Selling Microsoft

The Art of Discovery: Connecting the Dots

Salespeople can get to the basic questions just by pretending to see from the prospect's POV.

In the past couple of years, I've heard a lot about the importance of building a solutions-based practice, understanding the prospect's pain and becoming a trusted business advisor. Those are all genuine needs and critical elements for sales success.

At the same time, these concepts are nothing new. In fact, they're the same ones that I learned when entering the profession more than 30 years ago. I believe that where we should be focusing instead -- especially in terms of training -- is the art of discovery.

Beyond the Basics
This involves more than just asking basic qualifying questions, such as: "Who is making the decision?" "When are you making the decision?" and "Has your budget been defined?"

It even goes beyond asking more in-depth questions, such as: "How is your organization positioned for the future both from an IT perspective and in terms of competition?" and "How will the mergers and acquisitions in your industry affect your business?"

The Prospect's Point of View
Simply put, the art of discovery involves teaching salespeople -- those in the office and those in the field -- how to "connect the dots." This means that salespeople must know not only how to ask the right questions, but also to understand the answers from a prospect's perspective.

Most important, they must know how to respond -- how to ask the proper follow-up questions and probe further based on their own analysis of what they're hearing. Skilled salespeople can then connect those comments to descriptions of how their company's solutions (or Microsoft's) can address the challenges, problems or needs that they've uncovered.

Too often, we observe salespeople "winging it" when they meet with potential customers -- that is, arriving without prepared questions and failing to take detailed notes during the meeting. Those tools are essential to the art of discovery.

Practice Makes Perfect
The best way to teach salespeople to connect the dots is through role-playing, preferably with videotaped exercises. We recommend setting up a "sales call" in the office and role-playing it with good questions and realistic customer responses. This practice allows salespeople to formally rehearse how they should respond. But the real win comes from having them review the exercise on videotape -- where they can really see, hear and begin to adjust their performances. And allowing other sales team members to watch the video will help them learn as well by showing them what works and what doesn't.

For one Acumen client, we developed a certification process in which salespeople had 15 minutes to read a case study and then make a sales call on a "prospect" -- a professional actor who had been given a slightly different scenario. We then assigned a panel of three observers to judge each sales call using a pass/fail grading system. That kind of pressure - backed with proper pre-exercise training -- is the secret to teaching salespeople to connect the dots when they're in front of a qualified prospect. It's also a great way to position them for high-level performance.

Training Tips
To build an ongoing training system, we recommend that you keep videotapes of the top performances and replay them often, and periodically change the questions in case studies to better reflect current situations.

Then just watch your win/loss ratios improve, your pipeline velocity increase and your overall sales go up.

About the Author

Ken Thoreson is managing director of the Acumen Management Group Ltd., a North American consulting organization focused on improving sales management functions within growing and transitional organizations. You can reach him at ken@acumenmgmt.com.