What Exactly is Good Discovery and Why is it so Important

Peter Cohan Episode 30: What exactly is good discovery and why is it so important

Discovery is something that comes up quite a bit in our discussions with sales and presales practitioners. What is it, how do you do it properly, why should you even care about it? 

Obviously, there’s something critical about good discovery.. 

Peter Cohan joined me on the Burning Presales Podcast to share his insights, how it differs from research and qualification, and how getting it right can build rapport with the customer and move deals. 

But doing it poorly can have you backtracking in front of a customer (embarrassing). We took Peter’s immense wisdom for this piece.     

Discovery Heroes or Zeros?

Since this is a “terrific topic and near and dear” to Peter’s heart, he opened with an anecdote that perfectly illustrates why this topic is so important.

While chatting with a head of sales at a company Peter was consulting a few years ago, the conversation turned to the AEs and their skill sets. 

Peter asked at one point, “What percent of your team would you say does a good job doing discovery?” 

“Oh about 20%.” 

Interesting. “What percent of your team believes they do a good job doing discovery, but you know they actually don’t.” 

The head of sales said, “Hang on, let me close my door.” 

Door closed, he continued, “I would say a good 80% of the team believes that they are good or superior at doing discovery, but they really aren’t.”

How often is this the case for sales and presales teams at large?

If you’re in the 20% who are actually proficient at discovery, congratulations! Seriously, we’re happy for you, rock on with your bad self (and maybe help the rest of us out).

The rest of you may need a little help. Don’t worry though. It’s not gonna take a huge shift in ideology. With a deeper understanding of the tools you already use (namly research, qualification, and discovery) and some changes you can make in your approach, the path to Jedi Master is easily within reach.

Defining Discovery, Research, and Qualification 

“People cannot in many cases differentiate between research, qualification, and true discovery.” 

I, um….fumbled a bit when Peter had the gall to ask me to define these and explain the differences. My definitions sounded something like this: research you’re doing beforehand (Ding Ding Ding, we got one right), discovery you’re doing on the spot, and qualification is whatever didn’t happen during discovery. 

Peter said, “You got one, so you are ahead of the curve if you will, but you’re still embedded in the majority.” 

Which is to say, not great. 

Here’s a better breakdown:


The work you should be doing as a vendor prior to engaging in any conversation with the prospect. This includes what you can learn from LinkedIn, the prospect’s website, their financial filings, and so forth. Don’t get caught asking the prospect questions where the answers can be found by a quick search. 


When the vendor evaluates to either rule in or rule out a prospect. Because this is where a lot of people get confused, we’ll put it this way: qualification is done solely for the benefit of the vendor. When you rule out a prospect based on your qualification parameters, you are doing so to prevent your organization from wasting resources on a prospect that is not a good fit or is not serious about making a purchase (AKA still in a “browsing” stage). 


Enables a vendor to collect sufficient information to propose a precise solution to a customer problem as well as instill in the prospect the confidence that the vendor has enough understanding of their situation to propose a precise solution. Again, to put it simply: discovery is done for the benefit of both parties. 

A Medical Diagnosis

Try thinking about it like this. Say you go to a doctor’s office with some unknown illness, the last thing you want the doctor to do is prescribe procedures and drugs without an examination. A doctor who offers a diagnosis without even taking a look at the patient is malpractice, just like a vendor trying to pinpoint a customer’s pain without performing discovery is bad business.

So discovery should be thought of in terms of a mutual process for the benefit of both parties. We’ve written about this concept before in the demo qualified lead. The main idea is you want some sort of gate for customers looking for demos so Presales knows where to spend their time. 

Discovery on the Fly

Not all discovery is created equal. There’s a technique referred to as discovery-on-the-fly that “has some terrific strengths and some horrifying weaknesses”. 

We talked through two of the common scenarios Peter sees:

#1 – You present your prospect with a standard demo. You describe each capability and talk about the potential advantages. Periodically throughout the demo you ask “Is this something that looks interesting to you?” The prospect will likely answer with one of three responses: 1. Yes! 2. No! 3. Maybe… 

Spot the error? You don’t have any idea how the customer is going to react. “If it’s yes, great! You found something that’s interesting to the prospect. If it’s no, what have you done? You’ve entered a dead end. And not only that, but you’ve entered the horrifying universe of ‘buying it back.’ Meaning you’ve presented capabilities that you believe are important and the prospect says, ‘No not interested’.”

