a discovery call?

A discovery call is the most important conversation a salesperson has with a prospect. It forms the foundation of the rest of the sales journey. 

During a discovery call you should focus on finding the prospect’s pain points, goals, their hopes, fears, and operating boundaries – to assess if your product can help them succeed. By running a good discovery call, you avoid wasting your customer’s (and your) time with a low-value pitch.

“The best discovery I hear doesn’t sound like discovery. It sounds like a friend asking me questions throughout a conversation to help me make the best choice” 

What is the objective of a discovery call?

Salespeople often make the mistake of using discovery calls to merely unearth a use case or challenge that a prospect could be facing. 

Going back to the jigsaw puzzle analogy, that’s only one piece of the big picture. 

The ultimate objective of discovery calls is qualifying whether a lead is worth your time. A good discovery call focuses on doing this by learning

  • Who the prospects are, what they need, and what they prioritize as a company
  • How their teams are structured
  • What do their buying process and workflows look like,
  • Who within their organization would (and could) use your product
  • How the organization is funded, or what its revenue model looks like
  • What their short and long term plans are

You can find more details on what kind of specific information you should be looking for here

Why discovery calls matter 

1. They build healthier customer relationships

Whether it is an outbound or inbound lead, the discovery call is most likely one of your customer’s first real interactions with the people behind your brand. So it’s your best shot at making a great first impression and charting the course of the sale. 

The better you understand your lead, and the more you impress them, the easier it will be for you to find the right track for them and set the tone for a smooth sales journey. 

2. They shorten and improve your sales cycle 

A discovery call in SaaS is your best chance at finding out how serious the buyer is, if they’re looking for something specific, and how you could turn the sale in your favor and improve your sales cycle.

This is your best chance to 

  • Understand the prospect’s team, its structure, the decision-makers, 
  • Gauge their budget,
  • Assess the current and expansion potential of their deal.

If you do this at the earlier stages of the sale, you can avoid situations where a prospect throws an impossible-to-overcome objection in your face at the fag end of the sale. It’s a classic prevention-is-better-than-cure scenario. 

In essence, good discovery calls help you focus on what matters. It works both ways: the sooner you disqualify your leads, the more time you save to focus on other leads. And if your leads are better qualified, you can allocate more time to leads based on how likely they are to convert, or how big the deal is.  

The key elements of the discovery call process 

  • Before the call
    • Research: Based on data from a cold call, earlier conversations, the company/prospect’s profile, social media, etc., gather all the information you can about the prospect. 
    • Preparation:  Set a clear agenda and send a detailed invite,  describing who you are, what you do, the intent, and the duration of the call to minimize no-shows. Pre-strategize and role play your discovery questions.
  • During the call
    • Qualify the prospect: The best way to find out if the lead is worth your time is to ask them discovery questions. Some salespeople wing it. If you need help figuring out what kind of questions to ask you can craft them according to lead qualification methodologies like the MEDDIC, BANT, CHAMP frameworks. The MEDDIC framework, for example, takes a six-part approach to lead qualification by focusing on Metrics, Economic buyers, Decision criteria, Decision process, Identifying pain, and identifying a Champion. You can check out questions to ask during a discovery call according to MEDDIC in this blog we had shared earlier.
    • Build alignment on a shared vision – by demonstrating prior successes or presenting a future reality in their context.
    • Schedule the next step (a demo or presentation)
  • Post the call
    • Send a consultative summary email of the discussion

How to structure your discovery call

An effective discovery call pays attention to three parts: 

  1. Rapport building  
  2. Discovery deep dive 
  3. Closing 

Let’s look at these in detail

1. Rapport building: Set context and align expectations

  • Build a connection: Thank them for their time. Summarize the main things you know about them and ask if there’s anything you missed/need to know. 
  • Lay down the intent: Describe the goal, ie, understanding their needs, assessing a mutual fit, but be honest about qualifying them as well. 

For instance, if you sell an SEO tool, you could say
I’d like to discuss
a) what your company’s objectives are for SEO efforts,
b) what you aim to achieve with an SEO tool, and
c) how this result will shape your company’s future –  in the next 45 minutes.  

