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The Problem With “Discovery”

by David Brock on February 23rd, 2022

For decades, sales people have been taught about the importance of “Discovery.” It’s a series of questions we inflict on the customer. We use it, both to qualify opportunities, and to understand how to position our solutions to win. We learn how to ask a series of questions to understand their needs, to understand who will be involved in the buying decision, to understand their budgets, to understand their decision criteria and timeframe.

The thinking behind the discovery process is that once the customer gives us all those answers, we can then undertake a series of activities to position our solutions favorably, and to compete to win the deal.

With due respect to Neil Rackham, we’ve learned questioning techniques to support our discovery process. We’ve learned SPIN–Situation, Problem, Implication, Need/Pay-off. Every sales methodology has adapted their own variants of this for their approach to discovery.

But we are discovering, there are huge problems with our Discovery Process.

One problem, it’s all about us. It’s about us. It’s us getting the information from the customer that tells us how and who we need to pitch to and convince. Once we have the answers to those questions, we are off to the races trying to convince the customer we are the best alternative.

The customer gets very little value in these discussions, they’ve done all the heavy lifting to figure these things out, we are the recipients of their generosity in describing what they’ve figured out for themselves.

We run into problems when the customer doesn’t know the answer to these questions. Inevitably, we ignore this fact, continuing to focus on getting just enough to go into pitch mode. Ideally, we conduct a “discovery call,” then we are off to the races.

In reality discovery is for the customer, not us. If the customer knew the answers to our discovery questions, their buying process would be very simple.

But, in complex B2B sales, our customers struggle. They may not even recognize the opportunity to change, do things differently, or solve a problem. Until they “discover” this, nothing happens–for them or for us, regardless how badly we wish something happens.

But once they are incited to search, once they are incited to consider changing, there’s so much more to their discovery process. They may not even know the questions they should be asking, the things they need to discover and consider in solving the problem, addressing the opportunity, successfully driving the change.

We have got the Discovery Process all wrong. Discovery is for the customer, not for us. We create the greatest value with customers when we help guide them through their discovery and learning process. As a result of supporting the customer through their discovery, collaborating to assess the questions, the data, the information, the risks/challenges, the potential outcomes, we learn all we need about how we help the customer the most–both in their buying process and in actually taking action.

Discovery is not about us or for us. It is always about and for the customer.

Afterword: In fairness to Mr. Rackham, properly implemented, SPIN enables tremendous collaborative conversations. The problem is, we have so perverted the implementation of SPIN that our playbooks give us the SPIN questions we ask mindlessly, seeking the answers to those questions, not creating a shared discovery process.

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