The Discovery Call Skill That Goes Beyond Data and Beats AI

Discovery calls are crucial to sales success. They’re a first impression, a qualification conversation, and a fact-finding mission all rolled into one. And there is a lot of machine learning and data out there on how to conduct a great sales discovery call: talk time and question cadence and all that. But that’s the quantitative side. What about the quality of the call? How can you help your team to improve it? This post dials into the human aspect of conducting productive prospect interviews.

the sales discovery call that goes beyond data and beats ai

12 min. read

You look up from your computer screen and sigh.

You’ve crunched the numbers. Your sales ops team needs to help your sales team improve their discovery calls.

Back to the computer screen. First stop: Google. Maybe some LinkedIn if there’s time.

You scroll and read, scroll and read. Wow, there’s a lot of information here. Now you’re wondering, ARE my sales reps asking these 253 discovery call questions?

Oh, hold up, they may be asking too many questions on their discovery calls.

But more questions means more talk time for prospects. Okay, sounds like they should be following our call structure and script more closely.

Well, not too closely or they’ll sound like sales robots.

Now even the robots are puzzled.

Why you need more than numbers for sales call success

It makes complete sense to try to get every aspect of discovery calls right. This part of the sales process is the foundation for the rest of the buyer experience.

So sales leaders dig into the data-driven, quantitative side of sales calls. Sales orgs like have used AI to analyze every bit of data to put numbers on what makes a good sales call. That’s valuable intel. But numbers are only one part of it.

Here’s why you need to go beyond discovery call data:

  • It’s superficial. It only shows you the what and when, not the how. AI data can show that your sales rep asked 10 questions on the call and when each was posed, but it can’t tell you if the questions were well-crafted to find the right information.
  • It’s finite. It focuses on the call in a vacuum and doesn’t speak to what needs to happen before and after.
  • It’s directionless. It doesn’t address if or how the overall goals of the call were met.

Add to that the fact that no matter how sophisticated the tools we use to examine the sales process are, at the core sales is human-to-human. And that’s messier and more beautiful than any talk-time graph.

So, with conflicting data and the robots at the gate trying to steal sales jobs, how can you bridge the best-practice gap and account for the human side of sales calls? What should you listen for when you’re evaluating the quality of a discovery call?

Interviewing skills.

Interviewing is definitely a skill that not everyone has. When people think about interviews, it’s usually in the context of celebrities and they’re full of fluff.

Yes, please stop with the softball questions.

Most of us know how to carry on a conversation, but interviewing is different. Interviewing requires in-depth preparation, an inquisitive mindset free of preconceived notions, and the ability to be both comfortable and focused at the same time.

That last part is especially important. The balance between a friendly, but pointless, conversation and a pointed, but awkward, sales discovery call can be difficult to calibrate. But it’s vital to the success of the call. And the call is key to the success of the sale.

With well-honed interview skills, your salespeople come out of important sales calls with a positive relationship established AND the information they need to move the sale forward.

And who better to learn from than journalists because their jobs rely on getting the full story.

Here are six basic interviewing skills your sales team can use on their next call, based on course materials from the Columbia University School of Journalism and featuring tips and techniques from some of the best in the biz.

6 interviewing techniques for better sales calls

1. Preparation

Everyone experiences weather, so I understand why it’s the chosen opener for salespeople everywhere. That’s not the problem. The issue is when two-minute weather chats are the beginning and end of any actual relationship building on the call. “How’s the weather in [insert prospect’s city]” isn’t going to cut it.

It does show that knowing something, ANYTHING, about the prospect helps forge a connection, even if it’s as small as the area in which they are located. How do you know more facts about a prospect to use in establishing a relationship? Research.

What your prospects will be thinking when your sales rep goes in unprepared.

Learn from one of the best research-based interviewers ever: Brian Linehan. His celebrity interviews were always fascinating because he could bring up (and make connections between) life and career details during an interview that even his interviewee had completely forgotten about.

During one interview, actor Dustin Hoffman told him, “I’m starting to sweat with the amount of info you’ve got on me!”

Linehan’s secret was in his preparation. He knew his subject better than they knew themselves sometimes and it showed. He was able to go more in-depth because he wasn’t going in blind. He did his own research so that he knew the material inside and out. And this was back in the 1980s and ‘90s, so he did it mostly without the benefit of modern search engines.

While they might not need so much knowledge that it makes their prospect nervous, there’s no reason for your salespeople to go into a sales call without doing at least some background research.

2. Confidence

If your first thought was, Uh yeah, salespeople need to be confident, that’s not the kind of confidence I’m talking about here.

Good interviews happen in an atmosphere of confidence and trust. And that doesn’t change if it’s two people on a call or a panel discussion broadcast around the world.

Where does trust on a sales call come from? It’s established in the sales rep’s preparation.

Let’s go back to Brian Linehan again. While his subjects might sometimes have been disconcerted by his uncanny amount of knowledge about them, it probably also gave them some peace of mind.

Here was an interviewer who understood them and knew enough to avoid asking annoyingly dumb questions and wouldn’t take their replies out of context. That kind of trust makes for an ideal interview setting.

In the same way, trust in sales is found in product knowledge and authority.

Think about the stereotypical used car salesperson. When potential customers come onto the lot, they’re prepared for them. They have a reasonable amount of product knowledge. But where they fall down is in authority.

Things were going so well...

When they shrug off customer questions or ‘have to ask the manager’, it erodes trust in the relationship. Your sales reps should be empowered to answer questions. Or be honest enough to say that they aren’t sure but they’re happy to find out. And actually follow up with answers.

