Out of the Past

by : brooke

Philosopher George Santayana was onto something when he said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. That's why it pays for you to explore past mistakes your prospective customer's company has made, and help him keep history from repeating itself. Confining yourself to questions about the present bores your prospects -- after all, they already know what's going on now. Questions about the future are useful, but they're even more so when you have knowledge of past history to extrapolate from.

Maybe you fear that dwelling on what happened at your new prospect's company last year, or even last month, is irrelevant at best or even painful for your prospect at worst -- why dwell on past mistakes? Maybe you're thinking, "You can't change the past, can you? So why bother asking questions about it?" Or if you do ask your prospect a question about the past, it's simply a warm-up question, such as, "How long have you been with the company?"

Let's say you're interviewing a prospective employee. You wouldn't focus all of your questioning on the present or the future, would you? You'd want to know what that prospective employee had done in the past, what she'd accomplished, and how she'd made her choices. It's the exact same process when you're getting to know your sales prospects -- you're interviewing them! And of course, the more carefully you listen to their answers, the more relevant your subsequent questions will be.


Just as archeologists dig deep to learn about the world's past history, you'll learn plenty of things to help both your prospect and you when you ask questions about his company's past. Delving into the history of your prospect and his company is a great way to understand his priorities, motives, and behaviors. After all, everything you need to know about a customer can be found in the past, so why not spend more time there?

Questions about the past let you discover the best way to sell to your customers in the present and future. These questions -- and obviously, the answers -- also help you to unearth your customers' histories, allowing you to:

*Understand the problems they've encountered in the past.
*Comprehend the magnitude and outcome of those problems.
*Familiarize yourself with the people involved.
*Get a handle on their former or current vendor relationships, including the strength of those relationships.
*Get a feel for the trends, organizational changes, or competitive threats they've weathered.


*"What would you say is different about your organization today from when you started with this company?"
*"What originally led you to work for this company? What were your expectations when you came on board, and how have they changed since you've been here?"
*"Since you've been with the company, what have been some of the biggest hurdles you've faced?"
*"Could you tell me about the changes your department has gone through recently? What challenges or opportunities did those changes create for you?"
*"As you look back on your career, what has given you the greatest sense of accomplishment?"
*"What's been your toughest project recently?"
*"If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?"
*"What have been some of your likes and dislikes with vendors in the past?"
*"Can you give me an example of a recent incident in which you had to deal with _____ problem?"
*"What has been a market trend you've seen in the past few years? What steps did you have to take to adapt to this trend?"

When you ask questions like these, you're showing your prospective customer that there's a difference between merely dwelling on past mistakes -- or worse, ignoring them and Santayana's wise words -- and actually learning lessons from those mistakes. This helps you position yourself and your product as your prospect's best shot at truly making those mistakes a thing of the past. Digging into your prospect's past can also remind them of the things they did right, a process you can help them continue in even better ways than they did before. Either way, both you and your customers benefit.