In this post, you'll learn all about the exploratory part of the inbound sales process -- exploring goals,  plans, and challenges.

If you’re looking to run more effective exploratory meetings with your prospects to advance your qualified leads into sales opportunities, it's helpful to first start by reviewing the inbound sales methodology.

Reviewing the Inbound Sales Methodology

Before you learn about the exploratory process, let’s make sure that you’re clear on the big-picture steps.

When it comes to building your inbound sales process, or more specifically building your sales process on top of the inbound sales methodology, the key idea is personalization; personalizing everything for

  • Where they are -- Where are your prospects in the buyer's journey? Are your prospects in the Awareness stage really early, where they're just starting to ask broad questions about their challenges, struggles, and goals? Are your prospects at the stage where they haven't connected the dots to a company name, a category, or anything like that? Have your prospects advanced to the Consideration stage, where the solution now has a name? Are they starting to consider their different options -- open for comparison types of questions? Are they now aware of your category? Or have your prospects progressed all the way to the Decision stage, the last part of the buyer's journey? Are your prospects now open to looking at product- and service-related information from your company? Are your prospects now open to a conversation that's very sales-focused, like a consultation, audit, assessment, tour, demo, or something similar?
Where are your prospects in the buyer's journey?

Where Traditional Sales Approaches Fit into the Modern Buyer’s Journey

To be successful in inbound sales, the key is to personalize everything for who they are and where they are in the modern buyer's journey, in a digital-first world.

Remember, 70% or more of their journey is now over before an inbound prospect is willing to speak with you or someone from your sales team.

Remember, 70% or more of their journey is now over before an inbound prospect is willing to speak with you or someone from your sales team.

And frankly, for a lot of your very digitally-savvy prospects and customers -- the kind that uses Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb -- if they could get away with not speaking with your sales team until they’re 100% of the way through their buyer’s journey, they would!

In other words, these kinds of prospects and customers may no longer see your sales team as relevant to their decision-making process. To speak with your sales team, there's got to be something in it for them.

They’re not in a cold sweat at 2 o'clock in the morning, worried that they're not going to have enough salespeople to speak to this week. It's just not in the cards for how they start their buyer's journey and how they research their options.

The Four Phases of the Inbound Sales Methodology

Many don’t realize just how much people have changed in their buying habits against the backdrop of digital disruption in a digital-first world.

At a high level, the inbound sales methodology has four different steps:

  1. Identify -- In the Identification phase, you’re identifying prospects and leads. In a perfect world, you’d have tons of leads coming from website conversions that align with the right buyer personas in the Awareness, Consideration, or Decision stage of the buyer’s journey. Inbound leads are the first place to start; the best conversation starters. You also more than likely have data on anonymous prospects visiting your company and the companies they come from; inbound companies. To identify leads from inbound companies, you need tools that use reverse IP address lookup software to give you a reasonably accurate assessment (usually) of what company a visitor or group of visitors is coming from. In addition, you can identify prospects by looking for trigger events, including positive and negative news, social media monitoring on your company name, your competitors’ company names, and industry keywords and hashtags that are specifically relevant.
  2. Connect -- When you connect with an inbound prospect, that person more than likely is in the Awareness stage or perhaps the Consideration stage. That person has likely not yet progressed to the Decision stage. And if an initial Connect reveals that someone actually is in the Decision stage, you’re almost certainly getting involved way too late in their buyer’s journey. Approached correctly, the goal with your Connect should be to advance leads into qualified leads.  But it's critical that you take the time to figure out the context of where each person is in the buyer’s journey: Early, middle, or late? If you have website conversion data, look at the kind of content being consumed on your website, and the conversions. Do not make the flawed assumption that every prospect is Decision stage and immediately ready for a sales conversation. Early on, just Connect and offer some help. Did it download OK? Were you able to get into the webinar recording? Do you have what you need to attend the webinar? What are you looking for help with? Just be helpful.
  3. Explore -- This blog post is going to be largely about that third step, Explore: how you can help prospects open their eyes to a better state beyond the status quo, and advance some of your qualified leads into sales opportunities. So more on that in a moment.
  4. Advise -- This will be covered in a future post.

Traditional Sales vs. Inbound Sales

So how does traditional sales differ from inbound sales?

