Back to the List

How to Correctly Start a Discovery Conversation

If you’re in the hunt for a consulting project, you want to become the obvious choice. The key to achieving that goal can be summarized in a single word: dessert discovery. But how do you start discovery?

The better you understand your prospect, the more likely you are to close a consulting deal. When you know your prospect better than any other internal or external competitor knows him, and perhaps better than the prospect knows herself, it’s easy to tailor your offering into a glove that neatly fits the prospect’s hand.

That’s why the Context Discussion is at the heart of becoming the obvious choice.

The six parts of the Context Discussion are explained in detail in The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients; however, the segue into that conversation isn’t in the book and I’ve received a lot of questions about how to launch into discovery.

First, remember that you start the Context Discussion after a specific opportunity has been identified.

Therefore, your opening phrase will depend on how the opportunity arose. For instance…

Situation Your opening phrase
You’ve received an inquiry or RFP Thanks for your inquiry. In order to deliver the best possible response for you…
You’re following up on a discussion that surfaced an opportunity You mentioned in our discussion last week that you’d like some help with the throughput of your donut holing machine…
After the opening phrase, you’ll continue…

You: …I’d like to quickly run through six topic areas that will help me understand the context better. Once we’re 100% on the same page on the context, pulling together a project that perfectly meets your needs is easy. Does that work for you?

Prospect: Sure.

You: Great. Here are the six topics I’d like to cover:

  • Your situation—I think I have a good feel from what you’ve told me already, but I just want to clarify a couple of things,
  • your desired outcomes from this project,
  • how we’ll know the project is successful,
  • any risks or concerns you have about the project,
  • the value or benefits that are driving this project
  • and any parameters I need to know about.

Do those six sound good, or is there anything you’d like to add to the list?

Prospect: Those sound good.

You: Perfect. Before we jump in, I have one, quick logistical question to ask: how will the decision on this project be made?

Prospect: Well, I’m vetting the consultants and making the decision, but my boss, Judy, will have to sign off on it.

You: Great. Thanks for telling me. Let’s walk through the six topics I just mentioned, then I’ll have to have a brief conversation with Judy just to confirm everything before I can submit a proposal. I’m sure you’ll be in sync, and my conversation with her may only be five minutes, but I just wanted to give you a heads up that I’ll want to talk with her. Let’s dive into the Situation…

The introduction is constructed to accomplish three goals:

  1. Display a roadmap. Clients are more open and more patient when they know you’re following a robust, well-designed process.
  2. Offer a preview. When your prospect knows where you’re headed, they’re more comfortable with every turn the conversation takes. It’s the surprise detours that make prospects jittery and suspicious.
  3. Identify the decision-maker. You can save a lot of time and heartache by knowing the decision process.

Once you’ve started the ball rolling, you continue with the Context Discussion. (Line by line examples of the Context Discussion are Chapters 18 and 19 of this book.)

What other effective phrases have you used to kick off discovery discussions?



  1. Bob
    April 12, 2017 at 9:46 am Reply

    Sorry, but this statement is awful! “You: …I’d like to quickly run through six topic areas that will help me understand the context better.”

    Get this straight, no one cares what you want!!!! They only care about what you can do can help them. So, craft that statement from the customer’s point of view. How about…

    “Running through the following topics will help you figure out if I’m the kind of guy you want to work with.”

    Proofread everything you write (or want to say) and eliminate the “I”, “me”, and “us” references to the extent possible.

    • David A. Fields
      April 12, 2017 at 10:36 am Reply

      Bob, I applaud the sentiment behind your comment, which amounts to, “think Right-Side Up.” Your exhortation to eliminate the “I” language is virtually a direct lift from Chapter 1 of The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients.

      Interestingly, though, there are times when being Right Side Up requires you to reinsert yourself prominently into the conversation, and this is one of those times. (Another is when the client wants you to present credentials.) Though it’s true that clients want to know what you can do to help them, remember that this is the start of the Context Discussion, and your goal is to understand the prospect, not to have the prospect understand you. Ironically, this is actually the wrong time to say, “…will help you figure out if I’m the kind of guy you want to work with.”

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, which illuminates some subtle distinctions in the sales process.

  2. Bob
    April 12, 2017 at 9:52 am Reply

    Sorry, one more comment. At the end you say “Identify the decision-maker”

    In complex sales there may be many “decision-makers” but there is rarely more than one person who can “Say yes and make the deal happen”. So, an important part of the dialog could go something like this:

    You: Once you agree that we’re the right fit, what happens?
    Prospect: I write up my decision and bring it to my boss.

    You: Once he/she agrees, what happens?
    Prospect: She brings it to the CEO

    You: Once the CEO agrees, what happens?
    Prospect: You’ll get a purchase order and we have a discussion about start date.

    I’ve found a key phrase in figuring out the decision process is “what happens when”. It helps me find out who makes the final decision.

    • David A. Fields
      April 12, 2017 at 10:50 am Reply

      Thanks for the additional script, Bob. I define “decision maker” as the one person who can say Yes. Everyone else is a resistor, a breaker, a gatekeeper, an amplifier, or some other role. but there’s only one decision maker (in my parlance). Personally, I’ve found that simply asking how the decision will be made surfaces all the steps you went through; however, your script is another angle consultants could try.

  3. Anatoli Naoumov
    April 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm Reply

    I found finding all decision-makers (or the real one) to be challenging. Wonder if there a way to make things clear early.
    Within last year I have invested many hours developing a Context Document with a very big prospect. Early in the process I have openly confirmed that the person was in charge of a budget about 10x bigger than possible project. He claimed to be the One. When time came to decide on value and fee he has introduced two more people, who had to agree on the project and they were not interested in the project enough even to talk about it.
    Is there a tool to prevent such situation from happening again?

    • David A. Fields
      April 12, 2017 at 3:11 pm Reply

      Anatoli, the decision-maker challenge seems to be in the air today–I just received a call from another consultant who ran into this issue.

      As my script above suggests, the tool I’ve found effective is asking early how the decision is made. Note this is different from asking who makes the decision. I detail this a bit more in an earlier post: A Reliable Method to Find the REAL Decision Maker for Consulting Projects

      • Anatoli Naoumov
        April 13, 2017 at 9:06 am Reply

        Thank you, David. Next time around I will spend more time on clarifying a decision-making story.

  4. Beaux
    March 3, 2020 at 11:32 am Reply

    This little nugget of wisdom is pure gold! The script is so spot on and so easily to do that it blows my mind. Wow! Thank you!

    • David A. Fields
      March 3, 2020 at 8:36 pm Reply

      Sometimes simple is best! Thanks for the feedback and let me know how the script works for you, Beaux.

Leave а Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prev Article

A Better Approach to Consulting Business Development: Portfolios and Cascading Buckets

Next Article

Surprise: Small Clients Can Deliver Big Payouts in Consulting


Subscribe to receive insiders’ access to information and resources that will help you grow your consulting firm.

Note: By subscribing you are confirming that you have read and agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. You are also confirming your consent to receive emails from David about his articles, programs and recommendations.

Firm Type