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Using Open and Closed Questions in Sales Calls

In a long and varied career, I have spent a few decades in coaching, sales, sales management, IT, and running my own businesses.

question marks

question marks

Questions Are Key

All good salespeople know that to truly communicate with your customer (and at a basic level, that is all selling really is), you have to find out what is most important to them. Selling sometimes implies that you "make" somebody buy something.

However, human beings generally only do what they want to do and you cannot make them do or "buy" anything they don’t want to. They will, however, have requirements or needs, and if some of their needs are matched by the benefits of your product/service that you are offering, then they are likely to buy of their own volition.

If Only It Was Simple

But as we all know that customers rarely, if ever, just come out and tell you exactly what they want—as in this example, where a customer is looking to upgrade his alarm system:

”I want an easy and foolproof alarm system, to cover seven separate areas, two sensors to an area, with three separate keypads in the 'key access areas.' Access codes to change every Friday at 2pm. The control pads need to be in our corporate colours with our logo embossed on them, and I need the whole system fitted and working by April the 14th.”

Of course, there are occasionally exceptions. Very occasionally.

Finding Needs

A customer will often have certain requirements or needs, and if you can show that you can satisfy those needs with your product or service, then the customer is more likely to buy.

What are these needs and how do we find them?

You find needs by asking questions. That’s it.

Once you’ve found a particular need, you can simply match that need to the corresponding benefit of your product or service.

More about the type of questions you ask in a minute, but for the moment let’s concentrate on the most important need of all. This is a fundamental need of all human beings.

Never forget it. Here it is:

The need to be understood.

And you match this particular need, not with a benefit that your product or service offers, but with a benefit that you personally offer:

The ability to listen to and understand your customer’s point of view.

This is why it is so important to always let the customer know they are being listened to.

Open Questions

Open Questions

Using Open Questions

OK, how do we find the rest of the customer’s needs?

Easy—we ask questions.

Next time you are in the position to compare one salesperson with another, watch which one asks the most questions and listens attentively and actively—that one will be the most successful.

In life there are lots of questions one could ask: Loaded questions, leading questions, curious questions, irritating questions, etc.

In sales, you can make it much simpler. In sales, you need to ask two basic types of question.

The first type of question is sometimes known as an "open" question. Open questions tend to elicit free-flowing answers, which often unearth a lot of information.

Open questions tend to begin or include the words who, where, how, why*, what, and when.

*Why tends to be used as a question to obtain more information, following on from a previously asked open question. Be cautious and don’t use "why" questions too often during a call, sometimes people are intimidated by "why" questions and become defensive—especially if you don’t know them very well (e.g., first contact).

Here are some examples of open questions:

  • “Where are the areas you are seeking to improve your security systems?”
  • “How have the current security systems affected you?”
  • “Can you tell me why that is important?”

Open questions, as mentioned earlier, are designed to elicit a "stream" of information, from which you can start to pick up the customer’s needs.

Closed Questions

The second type of question is sometimes known as a closed question. A closed question’s main purpose is to get specific, definite answers. Mostly commonly they will elicit a "yes" or "no" response, but it could also be a date or a number.

Closed questions tend to begin or include the words "How many...?" or "Is...?"

Here are some examples:

  • “How many sensors will you require?”
  • “Is that important?”

Closed questions and the answers they bring forth tend to be short and to the point.

The answers the above two questions might get could be:

  • “16.”
  • “Yes, very.”

Closed questions can also be used to qualify a statement—in other words, they can be used to check if something is true or important, as in the second example above: “Is that important?”



Balancing Your Questions

A good and balanced sales call will incorporate both types of questions. If you were to conduct a call using only open questions, you would end up running around in circles and tying your customer in knots, and eventually your customer would lose patience and you would lose the sale.

Constantly asking open questions is very, very irritating after a while; children in particular are very good at it. Next time you meet a three-year-old, just watch how many open questions they ask! ("What happens when…" 'Why is the sky blue…?" "But, why…what happens then…Why is that?")

Kids have an open question for everything.

Kids have an open question for everything.

Equally using just closed questions can sound abrupt, aggressive and interrogative. Using only closed questions will not elicit background information, you are unlikely to discover many needs, and your customer will feel stressed and under pressure—and you will leave them thinking you are a very pushy salesperson. This does not bode well for your future relationship.

One of the keys to a good call is to use a balance of the two types of questions, but as a general rule start off with a few, well-thought-out, open questions. Starting this way will enable you to get a "feel for your customer and they will be far more relaxed than if you immediately started with closed questions.

Using these two types of simple questions well and listening carefully to the answers will enable you to find the customer’s needs, build rapport and be on the way to a mutually beneficial relationship.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Jerry Cornelius