Is there anything else you’d like to cover? If we agree that it’s worth your time, the next step would be a demo. Does that work for you?”

This works because by

  • You understand the scope of their requirements, 
  • Understanding their goals, you can assess if your tool is powerful, scalable, or even applicable to help them achieve their goals.
    For instance, you could find that your prospect was looking to get leads from 100 new blogs. In this case, what they need at the current stage is to scale their content (say via content services) before you can help them with SEO optimization.  
  • Understanding the impact of your tool on the company’s future, you can know how critical the purchase is, and if it’s something that’s an immediate priority. 

PRO TIP: Reassure your customers that you have their best interest in mind, by saying “If I find that we wouldn’t be a great fit for you, I’ll be upfront with you so that we can save you your time”.

2. Discovery deep dive: Use questions to unearth and intensify pain

A good discovery call relies on carefully selected questions to get the most out of the discovery call. Analysis of discovery calls has shown that successful discovery calls typically use 11-14 questions.  

Image of Gong's infographics

(Source: Gong)

PRO TIP: To get the most out of your questions, you can also use the TED questioning model that works great with probing questions. This allows for open ended questions that give you more insight into their needs.

T: Tell me more about…

E: Can you please explain …?

D: Could you describe how …?

– Questions for qualification 

Questions about the company’s goals, the team’s priorities, individual KPIs, the team’s structure, etc. let you in on their business so you get an inside-out view of what matters. This will help you decide how serious they are about a purchase. But such information will come in handy at later stages of the sale, as well, when you need to persuade multiple stakeholders.

For instance, knowing how their KPIs connect to the organization’s goals can help you assess how invested they would be in pushing for and using your product. 

Understanding the structure, and plans of the prospect’s team can help you understand how much ROI you can unlock for them, and yourself.

For example, if they came in to buy two seats for your product, but your questioning revealed that they are a 20-member team– you know that you have a great shot at getting the rest of the team on the software as additional users. 

For example, let’s consider that you sell an SEO service. Here are examples of some questions you could ask (Feel free to give them your own twist):

  • Could you tell me what your company’s broad goals are? 
  • And can you explain how that impacts your KPIs? How big a factor is SEO in you achieving your KPIs? 
  • What would you describe as the main reasons for considering an SEO service at this stage? 
  • Please tell me more about your marketing team, its members, and growth/expansion plans for it? 
  • How would you describe the structure and functioning of your SEO team? What kind of campaigns does the team handle, and at a time, how many would they be managing?
  • What are the SEO goals for the next year and the next quarter? 

– Questions for deep discovery 

Once you get a big picture view of their long-term goals, you can paint a picture of how your product/service can help them get there to the end goal. But this depends on asking deeper questions to find how they intent to get there, what roadblocks they face, and what solutions they are expecting. For example:

  • Could you tell me a little about your current SEO workflow and tools? 
  • Please explain which aspect of your SEO workflow needs to be eliminated/improved, and why? 
  • An issue your industry peers seem to be facing is understanding and adapting to the major changes in search engine algorithms.  Could you tell me how this affects your team and how you manage to stay updated on the latest developments and best practices? 
  • Can you explain the main problems holding you back from boosting your position on SERPs? 
  • Can you describe what you like about your current setup or solution?

– Questions for consultative discussions  

  • If your main problem is scaling your SEO optimization process, can you explain any in-house (without a tool) measures you have adopted? Please tell me how they have fared. 
  • Explain your primary roadblocks in implementing an external solution. Which are the areas of struggle for you? How do you currently handle third-party integrations?
  • How would you describe the benefits of implementing an SEO solution in terms of savings or productivity for your marketing team?

PRO TIP: Use social proof stories as part of your questions: Discovery calls with the most positive prospect sentiments are found to include an average of two stories.  Use your experience with other customers to say “When we worked with one of our customers on their SEO project, we saw that they struggled to keep their sitemaps updated. Is this something your team struggles with? What has your experience with working with your developers to fix such issues been like?” 

