How to Assess Customer Needs in Half the Time

by | 8 minute read

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.

Deb Calvert

Deb Calvert

Deb Calvert, “DISCOVER Ques­tions® Get You Con­nect­ed” author and Top 50 Sales Influ­encer, is Pres­i­dent of Peo­ple First Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty Solu­tions, a UC Berke­ley instruc­tor, and a for­mer Sales/Training Direc­tor of a For­tune 500 media com­pa­ny. She speaks and writes about the Stop Sell­ing & Start Lead­ing move­ment and offers sales train­ing, coach­ing and con­sult­ing as well as lead­er­ship devel­op­ment pro­grams. She is cer­ti­fied as an exec­u­tive and sales coach by the ICF and is a Cer­ti­fied Mas­ter of The Lead­er­ship Chal­lenge®. Deb has worked in every sec­tor to build lead­er­ship capac­i­ty, team effec­tive­ness and sales pro­duc­tiv­i­ty with a “peo­ple first” approach.