The Discovery Call Questions Marketing Agencies Should Ask Their Prospects

By: Dann Albright

January 9, 2019

No matter what you’re selling, great discovery calls are all about asking the right questions.

Questions keep the focus 100% on the customer’s needs, not the salesperson’s goals.

Questions help you find out what they want and need while simultaneously giving the impression that you have solved problems like theirs for people like them.

But, what questions should you ask?

Now that depends on what you’re selling.

When we speak with marketing agencies about using our sales playbook software to sell their own services, one of the questions they always ask us is, “What questions should I ask my prospects?”

To help our marketing agency customers put together a killer sales playbook, we teamed up with the Research Team at Databox to get input from their top marketing agency partners.

In total, we gathered sales  qualification questions from 26 experts, as well as the answers they expect to hear from their prospects.

Here’s what they do…

First, Adopt a Sales Qualification Framework

Many sales professionals use a framework for structuring their sales calls.

For example, companies that sell in a more transactional manner often use BANT (Budget, Authority, Needs, Timing), while companies that sell high-priced products to larger enterprises might use something like MEDDIC (Metrics, Economic Buyer, Decision Criteria, Decision Process, Identify Pain, Champion).

If you aren’t familiar with these acronyms, HubSpot has written a comprehensive guide describing many popular qualification frameworks, including these two.

We asked respondents what frameworks they use and gave them the following options:

  • GPCT (Goals, Plans, Challenges, Timeline)
  • BANT (Budget, Authority, Needs, Timeline)
  • ANUM (Authority, Need, Urgency, Money)
  • MEDDIC (Metrics, Economic Buyer, Decision Criteria, Decision Process, Identify Pain, Champion)
  • CHAMP (Challenges, Authority, Money, and Prioritization)
  • FAINT (Funds, Authority, Interest, Need, Timing)

Sales Qualification Frameworks

As we expected the most popular framework amongst Databox’s marketing agency partners was the Goals, Plans, Challenges, Timeline (GPCT) framework. This framework was created by HubSpot and has been used to train the thousands of marketing agencies who have enrolled in HubSpot’s partner program. Peter Caputa IV, the founder of HubSpot’s agency program and current CEO of Databox, wrote a complete guide on the GPCT framework on HubSpot’s blog, and this framework was later incorporated into HubSpot’s free sales training course.

But, even with an overarching framework, you’ll still need to know the specific questions you’re going to ask.

Here’s what the respondents suggested…

Identify the Most Critical Goal(s).

“The most important question,” says CIENCE’s Eric Quanstrom, “is the buyer-centric first question, ‘I’m interested to learn what led you to take this call?’”

“Before any ‘pitch’ this information gathering is massively important as it will signpost what is most interesting to the prospect.”

“They usually go right into what interested them about your product/solution/offering right away. “

“At CIENCE, we ask this question because it forces the would-be buyer to open up and talk about themselves first.”

“There are few better call openers when it comes to letting people talk, listening intently, and then driving a conversation down the road that they want to go.”

HubSnacks’ David Bolton phrases the question like this: “So John, tell me what motivated you to take the time to talk with me today?”

“The Goal is to figure out what their pain is and name it and also to name any bad alternatives they have tried. ”

Jason Lavis from Relentless Pursuit of Perfection puts it simply: “What got you thinking about…(product/solution)?”

“Very often, a prospect tells the truth and discloses their main motivations and hot buttons.”

“If they can’t answer properly, or avoid the question, this can tell us about the quality of our leads. Keeping track of responses to this question helps us identify when prospects have been misled, pressured by sales people, or poorly targeted.”

“Lastly, we might assume why people want to buy our product or service based on our own views, or past sales. Asking the prospects uncovers new trends and benefits for us to capitalize on in the future.”

“What would a successful outcome look like for you?”

That’s what Ryne Higgins of Peacock Alley asks in discovery calls.

“A prospective client’s answer to this question will help you see what it would be like to work with them and if they are right for your organization. Would you realistically be able to help them reach this outcome?”

“This will also give you a big-picture of idea of what your goals will look like for this client.”

Digital 22’s Caroline Sibley asks the same question.

“It is important for us to understand what they are looking for and how they will define success.  We want to ensure that our service will meet their expectations.”

Adrian Doggrell from Revenue River tries to “get the potential client thinking analytically” with this question. She’ll say, “Let’s put some goals in place and begin to map out your current funnel metrics.”

While some marketers are open to clients having multiple goals, ClearPivot’s Chantelle Stevenson emphasizes focus by asking “What is your top goal for your website?”

