Discovery Call Disaster: 7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

Say what you will, but from where I sit, running effective discovery calls is THE most important part of the sales process.

Two reasons…

First, the discovery call can make or break your relationship with a new prospect. Get it right, and you could have a customer for life. Get it wrong, and… well… you could be done before you start.

Second, it’s important to sharpen your sword through constant practice and refinement.

But keep in mind, making more discovery calls isn’t enough to generate success. There are plenty of pitfalls and mistakes you can fall into in the discovery process.

After analyzing tens of thousands of calls using conversation intelligence technology, I’ve identified 7 common mistakes that could easily be avoided.

Related: 3 Discovery Call Questions that Unlock Amazing Potential

Can you spot one of the key mistakes you’re making that’s hindering your sales success?

1. Combining Discovery with Demo

Oh boy. This one is a huge topic of debate. But I stand my ground firmly with this one.

As the most important part of the sales process, discovery should be given the deluxe treatment it deserves, and not be mashed together with a product demonstration.

It should be treated as its own, individual, scheduled conversation.

Here’s why…

Let’s imagine you have a 45-minute time slot scheduled with your prospect. You aim to not only do discovery but to show them your product too.

Breaking it down, that’s 15 minutes of discovery, 15 minutes of demo, and 15 minutes for rapport, Q&A, and next steps.

Factor in your prospect showing up a few minutes late and any technical hitches that might come up — and you’re under significant time pressures.

I’ve seen it time and time again. When combined with a demo, the discovery gets rushed. Instead of being a thoughtful interview, it’s reduced to a handful (at best) of high-level qualification questions. And by the way, those questions are actually more suited to a cold call.

No significant pain is truly discovered. And a cookie-cutter product demo is presented in record time — in many cases, with the sales rep showing every single menu, button, and interesting feature in a fraction of the time it should take.

At this point, the salesperson asks for next-steps, and the prospect gives a non-committal response, because the most important part of the sales process was diluted and ineffective. The product demo was stripped down and generic, with no personalization. And the whole purpose of the discovery call has been thrown out the window.

Worse, the relationship with that lead is now irreparably damaged.

Discovery should be about deciding whether your prospect even needs to see your product, or if your time is best spent elsewhere.

RELATED: The Sales Hacker Disco Demo Guide: How to turn Discovery calls into Demos that Win

2. Forgetting the Up-Front Agreement

One of THE most frequent yet most easily avoidable mistakes I see salespeople committing in their discovery conversations is not setting an up-front agreement with their prospect at the start of every call.

Many buyers don’t know what your sales process looks like. (Many don’t even know what their own internal buying process is!)

As salespeople, we need to help our prospects buy. We need to take them by the hand and guide them along the sales funnel. An up-front agreement is a simple way to do that.

An up-front agreement is essentially a shared decision made by both you and your prospect at the start of every interaction. Included in that agreement are 2 things:

  1. The purpose of the conversation you are about to have
  2. What happens at the end of the conversation

Here’s an example:

“Mr. Prospect, from my perspective, today’s call is for me to find out more about your sales team and share how we may be able to help you. If we both feel it makes sense at the end of the conversation, typically what happens is we schedule a demo of our product to demonstrate how we can help address any challenges identified. If it doesn’t make sense, we’ll just part way as friends. How does that sound?”

The problem is, salespeople often forget about this crucial 10- to 20-second step in their discovery calls.

They just dive into their questions from the start of the call.

They haven’t agreed on the purpose of the discovery call with their prospect, and throughout the entire conversation, the prospect wonders why on earth they have set aside 30 minutes for this call?

Moreover, some prospects worry that they may have to make a huge buying decision at the end of the discovery call — simply because the expectations haven’t been managed from the outset.

3. Premature Pitchulation

I don’t really like the word “pitch.”

When salespeople say they are going to pitch me, it sounds exactly like what happens in practice. I get talked AT (rather than with) for a big long length of time. More times than not, the salesperson ends up explaining all of their product’s features and benefits and why they are so brilliant.

I call this premature pitchulation.

Essentially, it’s a disease infecting a large portion of sales people out there. Whilst curable, it can cause long-lasting damage in prospect relationships and pipeline.

What is: Pitchulation
When sales-people can’t resist pausing their discovery to spray the prospect with a non-stop product pitch.

Why, if you only have 20-30 minutes of valuable time scheduled with your prospect for a discovery call, would you waste any of that by not gathering more information?

Questions help us gather information — and discovery is all about gathering lots of information to help us sell better.

RELATED: Asking Questions in Sales: Back to the Basics (And General Common Sense)

When salespeople pitch in their discovery conversations, they risk disengaging prospects who have yet to understand how your product/service can be of value to them.

Furthermore, the most important part of the sales process has essentially transformed into a cookie-cutter, Plain-Jane demo. Big mistake.

4. Missing Out on the Pain-Nuggets

Active listening is one of THE hardest skills to master in sales. Only the elite do it well.

But once you’ve learned how to listen intrinsically to what your prospects are saying — and you leverage that skill to probe and question more effectively — the quality of your discovery calls shoots to another level (and beyond).

Pain-nuggets are the delightful trinkets often hidden away in discovery calls. They’re typically dropped into the conversation in the form of individual words or short phrases that reveal a prospect’s true motivations.

And they are arguably THE most valuable pieces of treasure to be found in discovery.