With a traditional sales process, your prospect expresses interests or a need. And that's all you need to hear to

  • Immediately jump into presentation or pitch mode
  • Focus relentlessly on closing the sale at all costs -- Whether your company can actually solve the prospect's problem is just a secondary concern. You’re focused on making quota.



Inbound sales is completely different. With an inbound sales process, when a prospect expresses some interest or a need, you:

  • Don't jump into a presentation or pitch mode -- How could you? You don't know what this person and company actually needs
  • Go into exploratory mode -- Reps that successfully use this kind of exploratory process know inside out and backward how their company helps prospects like the one they are speaking to. They've studied the heck out of their buyer personas, case studies, and use cases. And inbound sales reps are willing to walk away if their company cannot help. In a digital-first world, the last thing you want is closing sales with bad-fit clients.

As part of inbound sales, your exploratory process aims to help your prospects figure out what they really need. When you do this the right way, you ought to be able to do this more effectively and thoroughly than this person can do alone.

It's also, again, critical to be upfront about the suitability of your product or service for each prospect.

The Three Potential Outcomes From the Exploratory Process

Following these exploratory conversations, there are three potential outcomes:

  1. Yes for “fit” and “buy-in” for the next steps -- Obviously, every salesperson would love to hear “Yes,” there's definitely a fit. And yes, there's definitely buy-in for moving forward. Yes, let's talk about the next steps for how we can work together. Let's schedule a meeting to discuss recommendations and ensure that all the right people attend. That's music to everyone's ears. And in a perfect world, this scenario happens a high percentage of the time.
  2. No for “fit” (will never be a fit) -- No matter how well trained an inbound salesperson is, that's solving problems and understanding their buyers, there could often be an outcome that's a “no.” This prospect is not a fit for your product or service and never will be a match.
  3. Not now for “fit” (later) -- Often, the timing isn’t right. So a prospect could be a fit down the road, but it's going to be later. Maybe we should revisit this in a couple of weeks or a couple of months.

The goal of the exploratory process: help your prospects feel empowered to make the best decision for themselves.

Inbound sales is not about making your best decision, advancing your agenda, and closing your sale.

Inbound sales is about educating and helping prospects explore what a better state could look like for them, guiding prospects to think through these issues.

Exploratory Meeting Outline / Agenda

So what should happen at an Exploratory meeting, as part of your inbound sales process, regardless of whether the meeting is by phone, by video conference, or in person?

