How to Assess Customer Needs in Half the Time

BY Deb Calvert
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The discovery phase of the sales process is important, but often overlooked or cut short. When asked, sellers usually say they don’t conduct thorough discovery because it takes too long. They’re concerned that their buyers won’t give them enough time and/​or don’t feel they have enough time themselves.

In this post, we'll cover how to assess customer needs in a way that still uses your time (and the buyer's) wisely.

How to Assess Customer Needs

Here are the top 10 ways to reduce time spent and get information needed in sales discovery:

  1. Determine your desired outcome before asking a question. This will help you craft a better question that yields a better answer. No more rephrasing or repeating!
  2. Craft your question with the desired outcome in mind. If you want a short answer, make it a closed-​ended question. More thorough answers come from open-​ended questions. The most detailed and comprehensive responses follow command statements (“Tell me about…”).
  3. Get to the point. No more fishing expeditions as you dance around the subject.
  4. Start by stating your intent. When the buyer knows what you’re looking for and why, they can provide answers that are more specific and better suited to your purpose.
  5. Don’t waste time on questions that can be answered elsewhere. Do your research beforehand to get factual information that’s widely available.
  6. Don’t waste time on purpose-​less questions. Asking, for example, about the number of employees is useless unless you sell a product that is configured or priced using this number. Determine what you need to know and stick to questions that will provide that information.
  7. Don’t waste time on small talk. “How have you been?” and “How was your weekend?” are meant to be rapport-​building. Instead, they work against sellers as busy buyers want to get to the point and can tell when these questions aren’t backed by genuine interest.
  8. Pay attention to answers given. Listen well. This will help you identify subtext and emotion within the responses. You’ll know what to probe and can selectively ask follow-​up questions where they are warranted.
  9. Take notes. They’ll help you capture and retain key information, come back to it later, and play back the buyer’s own words. Taking notes also signals that the information is important to you, so buyers will respond by sharing more openly. Fewer questions required.
  10. Avoid interrupting. Try not to nod or signal a redirection to the information being shared. You don’t want to steer the buyer’s responses or alienate the buyer by pushing them to your ideas. Instead, you want them to do the work of selling themselves as they answer your questions.

These tips are the result of 25+ years field research with sellers and interviews with buyers. You can read more about this research and other findings in the book DISCOVER Questions® Get You Connected, named by HubSpot as one of “The 23 Most Highly Rated Sales Books of All Time.”


How Much Time Should I Spend on Discovery in Sales?

There’s a simple formula for determining how much time you should spend on discovery. It’s E=O.

E=O is Effort = Opportunity.

The amount of time and effort you put into a discovery call (or any sales activity) should be directly proportionate to the size of the opportunity.

If you have a prospect that could purchase your enterprise-​wide solution and spend millions, then this prospect merits more of your time and effort than the start-​up who’s interested in your month-​to-​month, single user option.

A misinterpretation of “consultative selling” has caused many sellers to get this wrong. They think that being a good consultant means spending lots of time with every prospect. They measure their success by the length of the discovery call and how much they learned about a prospect.

Longer discovery calls aren’t the aim. More information isn’t either. Discovery calls have the primary purpose of gathering the information you need to craft a solution that meets the buyer’s specific needs. Getting that objective met with fewer questions is what you need to do. That’s what consultants do. They don’t ask aimless questions. They don’t probe problems they can’t fix. They don’t become sounding boards, friends, or therapists. Sellers shouldn’t either.

Most sellers who conduct discovery calls taking 30 minutes or more could easily cut that time in half. Asking better-​crafted, more purposeful questions is the key.

What If I Already Know the Customer’s Needs?

Caution! Do you really know their needs? All of their needs? Even when you’re right and you know the buyer’s needs, there are several benefits to asking questions. These include:

  • Building buy-​in. When a buyer articulates their needs, they are reminded of them and more prone to thinking about them and acting on them.
  • Getting clarification. Subtle changes in the buyer’s needs can trigger opportunities for upselling or partnering in new ways.
  • Establishing trust. Asking questions and demonstrating genuine interest naturally builds trust. It’s the old maxim – they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Nurturing the relationship. Not asking questions is akin to taking a customer for granted. Showing up when it’s time to place the next order without checking in on needs leaves the door wide open for a competitor who shows more interest and commitment.
  • Creating a Customer Experience. B2B buyers demand more than they used to. They want sellers to create value with relevant, meaningful interactions. They want an “awesome connecting experience,” and asking quality questions is the fastest way to provide it.