– Questions to understand decision-making 

  • Can you tell me the last time you invested in a digital marketing tool?  Do you know who was involved in the buying process and how it panned out? 
  • Please explain any specific criteria for this decision. How do you balance functionality, scalability, and price when you’re looking at a specific product like an SEO tool? 
  • Please describe your decision-making process from consideration to purchase. How long does it usually take?
  • What is your budget for a solution? Please tell me how you came up with this budget. Is there anything that is constraining your budget?
  • Could you tell me the timelines you’re looking at for the next steps?

3. Closing: Present clear next steps

An effective sales discovery call is one that gently but surely nudges the prospect towards the next steps— not the one that corners your prospect into getting a demo.

Based on your questions and understanding of the customer, you can take two approaches to close the call –by summarizing the problem and its solution in their language, and in the context of their business –without using umbrella statements.  

Examples:

  • The diagnostic close:

 You could say, “I have identified three issues – 302 redirects instead of 301 redirects, outdated XML maps, and soft 404s – that your SEO team needs to work with the development team to solve. I have an SEO toolkit that can handle all of these issues by themselves with zero intervention from IT. Would you be interested in knowing more?”

  • The prescriptive close

 “It looks like you can improve your SEO team’s productivity by minimizing their dependence on your development team for solving technical issues. Our technology helps even non-technical users update sitemaps, handle redirects, and soft 404s. Is this something you’d be willing to see?

Don’t close a discovery call without making note of their availability in a day, or week, and their preferred channel (email, call, or LinkedIn) of follow-up.  Take control of the timeline by explicitly outlining the next steps, your timeline, and summarizing how and when you’ll follow up. 

4 Best practices for SaaS discovery calls

Here are four best practices for discovery calls – backed by studies and recommended by sales experts.  

1. Focus on 3-4 problems

Gong’s findings from its analysis of thousands of sales discovery calls have shown that successful salespeople dive deeply into 3-4 customer problems.

Image of Gong's infographics - 2

(Source: Gong)

Has this worked for you in your sales calls? We’d love to know. Let us know in the comments below. 

2. Mirror your prospect and label their emotions

Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference says,  mirroring is most effective when you repeat one to three words from the last words your counterpart has spoken. In the discovery call, use your customer’s language and say your prospect’s last 2-4 words back to them as a question.

He also recommends using phrases like ‘It sounds like you…’, ‘It seems like you…’, or ‘I can see why that’s frustrating’ to label their emotions. This way, you develop a stronger connection grounded in understanding and empathy.

 3. Focus on the right tone and body language 

In a discovery call, what you say is just as important as how you say it. 

The 7-38-55 rule developed by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian at the University of California, Los Angeles,  is a concept that focuses on the communication of emotions. 

It states 7% percent of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% percent through tone of voice, and 55%  through body language. 

The smaller contribution (7%) of the spoken word goes to show that pauses, silence, and an atmosphere of trust and comfort, can go a long way in running better discovery calls. 

4.  Practice active listening 

Listen more, talk less. While this applies to the whole sales cycle,  it’s even more important at a stage as critical as discovery.  

Studies by RAIN Group show that 68% percent of buyers are highly influenced by sellers who are good listeners. But they report that only 26% of sellers are good at listening.

As their founder,  John Doerr says, sales reps who don’t actively listen lose the opportunity to build rapport and trust, uncover prospects’ needs, and instill confidence in the prospect that the reps understand their world.

Conclusion

As a salesperson, it’s important to have a balanced attitude about discovery calls. A discovery call is as much about you as it is about the customer. But most importantly, it is about solving a problem. 

Dan Smith from Winning By Design perfectly describes this approach to selling: “Don’t try and play mind games on them, don’t ask them backward questions, because, in reality, it’s only salespeople who ask about that. So instead, value their time and the fastest way to do that, show you’ve done your research, show that you know something about them, and you can hopefully help them solve a problem.” 

At the end of a good discovery call, your prospect should be able to decide whether to proceed with you or not. But it’s equally important for you to know whether to proceed with them or not. And it paves the way for you to have smoother conversations with them in the later stages of the deal. If you feel your product or service isn’t a good fit, don’t be afraid to cut your losses and end the sales process.

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