Sales Discovery: Why You Need to Do More Exploring and Less Searching

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This morning, Mike Kunkle wrote an excellent article about sales discovery, which is something that sales professionals generally don’t do as well as they should. Mike gives solid actionable advice on how to improve the process, but there is an important distinction I would like to add.

There are two ways to go about the discovery process: you can search or you can explore. Each has its own strengths, but most salespeople do too much searching and not enough exploring.

I would argue that most salespeople go into a conversation with the intent not to explore, but to find. Exploring is truly open-ended: it’s a search for the actual truth, whether or not the truth actually leads to a sale. Finding is getting the answers you are looking for so that it leads to a sale.

Most salespeople don’t do exploring well because they’re not paid to find the truth; they’re paid to find customers.

The difference is that they know what they are looking for, so they craft their questions specifically to lead towards the answers they want. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but unless the truth contains a real need that they may be qualified to address, “searching” questions become patently obvious to the prospect and breed distrust. Even if there is a real need, impatience or lack of skill and subtlety can rush the process and generate resistance.

And if it’s true that your ultimate goal is to jointly create value in which both parties can share, too much of a laser focus can cause you to overlook unexpected opportunities. Indeed, many scientific discoveries came about when a scientist got a fully unexpected result and had the curiosity to pick up the new thread to see where it led. How many of those types of opportunities have you left on the table by ignoring those threads? As Churchill said, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”

The difference between exploring and searching, as I see it, is that exploration requires an open mind and a willingness to face up to unlooked-for and unexpected answers—those that might indicate to you and to the prospect that there is no current need for what you’re selling. Exploration requires a different mind-set than searching; it requires humility to recognize you don’t automatically have all the perfect answers; curiosity to ask the extra why; and courage to confront unwelcome answers.

Exploration is less about SPIN and more about humble inquiry, asking questions when you don’t already know the answer you want.

Exploration may be a less efficient and direct path to the sale you’re after, but when your counterpart senses that you’re honestly seeking understanding and not just another handle to grasp the sale, it fosters the trust, transparency and teamwork that leads to mutually profitable long term relationships. It’s the best way to jointly create and share new value.

The paradox is that the best way to get what you want is to be prepared to hear what you don’t.

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