How To Discover Needs At The Start Of A Prospect Meeting

Written by Sean McPheat | Linkedin thumb

Needs and wantsIn a previous blog post called “Why You Should Only Present Solutions To Needs & Not To Problems” I stressed the importance of presenting your solutions to the prospects needs and not just their problems.

After all, a prospect can be faced with a BIG problem but have no real need or desire to fix it.

So how can you unearth these needs in the discovery phase?

This is what this post is all about.

Let’s assume that you’re meeting with a prospect for the first time to discuss their situation.

Generally, you begin the discovery process with some assumption as to how and why the prospect may have a need for your product.

You’re there for a reason whether you have instigated it yourself through prospecting or if they have requested a meeting with your company to see if you can help.

In front of the prospect, the process moves to a discussion of their current situation, i.e., what is the prospect doing now, how is it being done, who is supplying the product, where is it being used etc.

It’s important to begin with a discussion of the prospect’s situation for several reasons:




You are gathering general information that verifies or denies your assumptions.




You don’t know whether the prospect perceives even a need or a problem in his or her current situation.




If you focus on problems or needs without first understanding how the prospect operates, you risk not having all the information you need to focus on the real needs.




The prospect may be satisfied with the current situation, not perceiving a problem or a need.

As you learn more about the prospect’s current situation, you pick up clues as to possible problems or areas where your product might “fit.”

You explore these in depth, trying to understand and get the prospect to understand that they can be solved.

Once you have identified a problem, you confirm that the prospect would like to see it solved, thereby converting it to a need.

Needs and Problems

Key Points

  • Discovering moves from the general (assumption) to the specific (need).
  • In order to understand the problem you must first spend time understanding the prospect’s situation.
  • In order to define needs and arrive at a joint definition, you must first spend time defining problems.
  • Often, the prospect may not perceive a problem or need that you see – therefore, you must spend time helping the prospect define the problem.

As a  salesperson you are also a diagnostician.

Your first questions should focus on the general situation.

As you find an area of the problem, seek more specific information. As you go, provide information to the prospect, give him or her a frame of reference so that he or she understands how to respond and knows what kind of information you’re seeking and why. Provide feedback as you go. Let the prospect know that you both understand and appreciate the information you are receiving. Encourage the prospect to continue by showing you understand, and by frequently supporting your prospect’s remarks.


Discovering is not an interrogation!


Do not conduct an interrogation in which you ask a lot of closed ”yes” or “no” questions. Use closed questioning mainly to confirm your understanding of what you’ve been told.

Open Questions


Allow the prospect freedom to express feelings, needs etc


Open questions allow the prospect to express feelings, problems, needs, opinions and facts; they are the most useful type of question as they allow a dialogue to proceed, giving the prospect the freedom to express needs from his or her perspective.

  • Cannot be answered by ”yes” or “no.”
  • Seek an open-ended response from prospect.
  • Seek information about facts, situations, problems, concerns, feelings.
  • Seek clarification of statements by prospects.


  1. “What are your objectives in looking at suppliers?”
  2. ‘What kinds of problems have you had?”
  3. When do these problems happen?”
  4. “I’m not sure I understand: Why do they break down?”
  5. “How do you feel about that?”
  6. ‘Why is that?”
  7. “Oh?”

Closed Questions


Useful in confirming and regaining focus; limit response


Closed questions are useful in confirming your understanding of what the prospect has said and in regaining lost focus.

  • Answered by ”yes” or “no.”
  • Seek confirmation of facts, feelings, situations, problems.
  • Can be misused and manipulative, and can cause resistance.

Examples (mainly  used as confirmation):

  1. “Then, if I understand, the problem is mainly in your production?”
  2. ”Then your goal would be to eliminate the problem?”
  3. “So, if I read the situation, you feel it’s mainly a production issue?”

Improper Use of Closed Questions

Remember, you are attempting to view concerns from the prospect’s perspective. Closed questioning if used without a prospect-oriented focus, can be viewed as manipulative, and can create resistance.

  1. ‘Wouldn’t you agree that … ?”
  2. “If I could show you a way to save money, wouldn’t you be interested?”
  3. “Haven’t you had problems with your . .. ?”

Closed questions are directive and assumptive, almost forcing a re­ sponse favourable to the salesperson’s pitch. Rather than put the prospect in a box, when a “no” response is possible, be open with your questioning and avoid closed questions when possible.

Share/Provide Information


To maintain dialogue, position questions and provide examples


A steady stream of questions, without feedback, turns into an interrogation. Discovering is  a  conversational  process  in  which you  share information and provide a rationale for your question. Use it to keep the prospect involved.

  • Position questions when you move from one topic to another.
  • Use examples and analogies to help the prospect under­stand where you’re going.


  1. “You raise a good point. We find that in a lot of companies these problems come up because people don’t understand the effects of different welding gases.  It might be useful to spend a few minutes looking at that issue so we’ll have the total picture.  What has your experience been?”
  2. “Working with all these cylinders instead of a bulk tank is like trying to cut down a redwood with a pen knife instead of a chain saw. It’s a lot easier when you have the right tools.”



Builds a bridge of empathy with the prospect


We tend to seek out and respond well to people who understand our views and agree with our opinions. Be supportive of your prospect at all stages of the sales process to build empathy and advance the relationship.

Look for areas of agreement and actively acknowledge the prospect’s feelings.

  • Agree with and acknowledge any comment that is useful.
  • Acknowledge the prospect’s right to feelings, even if they are negative.
  • Agree with the prospect every time you can honestly do so.
  • Use the prospect’s own words. This not only shows you’re listening, but also show that you see value in the prospect as a person.


  1. Support could be a simple statement: “You’re right:’; “I agree,” etc.
  2. Or a more extended comment summarizing a prospect’s opinion:
    • “Absolutely.  We find that to be the case in almost every situation.”
    • “You’re right. We provide the highest quality service and product.”
    • “As you said, people can do a lot if they have the right tools. That’s why this bulk delivery tank .. .”
  3. Support could be offered based on the prospect’s attempt to correct a problem, as a compliment:
    • “You know, you’re way ahead of most companies in recognizing how these things can be done.”
    • “I can see you’ve taken the initiative, and that it’s really paying off.”
  4. Support could be used to introduce a product benefit:
    • ”You’re right. The quality isn’t what it should be for your application. That’s why out T200 was developed – to eliminate the problem from malfunctions in the code”

Using the tips and techniques above you should be able to start discovering the prospect’s needs very early on in the meeting – meaning that you will have more time during the meeting to present the right solution.

I hope you got a lot out of this article and I’d love to hear your own experiences of this?

Happy Selling!


Sean McPheat

Sean McPheat
Managing Director

MTD Sales Training | Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

450 sales questions free report

Originally published: 25 March, 2014

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