How to Improve the Sales Discovery Process: Opinions From Top SEs on Presales to Sales Handoffs

12 minute read

Discovery is one of the biggest friction points in the sales process.

That’s because AEs often drive discovery calls, using the time to focus on deal qualification, buying power, and stakeholders’ influence.

If SE’s aren’t looped into the discovery process, key prospect priorities can be misinterpreted or lost in translation. Without a solid idea of a prospect’s goals, needs, or feature interest, it’s challenging to craft a compelling demo.

And when a demo flops, there’s a low likelihood that the deal will close.

With so much at stake, companies can’t afford to brush discovery under the rug. So in this post, we explain why discovery is so important and then offer seven ways to enhance your discovery process.

Why is discovery important?

Discovery is a crucial element of the sales process.

Learning what a prospect’s motivations are, what their budget is, and what challenges they are currently facing can help reps and SEs design a more customized, and therefore more powerful, plan of attack.

Plus, collecting relevant information saves the prospects and sales engineers time in the long run.

According to our State of the Demo report, a majority of demos last 30 minutes to an hour. But most demos don’t need to be that long.

When SEs understand what a potential customer cares about, they can show the parts of an application that will actually wow the prospect and skip the parts that are just filler. While conducting research for the State of the Demo report, we heard this resoundingly from our peers:

“Buyers don’t have the patience to sit through hour-long demonstrations, and they certainly don’t take the time to watch hour-long recordings of demo meetings.”

“Demos need to become short and sweet, you no longer need to show all 3 products and 100% of their features.”

Great discovery also enables sales engineers to tailor demos specifically to prospects’ wants and needs一a must-have in today’s selling climate. Prospects expect a personalized experience and can tell if an SE is presenting another canned demo.

7 ideas for improving the sales discovery process

Discovery is tough to get right, but with so much on the line, it’s critical to keep optimizing it over time.

Below, we share seven crowd-sourced ideas from expert SEs in the B2B space to upgrade your discovery process.

1. Treat discovery as the most critical element of the sales process

Discovery isn’t just a throwaway step in the sales process. If you do them right, discovery calls yield a wealth of information to help you configure the perfect solutions for your clients.

If you do them wrong, you risk being just another boring salesperson. Prospects tune out and don’t even want to move forward to a demo. I like to say: “no discovery equals no demo.” It’s just that simple.

To treat discovery like the vital step that it is, you need to know your customer. For example, let’s say I’m giving someone a tour of Tucson, Arizona.

I introduce them to all of our Mexican restaurants, the Reid Park Zoo, the Pima Air and Space Museum, and the Art Gallery downtown, only to find out later that they are allergic to dairy, have an aversion to animals, and don’t appreciate art.

If I’d done even a little digging beforehand, I would’ve learned that this guest would rather hike, go four-wheeling, and explore one of the ghost towns in the area. Without taking the time to gather this knowledge, I gave them a subpar experience, to say the least.

The exact same principle applies to a demo.

Todd Henderson, Accela

2. Collaborate with AEs

Sometimes working with AEs can be a hassle.

When you ask what type of demo you should prepare for a discovery call, you’re often met with silence or the dreaded words, “standard.” But we all know that creating the same demo for every single customer doesn’t work.

So I decided to set up a recurring meeting with my AE at the end of each week. During that time, we review the planned demos for the following week and brainstorm ways to delight and excite each prospect.

I found this sync to improve our collaboration tremendously一suddenly we became a team.

And the no-escalation approach laid the groundwork for future collaboration. The problem was solved without involving anyone else; we just needed a change of perspective.

Kathrin Brunner, iGrafx

3. Have SCs/SEs join discovery calls

At my company, we ask that SCs join discovery calls with AEs. I find it helpful when the AE focuses on understanding a buyer’s pain points, figuring out what success looks like, and determining what metrics matter to drive the buying decision.

During that part of the call, the AE will promise to solve the prospect’s problems, and my job is to dig in and create confidence and trust.

My goal during the call is to identify barriers to success and the tech landscape our solution will operate in.

Ultimately, this information helps me build demos that show we understand the prospect’s requirements and have a solution that will deliver on the AE’s promise.

