Editor’s note: Dr. Scott Downey will lead a session on discovery planning at the 2017 Ag Retailers Association (ARA) Management Academy, Jan. 31-Feb. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind. Learn more about the academy and register here.

Each company is different, of course. But in every case, understanding the strategy of a customer company and the beliefs, goals and needs of the people in it, are at the heart of managing key customer accounts.

The objective of discovery is to get inside the customer’s head, allowing sellers in a business-to-business environment to create distinctive, co-created value for important customers.

Discovering value

We use discovery to understand which features will be relevant to a customer and determine the relevant horizon of options to communicate. On the surface, it might seem like we could just ask questions to uncover which features are most relevant. Sometimes we can. If our goal is to create a transactional relationship, that’s pretty efficient. But the outcomes there are fairly superficial, and that space is crowded with competitors.

To find areas for creating partnerships in which there is a true, substantive, measurable contribution between the seller and buyer, the seller can be a catalyst for effective decision making. That requires understanding relationships between individuals, understanding barriers to communication within a customer organization, and understanding competing goals.

Discovery is the tool we use to understand all of these relationships.

Discovery planning

The process of discovery always begins with planning. Think about what you know and don’t know about a customer and then determine the questions you would like answered about the people and organization you’re interacting with.

The key to discovery is trust. Low levels of trust can result in poor or misleading findings. Often people hear the word discovery and perceive it to be a way to get to know a prospect. But these are usually relationships in which trust has not yet been established. Prospects might answer questions, but are often reticent to speak revealingly about problems they face.

Psychologists have identified that, in general, it takes 19 hours with someone to build a relationship. Trust takes time.

According to the book The Trusted Advisor, the major factor that influences trust in a sales relationship is whether the customer sees the salesperson as self-serving. Sellers who care most about themselves achieve low levels of trust. Sellers who care about the customer first achieve higher levels of trust. Talking about what the product does is self-serving. Helping the customers think through what is important to them is customer-serving.

Other factors include perceptions of the seller’s credibility, reliability and perceived intimacy.

Our objective in discovery is to identify organizational strategies and individual beliefs, goals and needs of those who influence, make and use decisions in the organization. Remember that discovery doesn’t just mean figuring out needs you can satisfy. Some of what you learn could be useful in determining what to sell later on, but some of the most powerful information for developing a deep relationship might be unique to the person being interviewed. Sellers also need to know how individuals in the organization communicate and the options they see for solving problems.

In addition to discovery, external resources to understand the customer organization and people might also be useful. These include looking at websites, which often share the organization’s stated mission, vision and values; LinkedIn profiles (or other social media sites) which can provide backgrounds of the people in the organization and areas in which they express pride; and news items, which tell what the company prioritizes bringing attention to.

During discovery, the idea is always to go deeper in terms of understanding motivations and goals, not to stop with a superficial understanding. For example, deeply understanding how customers decide to staff distribution facilities and how they hire, promote, develop and counsel people in those roles, might be more valuable than understanding a product quality issue.

Everyone has a role

Everyone on the team has a role in discovery. Even those not asking questions should be listening to what people from a target organization are talking about. If questions are identified in advance, it will be easier to know which of the things heard are significant. These learnings should be written and updated in a profile that is shared across the team, because they are often gathered over time and from different people.

Periodically, what is learned and recorded in the profiles should be the subject of conversation across the team. As people review updates to the profile, patterns might begin to emerge, and emotional aspects of statements made might begin to help shape a clearer picture of the customer’s strategy. It is these conversations that lead to opportunities to suggest specific value that can be framed around specific goal accomplishments for the customer, rather than generalized value.

The point

At the end of Discovery, a salesperson should be able to, without talking to the customer, answer a few questions:

  1. What are some of the things your customers want to accomplish in their businesses?
  2. What kinds of metrics or observations are your customers likely using to monitor their goals?
  3. Where are they on those measures today?

A salesperson should be able to clearly articulate at least three sets of these observations and be able to understand how these factors influence various aspects of the organization from the customer perspective. Only after understanding how the customer’s strategy impacts multiple areas of their organization can a seller consider how distinctive, co-created value will contribute.

Sellers often want worksheets to fill out or to ask the same set of questions of every potential customer. That doesn’t work very well because each customer is unique and buyers have to make a lot of trade-offs.

In coaching more than 500 people through this process, I know there are several pitfalls for effectively using the discovery process. Like anything, proficiency comes from confidence and competence. Competence comes with knowledge and repetition. While there is a lot of effort that goes into discovery, particularly the first few times it is done, the payoffs can be exceptional.