How to use the past (and future) to close more deals

by Steli Efti
prospect-journey.jpg

Great salespeople take their prospects on a journey through time. They don’t just focus on the present—they focus on the past and future, too.

When you only care about today, it’s difficult to close deals.

You can talk for hours about features and budgets, but if you don’t understand where your prospects are coming from—or you forget to identify all of the steps in their buying processes—you’re setting yourself up for failure.

So let’s talk about why it’s important to expand your timeline, especially when you’re qualifying leads.

Why ask questions about the past?

It's about getting access to previous buying experiences. How did they make decisions? What are they biased toward or against? What baggage will you have to face when selling to them?

Answering these questions helps you understand why your prospects are looking for a new solution in the first place—and it provides a direction for the next stages of your sales conversation.

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

  • Prospect: “We loved our previous taco vendor! Their salsa was really hot.”
  • You: “We love hot salsa, too! In fact, we make fifteen different kinds of salsa. You have to sign a waiver to eat two of them.”

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

  • Prospect: “Their tacos were old and they delivered each one individually.”
  • You: “Wow, that sucks. We make our tacos fresh every day, and we deliver all of them at the same time.”

Try out these questions when you’re exploring a 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 future?

Because you don't just need to know what obstacles your prospects have faced—you also need to know what obstacles you face.

If questions about the past answer why, questions about the future answer how. They provide opportunities to learn more about a prospect’s buying process, so that you ultimately close the deal.

Ask your prospects this simple yet powerful question:

What will it take for you to become a customer?

This is Step 1 of the virtual closeWhen you ask this question, you...

  1. Create a roadmap for success. You know all the steps required to get the prospect to buy, and you’re aware of any red flags.
  2. Encourage the prospect to imagine buying from you. It puts them in a buyer’s state of mind. Don’t underestimate the power of imagination!
  3. Uncover opportunities to accelerate the sales process. This is especially true 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 working on the deal with your main stakeholders).

The virtual close in action

You: “What will it take for you to become a customer?”

Prospect: “Well, we probably have to send a few tacos to IT. They’re pretty picky about lunch.”

You: “Okay, and once we’ve got buy-in from IT, what’s next? Are we in business at that point?”

Prospect: “We should probably send a couple tacos to our VP of Finance, too. We’ll need her approval before finalizing any major taco-related purchases.”

You: “Okay, and let’s say she loves our tacos and agrees that we’re a good fit. What’s next?”

With the virtual close, you repeatedly ask follow-up questions—“What else needs to happen for you to buy?”—until you arrive at the moment in the future when they complete the purchasing process and sign the contract.

Here’s your homework

Write down your sales questions right now.

Don’t wait for your next call. Take five minutes to focus on your prospects’ past, present, and future.

The specific questions you ask will depend on your product, market, and sales process. But if you sell tacos, I’ve already done some of the work for you.

Each week, carve out time to mentally roleplay a few sales conversations. Ask questions that elicit insights about the past and the future, and use these insights to create more momentum for moving deals forward.

When you utilize this sales tactic—and you practice these techniques—you’ll qualify stronger leads and close more deals.

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