The Dan Sullivan Question

A great tool for your discovery conversations.

One of the things consultants struggle with the most during the business development process is discovery.

The whole point of the discovery process, for you as a consultant, is to understand your prospect's context. You don't know if you can help until it's clear what they want to achieve. And you can't propose a solution without learning more about their current state, preferences, and specific requirements.

During this conversation you need to uncover quite a few things - there's a process I recommend consultants to go through, which I might share here in the future. One of the most important ones is to uncover the prospect's desired outcomes or future state.

Often, prospects are self-diagnosed and mistake the symptoms for root problems. The usual sales advice you find to do deal with it is to ask "why". For example:

  • Prospect: "Prospect: “We’d like you to run a two-day retreat on sales skills.”
  • You: “Why?”
  • Prospect: “Because our sales are seriously behind forecast.”
  • You: "Why are you behind forecast?"

In this case, the client has a problem (sales are below forecast) but came up with an arbitrary alternative as the solution (a two-day retreat). The real objective here is “restore sales to a level at or above forecasts as soon as possible.” The true solution is probably not a retreat, but rather some kind of analysis of the forecast, marketing and sales initiatives, product mix, and so on. You need to keep digging.

This method of asking why after why, also known as "The Five Why's Approach", eventually gets you to the right answer. I used to include it in my training. But one day I came across this passage from Blair Enns where he discussed it:

"It's a ridiculous approach. I used to teach this method until it occurred to me that if you have to ask five why's then your opening question is a poor one."

Blair has a point. A few clients might enjoy this exercise, but most people get quickly annoyed after hearing you incessantly ask why, why, and why again.

That's how I came across this question:

"If we were having this discussion three years from today, and you were looking back over those three years, what has to have happened in your life, both personally and professionally, for you to feel happy with your progress?"

This is considered by many respected consultants to be the most powerful question in sales. Dan Sullivan, the famous author and coach, has even written a whole book about it: "The Dan Sullivan Question".

It's also called "the want question" because it skips all of the superficial stuff and gets right to the heart of what the client wants. As Sullivan puts it, "it is only through achieving wants, and not needs, that people become happy."

Of course, you can adapt the language of the question to better fit your personality and the person you're speaking to. Here's the version Blair recommends:

"It's three years from today and you and I are having coffee. You are really happy with the progress you've made over these past three years. What's happened to make you so happy?"

Try this question in your next discovery conversation. Ask it in a natural way, and don’t say anything until your prospect answers. Give people as much time as they need to answer the question, and don’t get uncomfortable with a long silence if there's one.

80% of the time you will find golden insights WHILE earning trust in the process. It's a great question to have in your toolkit.

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