The Back to the Future sales hack

by Steli Efti

Great sales people take their buyers on a journey through time. Today, I'll share some simple questions with you that you can use to gain a deeper understanding of your prospective customers. I promise you that this 'rhetorical time traveling' will help you to close more deals.

When you're qualifying prospects, you mostly ask a lot of questions that focus on the present:

  • What do you want our product to do for you?
  • What features are important to you? Why?
  • What's your budget for this?
  • How are you currently solving this problem?
  • Etc. These are all great questions to ask, and I want you to keep asking them. But there's value in asking questions that extend beyond the present, and explore both the future and the past.

Going back in time

Here a couple of questions that will provide you with valuable insights from your prospect's past:

  • When was the last time you bought something similar to our service or product?
  • Was that a good or bad experience? Why?
  • How did you make your decision back then? What was the decision-making process like?
  • How did you evaluate different offers?
  • What were the deciding factors that made you chose that particular solution?

Why ask questions about the past?

It's about getting access to past buying experiences. This is very valuable information: How did they make decisions? What are they biassed towards, or against? What kind of historical baggage will you have to face when selling to them?

If the past buying experience they reference was positive, associate your solution with that success and use it as a model for the way you sell.

If the past buying experience was a flop, distance yourself from that and frame your solution as something completely different. How is your offer better? How does it protect them from missteps like these? Why won't they have to worry about making another bad choice if they choose you?

Action item: Write your questions

The specific questions you ask depend on your product, your market, and your sales process. Take a couple of minutes to imagine a typical sales conversation. Think about questions you could ask to gain useful information about your prospect's past. Write those questions down and start using them in your next sales conversation.

Exploring the future

There's a very simple, yet powerful question to ask your prospects.

  • What else needs to happen to make you a customer? What will make you buy from us?

When you get their answer, ask follow-up questions:

Sales rep: "What needs to happen to make you a customer?"

Prospect: "Well, we'll have to see what IT says about this."

Sales rep: "Ok, and once we've got buy-in from IT, what's next? Are we in business at that point, or do we still have to do some work to win you as a customer?"

Prospect: "We'll have to get on a call with the VP of Finance to get his approval."

Sales rep: "Ok, and let's say he agrees that we're the right fit, what's next?"

You repeatedly ask "what else needs to happen for you to buy?" until you arrive at a 'virtual close' - a moment in the future where they complete the purchasing process and sign the contract.

(If you haven't done so yet, read our Virtual Close post now!)

Why ask questions about the future?

Asking virtual closing questions comes with three main benefits:

You'll have a roadmap to the close. You know the steps that are required to get them to buy, and will be aware of any red flags.

In order to answer your question, the prospects will have to imagine buying from you. It puts them in a buyers state of mind. Don't underestimate the power of imagination!

It'll help you uncover opportunities to accelerate the sales process. Especially if you're doing enterprise sales or other forms of complex sales, you can often shorten sales cycles by months if you move through several processes in parallel (e.g. getting approved as a vendor by procurement while still working on the deal with your main stakeholders).

Don't limit yourself to the present

Spend a couple of minutes mentally role-playing through a few sales conversations. During these imaginative conversations, ask questions that elicit insights about the past and the future, and use these insights to create more momentum for moving the deal forward. Write it down somewhere, so you'll be reminded of it in the coming days. Experiment with this rhetorical time traveling and see how it affects your sales success.