Open-ended Questions, What Exactly are They?

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Open-ended Questions Require an Answer Beyond “yes” or “no”!

It seems simple enough: open-ended questions are those that require an answer beyond “yes” or “no” or a multiple-choice selection. To use open-ended questions skillfully within a sales dialogue requires a bit more knowledge about why they’re important and how to truly engage prospects in conversation.

Open-ended questions help sales professionals create a healthy dialogue while gently probing for meaningful information in situations such as the following:

  • Exploring customer needs
  • Getting to the heart of customer objections
  • Building rapport
  • Understanding and mitigating risk
  • Creating and shaping sales opportunities

With open-ended questions being such a crucial component of the sales dialogue, it’s worthwhile to review what they are and what they’re not.

Open-ended questions often begin with the five Ws: who, what, where, when, why. These five, along with one “H” – how – are basic interrogative or question words used by journalists, law enforcement, researchers, and others to gather information.

In a sales dialogue, this is how the five Ws and an H might be used:

  • “Who do you think will benefit most from this initiative and why?”
  • “What do you see as the biggest challenges to this approach?”
  • “Where are the pinch points in this process?”
  • “When do you know when you’re being effective in this transformation?”
  • “Why isn’t the current solution working anymore?”
  • “How do you envision the proposed changes having an impact on the organization?”

Even though some closed-ended questions may also begin with one of the five Ws or H, they elicit only short, fact-based answers:

  • “Who supplied the last solution?”
  • “What brand did you choose?”
  • “When are you available to meet again?”

Simply put, open-ended questions are unstructured in that they don’t lead the prospect to a specific answer. Instead, they require some thought and a response in the prospect’s own words. There are several characteristics that differentiate open-ended questions from closed ones.

  • If the person has to think and reflect before answering, it’s an open-ended question.
  • If the answer involves ideas or opinions rather than facts, it’s an open-ended question.
  • If control of the conversation switches between the sales professional and the prospect, with an exchange between the two, open-ended questions are being asked.
  • If control of the conversation stays with the sales professional, turning the conversation into more of an interrogation, closed-ended questions are being asked.

The whole point of using open-ended questions in a sales dialogue is to invite the prospect to open up, elaborate on key points, and be forthcoming with new and meaningful information. Sometimes starting with “Tell me about…” can achieve the same end, even though it’s not technically a question.

One caution: some questions can be too open and not lead to the kind of answer desired. “What are you looking for in a solution?” This question is too broad if the sales professional really wants to know about timing and budget. Without added structure, the prospect could end up talking about any aspect, quickly taking the conversation off track.  

It takes practice to develop and use open-ended questions successfully, but the time spent in doing so has proven to be well worth the effort, leading to a truly consultative sales call that adds real value to both parties.

Open-ended questions are at the heart of Richardson’s Consultative Selling Skills program, which takes an in-depth look at the critical structure of a sales call or client meeting and provides a roadmap for a successful, need-based dialogue. This roadmap includes a Consultative Selling Framework and Richardson’s Six Critical Skills, designed to help sales professionals at every level to more effectively execute their sales conversations. 

Additonal Reading on Open-ended Questions

open-ended questions What are some of the best open-ended questions for winning sales
open-ended questions 5 Tips on asking open-ended questions