Virtual selling has been a buzzword in the world of sales for well over a year now. Based on our interactions with thousands of sales reps and sales leaders over the past months, most people agree that virtual selling will be with us, in most industries, for the foreseeable future. It will become part of the new hybrid world of selling – we will return to the field in some cases, but also continue to connect virtually with customers.
We’ve been conducting online training, workshops, and pushing out relevant content, with the aim of helping sellers elevate their ability to sell virtually. With that in mind, I wanted to cover a particular aspect of the sales process that many salespeople have struggled to master in a virtual setting: Discovery.
The Importance of Discovery
Discovery is not necessarily the hardest part of a sales process, but if a seller conducts discovery poorly or incorrectly, their chances of winning an opportunity plummet. The success of your virtual presentation to a prospect is completely dependent on how well you do discovery.
You could give the best virtual presentation in the world, but if you can’t get your customer to open up and share with you the unfiltered truth (e.g. their problems, their decision criteria, who’s involved, their previous experience, hesitation, etc.), you won’t be successful. You won’t know how to construct your recommendation or your presentation.
And the truth is, it’s harder to do discovery virtually. There are certain barriers that don’t exist in a face-to-face setting. It’s harder to read body language, non-verbal cues, build rapport and manage time constraints.
The Goal of Discovery
The goal of discovery is to do what we call, Take the TripⓇ. Take the Trip is ASLAN’s “antidote” to this truth: when someone has a different or opposing point of view to yours, the only way to help them see your perspective is to first understand (and validate) theirs. The goal is not to change their mind, it’s to truly understand where they’re coming from.
For example, say you’re at the “North Pole” and you see that this way is up. But they’re at the “South Pole” and they have a completely different viewpoint. The way they see the world is entirely different from the way you see the world. How do you get them to change their viewpoint (to go with your sales strategy)?
Here’s the truth: Until you Take the Trip from your position in the North Pole and come down to the South Pole and see their point of view, they will never listen to you. They will never embrace your point of view, no matter how good your sales strategy is.
You need to first understand your customer’s perspective. This is the goal of Discovery, which is accomplished by what sellers ask and how they ask it.
Some Keys to Virtual Discovery
One of the benefits of conducting meetings virtually is our ability to record those sessions. Make sure you have your customer’s permission to record the virtual call – most people have no problem with this, as it allows both parties to review the conversation afterwards. This is an Other-CenteredⓇ benefit that you can offer your customer.
I often say to my customers, “Thanks for joining me today, we’re going to chat for a ____ minutes about ___. Would it be helpful if we record our meeting and then I can send you the link afterwards? That way, you don’t have to take notes, and you can share our meeting with anyone else in your organization who may find it helpful.” Almost everyone says yes.
And there are multiple benefits for you, the seller:
- You can review your “game film” and self-assess.
- You don’t have to take as many notes and can be more present during the interaction itself. Focus on your customer.
- It benefits your sales coaching practice. Show the recording to your sales manager and use it as a resource for feedback and development.
Recording your meetings won’t help you do discovery, but it will help you get better at discovery, and virtual selling in general.
What We Ask and How We Ask It
What we ask is probably very similar to what we would ask in person. Many sellers focus too much on what questions they ask instead of what information they’re trying to get. Take a step back and hone in on what you really want to know (at ASLAN we call this the 3 Ps):
- Plans – what are they trying to do, what are they doing to get there, goals, etc.
- Problems – barriers, issues, roadblocks to their plans (these can be conscious or unconscious)
- Players – who’s involved, decision makers, what’s the process
Most sellers forget to ask about players. They immediately dive into solution mode – but this will come back to bite you.
The difference for virtual discovery comes with how we ask (and how we respond). We need to be even more observant and attentive than we are during face-to-face meetings with customers or prospects. When we’re asking the customer questions in a virtual environment, they can’t easily see our body language – we may have a slide up, they may be looking at something else. The point is, we can’t rely on our body language to convey our intentions or soften our approach. And the truth is, sellers have to ask tough questions, about budget, process, even questions that the customer may not deem as relevant. It can be uncomfortable – so we have to be even more cognizant of how we prime our questions in a virtual meeting.
Priming questions is about two things:
- Give them a reason for asking the question.
When sellers ask a question, and the customer doesn’t see how it’s relevant to the conversation, they’ll make negative assumptions about your motive as a salesperson. This hurts their receptivity level, to you and your recommendation. So spell it out for them. Give them the reason behind your question – a reason that matters to them, a reason that highlights why it’s in their best interest to answer your question, an Other-Centered reason.
- Use part of their answer in your question.
This is another key way to “soften” those tough questions, in a virtual environment especially. Virtual conversations are more difficult to navigate thanks to a number of factors: sound delays, bad connections causing a lag, people talking over one another, uncertainty about whose turn it is to speak. The back and forth can get awkward. When we’re following a line of questioning, these factors can get in the way and disrupt the flow.
One way to combat this is to use part of their answer in your question. For example, “Because you were just saying ____, can you tell me about_____?”
This requires active listening. Don’t think about your next question. Focus on their answer – pay attention to what is said and what is implied. Then use that to continue the flow of conversation and line of questioning.
How We Respond
In addition to what we ask and how we ask it, we also have to pay attention to how we respond in a virtual meeting with our customers. We use an acronym, LEAD, to summarize what this entails: Listen, Empathetically Acknowledge, and Drop the RopeⓇ.
Listening is common sense but not always common practice – it means listening with no agenda. Don’t listen for an opportunity to jump in, don’t listen to use their answer against them. “Clear your cache” and just listen. Remember, our goal throughout this whole process of discovery is to Take the Trip with our customer and truly understand their perspective.
Empathetically acknowledge their answer by tuning into what they’re saying, but also what they’re implying. Make some inferences. Acknowledge their response by feeding back what they’ve said and validating their perspective. Then ask “Did I get that right?” “Is that accurate?” or “I think I heard you saying ____, am I tracking with you?”
The goal is for your customer to say, “Exactly.”
When you repeat/summarize their answer back to them, it gives you the chance to clarify by asking follow-up questions, and it gives the customer a chance to give more color to their answers and correct any confusion. When salespeople are able to do this well, it shows the customer that you are listening to them, they are the priority, and that their position has been heard, understood, and validated.
Once you have understood their position (taken the trip), you can Drop the Rope by asking “Based on everything we just discussed, would you be open to hearing my perspective?”
Summing It Up
Virtual discovery has different challenges and requirements, but hopefully some of our insights and ideas have been useful to you. Record your meetings, prime your questions, Take the Trip, and LEAD, and you’ll see much better and more rewarding outcomes from your virtual discovery meetings.