It’s a two-way street.

3. Tempo

AI-driven data shows that better call results come from questions sprinkled throughout the call, rather than rattled off rapid-fire in the first few minutes.

Top sales reps’ question frequency is spread out evenly throughout the call, with slight peaks at the beginning and end. Average performers’ question frequency spikes dramatically at the start of the call and then flatlines.

This makes sense from a journalistic interview stand-point as well. When you front-load your interview with questions, what do you do with the rest of the time?

The questions need to flow naturally throughout the call. There should be a good question tempo, allowing enough time for the question to be answered thoroughly but not so much time that the conversation loses momentum.

For this to work, the call script needs to be created with careful thought as to how the questions will flow. That flow might be linear (questions starting with present challenges, then moving to the short-term and long-term future envisioned) but it doesn’t have to be.

Using that example, a sales rep might start off with questions about present concerns, move to talking about past solutions that didn’t work, and then focus on the future. The main thing is picking a structure that works logically and keeps the conversation flowing.

But flowing doesn’t have to mean moving fast.

I’ve witnessed interviews where you can tell that the interviewer has their list and they’re working through it as quickly as possible. There’s no time to really listen to the answers as the interviewer is just waiting for the interviewee to stop talking so they can ask the next question.

4. Prompt more talk time

AI data tells us that prospects should own the majority of talk time on a sales call. That’s awesome. Long answers provide details that help your sales reps provide value and insight throughout the buyer’s journey.

Okay, that’s great and all but how can salespeople get them to actually talk?

When it’s like pulling teeth.

Not every prospect is going to be forthcoming with long-winded and incredibly-detailed answers. This is why great interviewers are masters of the well-worded question. Or, actually, the well-worded prompt.

It’s not an interrogation, it’s a conversation. Phrasing questions as a prompt indicates that a detailed answer is required and desired.

For example, instead of asking, “What’s your biggest challenge right now?” sales reps could instead try the talk prompt, “Tell me about the biggest challenge you’re facing right now.”

The first could get a one- or two-word answer, like ‘lead generation’ or ‘customer churn’. The prompt inspires a more fleshed-out answer:

What happens when the reply isn’t detailed enough and the sales rep needs more information? It’s time for the ‘treading water’ questions.

Here are some examples of this type of question:

  • What do you mean?
  • Why’s that?
  • What makes you say that?

Treading water questions help interviewers dig in for details and decide where the conversation should head next.

And using good questions and prompts helps avoid asking obvious questions that can make even the smartest among us look stupid. The classic dumb question used in journalism school is the time a reporter asked a young orphan if the child ever wished they had a mother and father.

Can you feel the cringe?

Obvious questions show ignorance and—say it with me now—a lack of research and preparation. They’re are a great way to annoy a prospect at best and really tick them off at worst, both of which will leave your salesperson scrambling to get them talking again.

5. Don’t avoid the burning questions

Any interviewer worthy of their call recorder has to ask some tough questions and the same is true of sales calls.

Even if your product was literally sunshine and roses, there would still be hard questions to pose: Walk me through your cloud-cover challenges. What does your thorn-based injury prevention process look like?

When interviewers avoid the tough questions, it can feel well-reasoned and productive to them. They’re keeping the conversation positive, after all. There is a way to ask tough things without damaging relationships, though.

Think about an interviewer like Ellen DeGeneres on her self-titled show. No matter how you feel about her interviewing skills, she does get celebrities to open up more than any other daytime talk show host I’ve seen.

Why? She keeps things light, she keeps things moving, and, most importantly, she just goes for it.

Ellen’s show literally has an entire segment called ‘Burning Questions’ where she puts celebrities on the proverbial hot seat.

An actual burning question.

She asks interesting but potentially awkward questions, like which of the family matriarch’s children is her true favourite? What does that singer really think about his former bandmates? Or, to an actress with a squeaky-clean image, what’s her favourite curse word?

Don’t worry, Ellen will get answers to all of these burning questions. As should your sales team.

6. The sweet sound of silence

Talk data for sales calls tends to look at the back and forth between rep and prospect. How long each spends talking. How many ‘monologues’ each side has.

It doesn’t tend to deal with silences, pauses, or small gaps in the conversation. But silence can sometimes be the best way to get a prospect to open up and elaborate.

This is probably one of the hardest interviewing skills to master because people instinctively want to fill any awkward gaps in conversation with more words.

Getting comfortable with silence isn’t easy, but it can be rewarding. When used well, there is power in small pauses for tempo, to make a quick note, or to prompt the prospect to expand on their remark.

Let’s go to another of the interview greats, journalist Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), for more on this tactic. In an interview on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he explains how he gets people to talk by using silence as a tool:

“In the CIA, they teach people ‘let the silence suck out the truth’ and so just be quiet and people want to talk.”

Now, your sales people might not be trying to get three-star generals to give up state secrets or whatnot. But they are trying to get as much information as possible from their prospects, some of which they might not be so inclined to discuss. Simply building in silence can give people the opportunity to say something they hadn’t planned to disclose.


The quantitative and qualitative sides of sales discovery calls can coexist. It’s important to not get so caught up in data and graphs that your call strategy leaves content and context to chance.

B2B might stand for business-to-business but it’s actually just humans having conversations. Journalistic questions and customer stories, talking and listening, and the silences in between all add value to your sales team’s calls.

Now, tell me: which of these interviewing techniques do you plan on honing with your sales team first?

The Discovery Call Skill That Goes Beyond Data and Beats AI

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