That’s one of the biggest risks in doing discovery-on-the-fly. While you’re caught up listing all the aspects of your solution which you find interesting, you’re not actually doing discovery. Instead you’re trying to validate to what degree you’re offering matches their perceived needs. Or at least, your assumptions of those needs.

With the focus on your software, you’ll have a difficult time maneuvering the conversation away from it to anything else including the deeper things you need to know. 

What sort of deeper things? 

“Questions about culture, questions about environment, questions about related pain, questions about impact, questions about value can be difficult to articulate when you’re busy showing your features and capabilities.”  

#2 – Now imagine you avoid the standard demo entirely and opt to present your prospect with a Vision generation demo. Peter describes it as four to six minutes real-time showing your software but with additional context for how these features have helped other customers in the past.

“Now you’re in a terrific situation where you can apply what you might call a variant of discovery on the fly. What you’re doing is you’re saying dear prospect, before I launch into any substantive demo let me share how we’ve helped other folks that might be in similar situations to you.” 

Then you review the customer’s situation emphasizing how other customers were suffering from similar things and this is how your solution was able to help them. Remember, you won’t actually show any software, but you can steer the conversation more effortlessly. You’ll simply show or describe in informal success stories how other similar job titles and similar markets have used our capabilities to solve their problems.

From there, you can highlight one or two key functions that look interesting and align to the problems they’re trying to solve. Now the customer will be more willing to invest some time together exploring your solution in more detail and you’ll be able to put together a real demo that is tailored for the customer’s specific situation. 

You’ve gone from discovery on the fly to enabling a discovery conversation.

Getting People to Open Up (or stabbing them in the back)

Actual discovery is all about getting the prospect to open up and, hopefully, share some insights that will be beneficial to both of you. Peter used me as an example during the podcast (don’t worry. No VPs of Marketing were injured during this discovery process).

Peter: So Aaron, how did you ascend this position of power and authority at Consensus? 

Aaron: Stabbing people in the back! No, I would say I’m a hustler at adding value at the appropriate times and places for people around me.  

Peter: Oh, interesting! And by the way, if this was real life, I would ask a little bit about you know what were your last few positions, what attracted you to Consensus. Now what has just happened? 

Aaron: Yeah, you’ve opened me up in a way that I wouldn’t have opened up if you had asked it in a different way. 

This is an elegant and simple way to begin discovery. It keeps the focus on the prospect and it’s a wonderful way to begin a discovery conversation. Don’t immediately jump into talking about major pain points or what keeps them up at night. Instead, ease into the conversation and build a rapport. 

Think back to our earlier doctor analogy. You don’t go directly from the street into an examination room with a physician. First, you go into the waiting room where you fill out some forms about your medical history. Then they take you to the nurses station where they take your vitals, weigh you, take your blood pressure, your temperature, etc. Then you still don’t get to be seen by the doctor until you’ve sat in the examination room for a while. 

This is like easing your customers into a discovery conversation. “The customer is going to admit some frightening and serious pain,” Peter explained, “so this approach also works extremely well in discovery. Tell me about yourself before we talk about your situation in business.” 

You ask simple questions, things like: 

  • Tell me about your team? 
  • How many folks? 
  • Where are they located? 
  • What are their backgrounds? 
  • How long have they been with your organization? 

Once you’re through that, you’ve started to establish a rapport. Now your prospect is probably going to be much more willing and comfortable to explore his or her major pain. 

But this just really scratches the surface to what discovery should be. If you’ve made it this far and realized that maybe you could use help really nailing down a discovery methodology, you can get more insights from Peter Cohan in a webinar he did for us called, “Seven Skills Levels for Stunningly Successful Discovery”.   

To close, “Discovery should be perceived as a methodology. It’s an integrated coherent set of skills and methods to accomplish very specific goals.”

Consensus is Intelligent Demo Automation that scales your presales function.