Then, she digs in deeper, depending on how they respond. “Every business owner sells/does something different and will have different goals in mind when it comes to their website. For example, lead-generation sites, in particular, are more concerned with simply being gateways to lead customers to their offerings and fill out requests for more information. Having a catchy website with an easy to recognize contact form for a lead-generation site is key. But, if they are an e-commerce company or a software company, the goal might be completely different.”

Uncover The Challenges Preventing Them from Hitting Their Goals

Brian Carter of Keynote Speaker Brian asks this question in discovery calls:

“What’s stopping you from achieving your #1 goal?”

“No matter how detailed they get on this,” says Carter, “they are describing an internal deficiency of resources or processes. And it’s easier to sell if they already believe we have resources to fill the gap and the processes to follow.”

“For example, if they need to achieve marketing goals that can’t be accomplished with organic (non-advertising) methods, our ad agency can help them with digital and social advertising.”

“If they are stuck internally due to sales, teamwork, or generational issues, I can do a speaker to come in and inspire them. If, they have watched my videos already, they may already be convinced that I’m the answer.”

“One question I ask my prospects,” says Isabella Federico of webizz, “is ‘Which are the main roadblocks you are finding in reaching your main business goals?’”

“The prospect is forced to think in terms of long terms goals versus daily operations and resources. He is not given the possibility to be generic (like: ‘I want to increase my revenues all over the world’, ‘I want to be the first’) but he must put in discussion his current strategy and recognize he can have a problem (‘Why am I not yet the first’…).”

Federico continues: “The prospect is forced to analyze each single step of his value channels and see where he may have a need to solve or improve the situation. This allows us to tailor a strategy on the specific needs of the customer (what he needs and where he needs it) and on his resources.”

Jennifer Lux from LyntonWeb makes the question a bit more personal: “What is the business challenge you are trying to solve through your marketing efforts? What is the thing that keeps you up at night?”

“I love to ask this question as it gives us a sense of the big picture problem we must solve during our partnership.

“It’s easy for clients to get into the weeds about what they need help ‘doing’ and ‘setting up’ but our partnership should impact the bottom line and solve a business problem at the end of the day. I find this question positions us more as a collaborative, innovative partner.”

“The answers range from ‘bring in more revenue’ to ‘align our sales and marketing teams’ to ‘get us more leads’.”

“Sometimes prospects will pause and have to think about that as they are so ‘in the weeds’ with tactics,” says Lux, “that they might forget to look at the impact of their efforts more globally.”

Suggest Some Challenges They May Be Facing

“Many of our current clients have indicated problems in the following areas A, B and C,” offers SparkReaction’s Jesse Frye. “How are these areas affecting you? What are your thoughts about them?”

“The key reason why you ask this question is to

  • Identify if the prospect has the problems.
  • Determine whether they fit your ideal customer profile.
  • Try to figure out if they will they be a good fit as a client.

[W]hen you bring up specific problems that your agency can address, prospects will either relate with those problem areas or they won’t. Your goal by giving them  three options that you can solve is to understand if the prospect has the problems you can solve.”

“Most clients will connect with the problems and expand on each problem and even tell stories about how they experienced the problems and the impact on their business.”

Understand Their Current Process and Plan

“Could you walk me through how your process currently works?” asks Michael Tuso from Chili Piper.

“A well-qualified prospect will generally open up immediately after being probed with this question. For me, asking this question usually gives me the opportunity to dive in with more follow up questions with genuine curiosity.”

“Prospects typically enjoy this buyer-centric approach and offer up the information because they believe it is in an attempt to solve a meaningful problem that brought them to me.”

“[This question] eliminates the sales dynamic and immediately becomes two people just having a conversation.”

g2m’s Chris Fell uses a similar question to determine their current plans, or lack thereof: “So, given what we discussed about the challenges you face and the implications of not fixing them, what do you think you need to solve them?”

This approach works for two reasons, says Fell:

“By verbalizing their need they are accepting there is a pain point that is worth fixing. They own it.
It allows us to position the appropriate capabilities and features of our solution against their stated needs, we can focus our offer and dispense with features that aren’t relevant to that prospect.”

Determine Their Timeline for Achieving Their Goals

Many marketers suggest asking clients about specific timelines.

For example, Jonathan Aufray from Growth Hackers asks about the company’s goals in the next three to six months.

“A well-qualified prospect will tell us what the company goals are and give us an estimate of the numbers they are expecting.”