What are: Pain-nuggets
Individual words or short phrases dropped into a conversation that express pain, difficulty, or need. These words disclose compelling reasons to buy, and can be used by a salesperson to pull prospects deeper into the pipeline.

Sadly, though, salespeople see these wonderful nuggets glinting in the sunlight and fail to dig deep to get at ‘em.

Let’s imagine I’m selling to a prospect. They are explaining to me about how their sales team is performing, and they casually mention that they are “frustrated about the fact many of their reps are not having effective discovery calls.”

Did you spot the pain-nugget? “Frustrated.” There it is in all its glory.

Most sales-people may well acknowledge the nugget, but they won’t dig deeper. They will simply walk on by and ask their next question. They identify surface-level pain, but they don’t find the deep pain that could drive decisions.

As a result, their prospects lack true motivation to buy, and their pipeline is jammed with non-decisions.

5. Talking Too Much

Ok. So this is one everyone is aware of. Everyone knows that talking too much is our biggest and most obvious mistake.

But how conscious (truly) are we of how much we dominate the discovery call?

I see plenty of salespeople who know the importance of talking less, but not many who are conscious of how much they are doing it.

We need to become more self-aware and pay attention to how much we talk on discovery calls. Thankfully, technology can help give us this insight, so we don’t have to figure it out ourselves.

Here’s the rule of thumb: We should speak less than 50% of the time in our discovery conversations.


There’s a direct correlation between how much we talk on discovery calls and the number of questions we ask (including the quality of those questions).

When we ask well-considered, probing questions, we get our prospects doing most of the talking. When our prospects talk more, it’s easier to avoid our worst mistakes. As a bonus:

  • We gather more information.
  • There’s less risk of us prematurely pitchulating.
  • We identify more pain nuggets.

Pretty simple stuff, really!

6. Wasting Time with Useless Questions

Recently, I was on the receiving end of a discovery call (as a prospect). We had set aside 20 minutes initially, so the salesperson knew they only had a relatively short window to drive an effective, valuable conversation with me.

Unfortunately, the first half of the call was spent asking me questions about what I had got up to on the weekend, and my company, and Wwhat my role involves.”

Now I’m not necessarily opposed to building rapport, but knowing about my company and what my role involves should be a given before you jump on the call.

Asking a VP of Sales what their role involves demonstrates you haven’t done your homework. Worse, it signals your inexperience. Clearly, you aren’t experienced in helping people like me solve problems. That’s a credibility disaster.

In this situation, the salesperson left themselves just 10 minutes to ask some true discovery questions, build up my urgency to take action, and discuss next steps. Low and behold, this rushed approach resulted in a severely diluted discovery call, which ended up going nowhere.

Remember, the clock is ticking the moment that discovery starts. Time management is crucial, so make sure you use it wisely.

7. Making It Feel Like an Interrogation

As I’ve already said, the key to success in discovery calls is your ability to make the most of the limited time you have with prospects. And that means you’ve got to ask great, relevant, consultative questions.

It’s harder than you might think, though.

You see, when we ask too many questions one after the other, our prospects start to feel like they are being interrogated. If they don’t know why you’re following a particular line of questions, sales resistance starts to set in.

With increases sales resistance, prospects become less forthcoming with the information that can help us help them. Worse still, they become less trusting in our ability to help them.

I once listened back to one of my own discovery calls and cringed.

It was clear that after 10 straight questions back-to-back, the prospect had shut down. They were like a closed book. The frustration in their voice was palpable.

Finally, they asked, “Sorry Rich, before you ask any more questions, can you just tell me what it is you do?”


The discovery call hadn’t come off as a conversation. It had morphed into a high-pressure job interview.

In order to prevent this from happening, try one of these 3 approaches:

Divert with Storytelling

Build in storytelling after every 4 questions or so. Use this time to explain how a similar prospect shared similar responses and challenges. This will bring in some variation and relevance to the conversation.

Share the “Why”

Frame your questions, so it’s clear why you’re asking them. For example:

“Mr. Prospect, the reason why I just asked you about how your sales team are performing right now is that we typically find our product offers the most benefit to those companies who want to bridge the gap between the top and middle performers.”

Tease Upcoming Questions

Introduce new lines of questions with a teaser about how your solutions address a problem or issue that has already come up in the conversation.

For example:

“You mentioned, Mrs. Prospect, that you’re frustrated by how much time it can take to ramp new hires to top performer level. This is definitely one area where we can help by sharing calls and demos from top performers to new hires.”

RELATED: A 5-Step Discovery Call Checklist Proven to Increase Conversions by 580%

Bottom Line

Great questions are the pinnacle of winning discovery calls. But like anything in life, there’s a careful balance to be achieved.

You want to dig deep to find truly useful information, but you don’t want to push so hard, you create anxiety.

Fortunately, with practice, you can find that balance. And it starts with avoiding the 7 mistakes I’ve discussed here.

BTW, did you spot a mistake you’re making that could be hindering your success? Any aha! Moments? Share in the comments below.

Richard Smith is Co-Founder and Head of Sales for – conversation intelligence technology for sales teams. Refract analyzes call recordings and highlights the decisive and defining moments of conversations to surface coachable insight to help improve sales outcomes. Richard is also passionate about the impact of coaching on sales improvement, and helping sales professionals become the very best they can be.

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