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Open-ended Sales Questions - What Exactly Are They?

Open-ended Questions For Sales Require an Answer Beyond “Yes” or “No”

It seems simple enough: open-ended sales questions are those that require more than a one-word answer while closed-ended questions can be answered with a selection from a shortlist of choices.

Open-ended questions enable sales reps to create a healthy dialogue while gently encouraging the customer to share information and uncover their pain points.  They can be used in many different scenarios including:

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

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

The 5 W’s of Open-Ended Questions for Sales

Open-ended sales 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. Some examples of closed-ended questions are:

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

Key Characteristics of Open-Ended Sales Questions

Simply put, open-ended questions are unstructured, they never give the customer the opportunity to respond by choosing an answer from a list of multiple choices. Open-ended sales questions require the customer to think before they respond.

To determine whether or not a question is open-ended ask yourself:

    • Did the customer have to think and reflect before answering?
    • Does the response to the answer involve ideas or opinions rather than facts?
    • Does the dialogue feel like a conversation or an interrogation?

The whole point of using open-ended questions is to invite the prospect to open up, elaborate on key points, and be forthcoming with 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. For example, if a sales professional wants to learn about their customer’s timing and budget, asking What are you looking for in a solution?” is too broad.  Without added structure and context, the customer could end up talking about any aspect of the project, 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. An effective questioning strategy is proven to help sales professionals close the deal.

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 and provides a roadmap for a successful, need-based dialogue.