“For example, let’s say theirs goals is to drive traffic to their website, they will tell us their current number of weekly or monthly unique visitors and what they’re expecting for the coming quarters,” says Aufray.

“It’s very important to understand the timeline of goals. Then, we can create a custom strategy for them where we’ll focus on improving the metrics they want to improve within the timeline they expect.”

Webiteers takes a slightly longer view and asks about the goals for the coming six months to a year, says Dennis Sievers.

“In most cases you get an unquantifiable answer, like: ‘We need more leads,’ or ‘We want to improve our visibility in search engines.’ It’s hard for most prospective clients to come up with these numbers.”

This question “not only gives me crucial information on where they want to be in 6 or 12 months,” says Sievers:

“It also tells me something about the maturity of the company (or their strategy) and how I need to proceed helping them move forward. ROI is something we focus on very strongly and that’s hard when we miss crucial numbers around business goals.”

Agency marketer Josh Meah looks even further ahead: “Where would you like to see the business 3 years from now?”

This question, says Meah, “needs multiple follow-up ‘why?’ questions to connect the wants to a prospect’s perceived needs.”

“You usually get either a specific answer or the knowledge that the client is unfocused, which tells you a lot about your current objective. Either the client knows what they want and now you can develop the pain and need further—and attach yourself as the solution (eventually)—or the client needs a visionary to piece together a solution.”

“A well-qualified prospect will simply give you an honest answer to the first question. If they punt or answer sheepishly, then further need development is required.”

“This information becomes the basis for everything—future projects, next conversations, recap emails—literally all communications,” continues Meah.

“One key to sales is to care about the same things your prospect cares about. To do that, you need to understand their personal commitment to a specific future at which point you become an allied member of their personal team.”

“Remember that the goal of sales is to solve problems, so if you don’t have a problem identified, then what reason do you have for selling?”

Identify the Budget Available

Not all marketers ask about a specific timeline. Some are more open in their discovery calls.

“We start by asking for their growth goals,” says Pat Ahern of Junto. “Are they looking to grow 10% over the next 12 months 50%? 100%? Or more than 100%. From there, we ask how much they can invest in achieving that growth.”

“A well-qualified prospect answers with a budget range that falls in line with realistic growth goals.”

“Growth rates vary significantly for a $1 million business vs. a $10 million business. However, we can quickly identify that we won’t be the right fit for a prospect that is expecting to grow 100% year over year on a $500/month budget.”

“For example, we benchmark a 100% year-over-year growth for a company with 5–10,000 monthly organic visitors that signs up for our Rapid Growth SEO services.”

“When a prospect with 5,000 monthly organic visitors comes to us, looking to grow 200% year over year, we can benchmark that we’ll need to double our Rapid Growth monthly deliverables to achieve that growth goal.”

“If that prospect’s budget is limited to $1,000/month,” says Ahern, “it’s safe to assume that we won’t be the right partner to help them achieve their goals.”

“From there, we can either walk them through our DIY approach to growing their business, or put them in touch with another agency that we trust who can work with a smaller budget.”

Jake Fisher from Bridges Strategies asks “By what date do you expect to achieve the desired goal?”

“The timeline question is an easy way to gauge urgency,” says Fisher. “A non-committal or wishy-washy answer is a huge red flag. It means that there may not be organizational resolve sufficient to work with us. “

“A potential client tells me how many sales that they want to make by a specific time, then we can start the process of assessing whether or not the expectation is realistic.”

Source Capital’s Elizabeth Jenkins asks a similar question: “What is your timeline on making this purchase and what are the primary roadblocks that you are facing?”

“A qualified prospect should answer this question one of two ways. They should either provide a specific date or window of time that they want the deal to be done. Or they should say timing is not important and that they are looking for the right deal.”

“I ask this question so I can gauge how serious the potential prospect is as well as to know whether or not I am dealing with a desperate client with an immediate need, which would give me the upperhand.”

Identify the  Decision-Making Process

David Zeff from Exceed.ai asks a tie-down question during discovery calls to determine the decision-making process and timeline:

“If you found the perfect solution for you today, when would you like to move ahead and what would be the next steps that we would need to take?”

“The well-qualified prospect should respond by outlining the decision-making process, the timing of the decision and any other steps involved in the purchase process.”

“For example: ‘Well, if we found the perfect solution, we would want to move ahead by the end of the year. I would need approval from my Director and then I would need IT to approve the purchase. After that, we would need to present it to the CFO and legal team for final approval.’”