Grant Oyston, Ada

Even if you can’t join the discovery call, ask the AE to share a Gong or Chorus recording to ensure you have the right context.

4. Know who is doing what

Understanding each person’s role in a discovery call is a non-negotiable.

On the calls, I like to invite the AE, myself, and anyone else from the team who could be an asset during Q&A, like a solutions architect or product manager.

Before the call, I review the roles that each team member plays一they should all be distinct but support one another.

As a solutions engineer, my role is to ask leading questions that will give me the clearest indication of how a prospect’s day-to-day operations work. I want to know what their workflow is, who manages approvals, who needs to know about approvals, etc.

The answers to these questions will help me craft a future demo with email notifications, workflow scenarios, and other processes that impress the prospect.

AEs, on the other hand, should be using this time to understand who the main decision makers are, who writes the checks, how long the sales cycle will likely be, and what the prospect’s budget is.

And the additional team members are there for support when someone lobs a hardball question.

Knowing what everyone’s job is before the call even starts ensures no one steps on anyone’s toes, asks repetitive questions, or fails to ask the right questions.

Todd Henderson, Accela

5. Set specific and strict internal expectations

The discovery and demo process will differ slightly for every client, but implementing a solid process can make it go infinitely faster and smoother.

With that in mind, I suggest setting very firm expectations with sales and sales engineering teams. At my company, the sales team knows that an SE can and should decline a demo request if any of the following is true:

  • The SE hasn’t been involved in discovery and/or no discovery notes have been shared
  • No one has scheduled an internal prep meeting ahead of the demo
  • No one has drafted an org-specific set of slides based on knowledge of the prospect’s challenges and goals

Laying out mutually agreed-upon expectations ensures that invites are only sent when the required information, documentation, and preparation is complete.

If any deviations occur, our SEs explain the impact disorganization can have on their work to AEs and their managers and find a way to resolve the problems.

Mackenzie Pick, Advarra

6. Keep things conversational and express genuine interest

Sometimes, calls can get stiff. Running through a list of twenty or more questions is tedious and can feel like a waste of time.

In fact, many prospects resort to one-word answers to make the process go faster. These answers provide very little insight and often have no connection to the next question.

I find that engaging the prospect in a conversation, rather than going through a bulleted list, reveals much more useful information.

What can help with this is making time to research a prospect’s business and show genuine interest in what they do. Visit their website, learn about their customers, and try to picture their day-to-day. Sincerity and authenticity go a long way to establishing trust but know that they cannot be manufactured.

People see through inauthentic inquiries and can feel it when you’re just going through the motions. Bringing your passion and enthusiasm to discovery calls enables you to connect with your audience and coaxes them to open up.

For instance, I did a discovery call with a client that operated in a city I had visited in person for the Fourth of July. Knowing the layout and current events made for nice small talk and allowed me to bring up their annual parade and the permits associated in a natural way.

Talking about the prospect’s town, even with just a baseline level of knowledge, helped them see I cared about their success and wanted to deliver the best possible product for their needs, and got them to give me the valuable information I needed.

Todd Henderson, Accela

7. Peel the onion

You won’t always get the most forthcoming prospects on discovery calls, making it challenging to get the information you need. One strategy that almost always works is something I like to call “peeling the onion.”

When you hear a prospect use descriptive words like cheaper, better, faster, poor, bad, good, or improved, consider it an opportunity to unravel what’s going on.

For example, let’s say a prospect says their testing quality is poor. That doesn’t tell you much. Instead of moving on to the next question on your list, inquire what happens due to poor testing.

The prospect might respond by saying that outages occur. That’s one more piece of information, but it still doesn’t tell the whole story. At this point, you could ask about what happens as a result of the outages.

Continuing to ask thoughtful questions often ends in a lengthy anecdote that perfectly describes the prospects’ issues.

Prospects will often provide invaluable information, like how often outages occur, how much those outages cost, and how they’ve already attempted to fix them.

John Care, Mastering Technical Sales

After transforming the discovery process with these seven tips, it’s time to create an outstanding demo. Learn how by reading some of our blog posts:


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