Now, back to that word of caution… Are you sure you know the buyer’s needs? Never assume!

Just because the buyer has a certain job title or previously purchased a certain product doesn’t mean that their needs are obvious or static.

Most buyers have needs that go beyond their need for your product. Understanding the bigger picture needs makes you a higher value partner than someone who keeps things transactional.

It’s better to err on the side of caution. Asking questions to confirm needs is better than making a wrong assumption. It’s also time-​saving. You’ll save a lot of time when you are no longer preparing proposals and delivering solutions that don’t meet buyer needs.

How Can I Convince a Buyer to Spend Time Answering Questions?

Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. What’s the value in spending time to answer your questions? Once you know this answer, you’ll share it with the buyer and earn the time you’re requesting. Possible value for the buyer includes:

  • Solution that is more relevant and tailored to buyer’s specific needs.
  • Saving time later as needs and preferences equip seller to do behind-​the-​scenes work.
  • Opportunity to ask questions and get needed information, too.
  • Evaluating the seller’s credibility, knowledge, trustworthiness, and interpersonal skills.
  • Doing due diligence to find the best solution for the company.

You’ll be more convincing when you see the meeting as one that’s valuable for the buyer.

You’ll also be more convincing if you aren’t apologetic or downplaying the importance of your questions. Avoid saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I have a few questions…” and, “I know you’re really busy, but if I could have just a few minutes….” These statements devalue the meeting and the time spent with you.

Most convincing of all is genuine confidence. If you go into every meeting with a desire to create a high-​value experience for the customer, then they will sense this and respond favorably to it. You can create value simply by asking thought-​provoking questions that help buyers understand their own needs.

I’m Not Sure What to Do With Info From the Discovery Call

Many sellers feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they gather in a discovery call. They get confused by discovery calls made to multiple buyers. They don’t retain or, perhaps, completely miss key information. And when it’s time to use the information, they get bogged down and opt instead for a generic solution.

Here are the steps to take during and after a discovery call to make the most of the information you gathered.

  1. Ask purposeful questions that yield the kinds of responses you’re looking for.
  2. Take notes so you can extract quotations from the buyer and remember exactly what was said.
  3. Listen carefully. Listen for feelings as well as words. Listen for what’s different, not just for confirmation of what you already knew or wanted to hear.
  4. Ask follow-​up questions to fully understand a need and what drives it. Be sure to find out which needs are most important and how urgent they are.
  5. Set a time for the next appointment where you’ll present ideas and collaborate with the buyer to create a solution.
  6. Highlight the most important and urgent needs. These are the ones you’ll echo back to the buyer and build your solution to solve.
  7. Make note of the interesting but extraneous information. It’s not relevant to the sale, perhaps, but it’s important context and useful to start future conversations.
  8. For the needs you’re aiming to solve, determine how your product(s) match and meet those needs. Prepare a clear and compelling statement that makes those links unbreakable.
  9. If you can’t make a clear and compelling link to the primary need, don’t expect the buyer to make this a top priority. Don’t pretend it is the most important need. Position it, instead, as getting one thing out of the way so they focus on the primary need.
  10. If, when preparing your solution and getting ready for the collaboration meeting, you realize that you’re missing vital information, call the buyer and get the information you need. Going back without being able to present clear and compelling links will significantly reduce your changes of closing the sale.

When you know what to do with the information gathered, you’ll see value in the time spent on discovery calls, too. They will save you time because you’ll no longer be preparing ineffective or half-​baked solutions. You’ll have stronger bonds with buyers and increase your close rates. And the more you practice question-​asking skills, the more proficient you’ll become in efficiently conducting discovery calls that lead to closed sales.