“I find that the biggest challenge in the world of SAAS and Enterprise sales in particular,” says Zeff, “is mapping the decision making process and understanding the timing of the decision.”

“Often, without an understanding of this process, a salesperson will struggle to hold various parties accountable for their part in the process and to work against a deadline.”

“The use of the words ‘what steps would we need to take’ also highlights the consultative nature of the sales process, which is critical today as buyers look to purchase from people they trust.”

Determine Consequences & Implications of Inaction

“One of the best questions I’ve used over the years after working to discover the prospect’s problem is ‘What if you did nothing?’” says Diona Kidd from Knowmad.

“A well-qualified prospect offers a very clear consequence. For instance, they might say, ‘we won’t hit our sales goal and, as a result, won’t be able to hire the people we need for next year.’

“It’s that last bit that is meaningful. If they stop at, ‘won’t hit our sales goal,’ I’ll dig in further. I might ask, ‘what would happen if you don’t hit your goal? Will it cost you or the company anything? Or will you just adjust budgets?’”

“Even with the example of hiring, we want to know what situation does that create. What’s the consequence of that?”

“Understanding the consequence of failure helps frame the entire conversation. Instead of talking about sales goals, we’ll talk about the true consequence—like not being able to hire the staff they need and struggling to get by on existing, overworked staff, for instance.”

Some marketers go for a personal, emotional connection in their discovery calls as a way to determine what the implications of success or failure are.

In that vein, Chris Grant from Babelquest asks prospects “What does achieving that goal mean to you personally? What happens if you don’t get there?”

Prospects “will talk about their personal motivations and the emotional drivers behind hitting the goal you have been talking about.”

“As an example, the prospect is a CEO of an SME, their goal is to grow the business by 10% next year.”

“If you ask ‘what does that mean to you personally?’ you might find out that they are planning to retire next year and if they hit the growth goal they can sell the company, buy a bar in Spain and enjoy retirement in the sun. The flip side is that failing to hit that goal means another year before they can retire.”

“Conversely, you could discover that failing to hit the goals means the company has to close a factory and the CEO has to let 20 people go.”

“I ask this question because understanding emotional drivers behind a business decision is a powerful indicator whether a prospect is likely to move forward or not.”

“I’d use the information as the basis of every subsequent conversation—it helps form a bond with the prospect that goes beyond the business transaction.”

Marketer and trainer Elliott B Jaffa goes even more personal with his question:

“Do you like me?”

“Bottom Line: We do business with people we like! After developing that strategy, you then use ‘sales judo’ in small steps to achieve your goal: Not the sale just yet, but rather that you were the most likeable vendor of all the people that potential clients spoke to.”

“I ask this question toward the end of our conversation. A few [of] the dozen or so of my ‘sales judo’ questions include: ‘Who do you root for?’ or ‘Do you still root for the Blue Devils?’ ‘What’s your daughters name?’ ‘Where’s that accent from? Jersey, Boston, Louisiana?’

“These questions are dispersed throughout our conversation. Follow up to the responses to these questions on my part may include responses such as: ‘Do you get to Fenway often during the season?’ ‘How old are Samantha and Julie?’ ‘What town in Jersey are you from?’”

In the end, most discovery calls aim to answer one question:

“Why change?”

And that’s exactly what Ismail Aly of IDS asks prospects.

“We ask this information to understand the business drivers behind their need for change, so for example if a lead is considering to hire an agency to help with generating leads, it is important to understand the reason why do they need to generate more leads, are they churning a lot of customers, or their growth stalled, or their competitors are gaining market shares.”

“All of these are different triggers and each of these reasons requires a different strategy to tackle.”

If you can find out why your prospect wants to make a change, you can position your services as the best driver of that change.

Start Asking More & Better Questions to Close Better Clients and Bigger Deals

Hopefully, these questions help you create a better sales qualification playbook for your marketing agency.

If the success of these agencies is any indication, it should.

“Many of the agencies who follow this process have gone from one-person agencies operating from their dining room to $5M+ firms growing 20-40% year-over-year.” said Caputa. “When we started teaching agencies to sell the ROI of their services through a consultative sales process, I knew we were on to something. But, I never expected so many agencies would do so well with it.”

“The agencies that are on a clear path to $10M+ are the ones who have embraced questioning in every interaction with clients. They excel in the early part of the sales process when first qualifying prospects, but they are also building sales playbooks for upselling and cross-selling new services” he added.

Are you convinced? What questions from this article will you be adding to your repertoire? Are there other questions you ask that should be added to this list?


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    Dann Albright

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