  1. Build rapport -- Start by building rapport. You should’ve already built up some rapport during your initial Connect attempt or Connect sequence when you booked or confirmed this Exploratory meeting. But with modern inbound sales technology, it's also possible that somebody booked the Exploratory meeting completely on their own.
  2. Recap key points from Connect -- Before you jump into an Exploratory conversation, reconfirm the information you (think you) already know.  Be prepared to recap the key points that you talked about in your brief connect conversation -- from a website lead, inbound company, or trigger event.
  3. Set agenda -- What will you cover in the next 20 to 25 minutes? Or whatever time you’ve both allocated? “Here's what I think we should talk about. Does that match your expectations? Is there anything else you want to ensure we cover today?” The agenda can certainly be on a PowerPoint or Google slide if you're meeting in person or by video conference.
  4. Dig really deep to find their challenges and what’s blocking them -- Next, you’ll want to really dig deep into this person’s challenges and figure out what's blocking this person from being able to move forward. What does this person see as his biggest struggle? To properly prepare for your ideal buyer personas, your playbook should list all of the challenges your company solves for each persona -- for each industry, for each role. So that way, if a prospect doesn't bring it up during the Exploratory process, you know to ask about it. And when you're talking about their challenges, make sure to repeat back what you heard from this person in his own words for two reasons. (a) to make sure that you actually heard what he was saying, active listening, and (b) to demonstrate that you actually heard what he said and give him a chance to clarify if needed.
  5. Turn challenges into goal setting -- Once you have a good handle on their challenges, talk about their goals. What is this company looking to accomplish once it overcomes these challenges? If you've been inbound marketing for a while, you're probably familiar with the idea of setting SMART goals, goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. In this context with the Exploratory process, it's great if you can get that specific, but you don't necessarily need to. Yet it still is helpful to be specific, to have a number and a timeframe that you're working towards. Based on past history, a sense of whether this goal is attainable, and the time frame.
  6. Layout current and future plans -- Talk about what this company is currently doing internally and what they're planning on doing internally to address some of these issues and what they're looking for help with. What are their current plans? What are their future plans to address these challenges and attain these goals?
  7. Pinpoint timing -- Talk about the timeline for reaching these goals. Is there an urgency? Why now? Maybe we should come back to this in three months, six months, or a year from now. Let this person tell you what the actual urgency is. For a lot of people and companies, change is painful. Think about anyone that's ever started an exercise regimen or started training for a race or marathon, whatever it is. Think about anyone that's ever started a weight loss program or quit smoking. These are all big rocks to move, and it may not be that different in this business context. These challenges, these struggles are very real.  A lot of times, addressing challenges isn't just tactical; it’s dealing with organizational barriers, political environments, controversy, personalities that may be clashing, and cultural issues internally. Why now? Why do they want to address these challenges? Why has it gotten so painful that they can't bear the thought of kicking this down the road for another three to six months or another year?
  8. Identify the opportunity cost of delay -- Next up,  ask what would happen if these goals were put on hold for six months or a year. What is it going to cost the company? Ask this person to quantify the costs of delays in reaching the goal. What are the lost opportunities? You said you want to get 20 new customers. What does that equate to in revenue growth? What is the cost of delay and procrastination? What would that actually cost the company?
  9. Discuss the benefits of goal attainment -- What happens when the company reaches its goal? Once it has those 20 new customers, what is it going to do next? Help this person visualize what success looks like. What will the company be able to achieve once it’s reached its goal?
  10. Learn who makes the decision -- Who else should be involved in this conversation? Whose decision is this ultimately to make? Are there other stakeholders we should loop into a follow-up meeting when we discuss these recommendations? Inbound sales addresses this issue quite differently than traditional sales. Traditional sales teams hammer the authority point really early on -- using something like the BANT model (budget, authority, need, and timing) -- before building rapport and running an effective exploratory process. Yes, you need to understand timing, urgency, and authority. But first and foremost, figure out if this company has a challenge that your company can actually help with --  because if they don’t, there's no point in talking any further.
  11. Learn where the budget will come from - Is there anyone else who should be involved in your next meeting when you talk about recommendations and understand if this is budgeted? Has this person given any thought to what their company is prepared to invest to get to that revenue growth goal in the next X months? Or whatever timeline you’ve discussed.
  12. Confirm buy-in and recap --Wrap up by summarizing the Exploratory conversation. Confirm that you have buy-in and commitment for the next step and what that next step actually is. With an inbound sales process, this will likely be a final meeting to discuss your recommendations and the next steps.

After you leave the exploratory meeting, within one business day, send a recap email that prepares this person for the next step -- the Advise step -- and pinpoints any gaps you need to fill before you move ahead with your recommendations. Also, to make sure that you’re on the same page, clarify who needs to be at this next meeting, when this meeting is going to happen, and who's going to set all this up and see that it moves forward.

The Bottom Line on Exploring Goals, Plans, and Challenges

So, these are the steps to consider when planning an Exploratory session as part of your inbound sales process.

Again, with inbound sales, you don't pitch or put a static proposal in front of prospects.

Instead, you personalize everything for who they are and where they are.

And this starts from the moment you Identify prospects, continues when you Connect with prospects and gets fleshed out thoroughly during the Exploratory process before you think about putting any recommendations on the table about what to do next.

Remember there are three possible outcomes at the conclusion of, or sometimes even during, that exploratory meeting:

  1. Yes --  The outcome that every salesperson, in theory, wants. Yes, there's definitely a fit, and there's the buy-in for the next steps
  2. No -- This is the second-best outcome based on something you've uncovered during the Exploratory process.
  3. Not now --  This is the most challenging outcome of an Exploratory session, where there's murky timing and not much urgency. Yes, your prospect definitely sees value, but will not be moving forward now. It could be a long while, perhaps even longer than they even think.

So those are the three possible outcomes from your Exploratory meeting -- and what you should be thinking about as you integrate your Exploratory session into your inbound sales process.

How do you plan to use inbound sales to Explore goals, plans, and challenges? Let me know in the comments section.

And if you're serious about using inbound sales as a strategic growth engine for your company, be sure to enroll now in our free 7-day eCourse: Go-to-Market Strategy 101 for B2B SaaS Startups and Scaleups.

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