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Does Your Discovery Phase Deliver Value to Your Customers?

April 17, 2014 4 Comments Best Practices by Jack Dean

Delivering Customer ValueAs a former “buy side” C-level executive, I believe one of the primary goals of the discovery phase of a sales process should be to deliver value to the buyer.  Unfortunately, many sales people believe discovery phase conversations are all about probing and asking questions and learning.  In other words, the discovery phase is designed to benefit the sales person.  This disconnect during the early sales stage will likely manifest itself in longer sales cycles or worse yet, stalled deals.

The Customer's "Discovery Phase"

Most B2B sales people I work with are surprised to hear that the customer has their own discovery phase.  Buyers follow a prescriptive step by step process for buying, just like sellers follow for selling.  One of the most important steps for both sides in the buying-selling process is the discovery phase.  Each party must pass through this early stage gate in their respective processes in order to continue down the path to consummating a transaction.

Interestingly, buyers and sellers are both attempting to identify needs and requirements during the discovery phase.  The seller wants to understand what the customer is trying to achieve and how this project relates to the attainment of their goals.  On the other hand, the buyer, especially the executive-level buyer, is trying to determine if they need to spend any more time with the seller, and if they decide to move ahead, what resource requirements will be thrust on their organization in terms of time and money.  After all, time and money are scarce resources that are highly-protected by executive-level buyers.   If the potential financial value is compelling, the executive-level buyer will agree to spend more time with the seller and allocate scarce resources.

During the discovery phase, the executive-level buyer needs to understand the possibilities for positive financial impact on their organization.  These possibilities don’t have to be accurate to ten decimal points; they just need to provide a range of potential magnitude on the KPI metrics of the customer or the project ROI.   This is hard for the sales person to deliver during the discovery phase conversation since there is a lot more work to do (and questions to ask) before refining the quantification of value.  But the best sales people get it done by leveraging their pre-call preparation and customer-specific due diligence.

Checklist for Making the Discovery Phase Valuable for the Customer

Here’s a checklist of questions to answer during pre-call preparations to help provide value to your customers during discovery conversations:

. What are the customer’s priority KPIs? (You should try to determine this BEFORE discovery conversations and validate in-person.)

. How are those priority KPIs trending (up or down)?  What is the customer’s financial condition?

. Which KPIs will your solution impact?  (The more the better, hopefully on both the Income Statement as well as the Balance Sheet.)

. By what financial magnitude have you impacted those priority KPIs at other customers?  What customer impact reference stories can you tell that quantify the financial impact of your solutions?

. What customer impact reference stories can you tell that demonstrate a hard financial project ROI?

Comments (4)

Jack Dean

Mukesh, if the account/sales team can uncover emerging business initiatives (company-specific) and offer unique insights around critical success factors, the "ask" for executive involvement/sponsorship is easier to understand and obtain. The key is customer insights and being VERY early in the buying decision and providing value that the executive can not get from other parties (i.e. business advice). As you know, most sales cycles start very late in the buying process (a CEB study said sellers on average first enter a buying cycle 53\% of the way in), so the executive has already kicked off the initiative.
I agree with your thoughts totally. One thing that I have seen from experience is that during the discovery phase, not many sales executives have the opportunity to work with the C level executives. My experience has been that the executive connect for a sales team only happens at the far end of the discovery phase, usually when the sales team is planning to pitch their solution. What i take away from your post is that it need not be so. It would be a good idea for the sales teams to try and get connected with the C-level executive during or immediately post the discovery phase and present their initial findings, observations and thoughts on the RoI (though I am often told that the most difficult thing for a sales team in such a situation is audience with the C-Level executive). What are your thoughts on this? What can sales teams do to ensure that they go get the executives involved right at the start of the engagement, given that everyone can benefit from the interaction?

Jack Dean

Mukesh, thanks for your comment. I've worked with thousands of sales executives and account managers in a formal learning environment for over a decade. During that time I've come to realize how the sales process steps guide their behaviors over the sales cycle. While very effective for lower-level pursuits at the project team or middle management level, the rigid sales process governing the discovery phase guides to a behavior that's more about the seller with the refined value proposition for the buyer deferred to a later stage. For the executive-level buyer, I think customer-specific value proposition needs to be accelerated in the sales cycle in order to catch the executive's attention and get their sponsorship over the sales cycle. The seller will not have a refined value prop at that point, but customer impact references that are relevant and "executive sticky" (with hard financial value demonstrated) will do the job as I point out in the blog post This acceleration of a preliminary value prop adds value during the "sales experience" for the exec and aligns with their high level of involvement in the front end of a buying cycle. Bottom line: the sales process needs to be flexible and adapted for executive-level pursuits! That's my hunch; what's yours?
Hi Jack This post is the best that I have read today. I shall never be able to think of discovery phase at any customer place without thinking of your perspective of what the buying executive shall expect. All of this seems so logical, yet I wonder why is this such a blind spot for so many sales teams. Can you come up with an explanation that could explain the absence of such behaviour other than sellers being obsessed with themselves? Thanks Mukesh
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