Unmasking the Sales Saboteurs: 3 Silent Killers of Discovery Calls

By: Lauren Spiller on December 15, 2023
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It’s not always obvious when a discovery call starts going south. In fact, new sales professionals might not know that anything went wrong until they don’t hear from the prospective client again.

Being able to identify the factors derailing discovery calls can help new sales reps not only course correct, but take their discovery calls to the next level. To learn more, we spoke with Bryan Gray, [1] CEO of Revenue Path Group, a sales training and consulting company.

“A discovery call should be about: How do I best understand your priorities and what you really need in a way that allows me to find the best fit between our organizations? That’s what it should be focused on.”

Bryan Gray

Gray has over 20 years of experience in sales and is co-author of the book “The Priority Sale,” so he has a good grasp of the moves sales reps should be making during that first conversation with a prospect. We draw on Gray’s experience and our own research to reveal three silent killers that may be hurting your reps’ discovery calls. We also share tips to use in your next sales training session.

What is a discovery call?

A discovery call is the first conversation a sales rep has with a prospect after the latter shows interest in their brand. Best suited for complex sales where the product or service is tailored to the buyer’s needs (e.g., major software purchases or investments in third-party services), these calls are particularly crucial when the wrong choice could have significant and/or costly consequences.

1. To build trust, avoid close-ended questions

The questions a sales rep asks during a sales discovery call can be the difference between a converted customer and a lost sale. With this in mind, the most common saboteur of an otherwise successful discovery call is the use of close-ended questions such as:

  • How many employees does your company have?

  • What’s your budget? 

  • By when do you need to make a decision?

These questions are useful for collecting information, but they do very little to build trust with your potential customer. “If you don’t get to that point,” says Gray, “you completely miss your opportunity. You’ll be able to say, ‘They have X number of seats, and they’re looking for X number of people,’ but you didn’t build trust; you just prepared a quote.”

Ways to counteract closed-ended questions

For a more effective discovery call, Gray emphasizes the importance of what he calls powerful questions. These open-ended questions are tailored to your buyer’s situation and are intended to be thought provoking. Below are examples of what these look like, along with their intention.

Discovery question


What does your ideal outcome look like?

Shows what success looks like to your buyer (and whether or not it’s realistic)

What are you afraid might happen if you aren’t able to solve this problem?

Reveals your buyer’s fears, which is a motivating factor in making (or not making) a purchase

Why hasn’t this problem been addressed already?

Helps you understand any obstacles your buyer has previously encountered

Gray adds that good discovery call questions go beyond gathering facts and figures to help you stand out from competitor brands. “If I can attach the impact of my solution to the prospects needs, I can minimize my competition by building trust faster and to a higher degree.”

Use tech to collect surface-level information

Close-ended questions are not unimportant; it’s more that reps should have that information before the discovery call. If your organization doesn’t use it already, landing page software is a great way to collect customer data before scheduling a discovery call by encouraging leads to fill out a form with key facts about their business. These tools integrate with your CRM so reps can research a potential client before getting on the phone with them.

2. To combat commoditization, differentiate your brand

Commoditization is our second silent killer. It refers to the fact that your brand will be, at least at first, simply another option for your buyer. This is particularly true when a buyer is further along in their sales discovery process and has created a shortlist of options to research further.

“This isn’t a great place to be,” admits Gray. “If your buyer is talking to other companies, you’re already being commoditized.” Unfortunately, this situation is common. Gartner research shows that B2B buyers spend about six months engaging with various vendors before selecting a solution. [2] This could mean a buyer may already have a vendor in mind but is meeting you as a formality.

Ways to counteract commoditization

What can reps do to ensure their brand stands out from competitors? “First, I need to be able to answer why in the world I should be picked,” Gray explains. “If I don’t ask the right questions in my discovery call, we won’t even get to the point where they say, ‘That’s why we’re picking Bryan’s company.’ If I can’t separate myself, then I’m just one of three options.”

A rep’s next move is to ask specific questions that empathize with the buyer’s fears. “If I’m able to address what’s threatening your organization through my questions,” says Gray, “the barrier between us lowers. This is a good way to become a trusted advisor to your buyer and start learning things about them that your competition won’t.”

Practice asking questions through role play

Sixty-two percent of sales professionals in our 2023 Business Structure Survey say their company conducts B2B sales training once a quarter or more.* Sales managers like you can keep pace by using learning management software to share training content with their team. This content can include role play scenarios in the form of videos or a discovery call script. It can also include a discovery call checklist and related articles as resources for reps.

3. To conduct more successful calls, beware of confirmation bias

Our third silent killer is confirmation bias, or the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs. Whether confirmation bias is held by the buyer or seller, it can hurt your sales.

When a buyer has confirmation bias, it’s usually when they’re further along in the sales process, like in the example we gave earlier. If they already have a preferred vendor in mind, chances are they won’t actually hear anything you say in your discovery call. They’re firm in their belief that their vendor’s product is best, perhaps because it was recommended by a friend or relative. 

When a sales rep has confirmation bias, it’s usually because they’re eager to close the sale whether or not it’s a good fit for the buyer. Newer reps who are overly enthusiastic about their first or second call can especially fall prey here. Unfortunately, this often results in reps spending too much time on less-promising opportunities and not enough on those that are promising.

Ways to counteract confirmation bias

Train reps to take the following steps with buyers exhibiting confirmation bias:

  • Understand the buyer’s perspective. Validating their buyer’s experiences and thoughts can help prevent the buyer from becoming defensive.

  • Identify their needs. Reps should ask the buyer what they like about their current solution and what could be improved. This way, they can start an honest conversation about the buyer’s needs and suggest ways their brand might be able to meet them.

  • Gently nudge. Reps should ask questions that prompt the buyer to reflect on whether their current solution is meeting their standards. This way, if the lead decides to go with your brand instead, they will feel as though they came to the conclusion on their own.

To help reps become more aware of their own confirmation bias in discovery calls, set clear criteria for qualifying and disqualifying opportunities at each stage of the sales process and reinforce those criteria during your training sessions. When reps can clearly see which opportunities meet their qualifying criteria, they can use their time more effectively.

Uplevel your sales training sessions

If you aren’t already using sales coaching software, we recommend investing in it. These tools are used to onboard new reps and provide continuous training to current reps to ensure specific competency and performance levels are maintained. Features and functionalities include gamification, goal setting and tracking, and the ability to create assessments for reps.

Arm your team with the right tech tools

Sales reps are under a lot of pressure to make successful discovery calls, even without these silent killers undermining their performance. To help alleviate this pressure, here’s a roundup of tools we recommended above:

  • Landing page software can help your team collect customer data before the discovery call, eliminating the need for those close-ended surface-level questions.

  • Learning management software gives your team a leg up by providing them with resources that can help them differentiate themselves from other brands.

  • Sales coaching software prepares your reps for difficult customers, such as those exhibiting confirmation bias, by ensuring certain competency and performance levels are maintained.

Another option to consider is sales intelligence software. These tools leverage AI and data analytics to provide valuable insights and information to your team. In other words, reps can analyze and learn from their discovery calls after they’ve hung up. If you aren’t ready to invest in these tools, Gray recommends using any recording technology, such as call recording software, to help reps recap their conversations.

Survey methodology

*Software Advice's 2023 Business Structure Survey was conducted in April 2023 among 244 U.S. respondents to learn more about sales strategy and framework, and challenges faced by sales leaders. Respondents were screened for a business development or sales role in a business with 1,000 employees or fewer.