Experts rely on open-ended questions to provide expert advice. Salespeople looking to provide potential customers with expert product or service advice can use the same technique to increase trust and close deals.
Why is it so important for salespeople to ask (many, many, many) open-ended questions? And, why is it so difficult to ask these questions?
Open-ended questions build understanding and trust
Our family doctor often tells us that, ‘Good doctors are good listeners. I’m able to properly diagnose patients, because I allow them to tell me what’s wrong with them.’
Experts are able to give expert advice, because they seek to understand a situation. Asking open-ended questions allows them to do this. They don’t simply assume things based on first impressions and assumption.
Open-ended questions typically begin with words like ‘Why’ and ‘How’, or phrases like ‘Tell me about…’ and ‘Explain to me…’.
Unlike closed-ended questions that can be answered by a simple ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘I don’t know’, open-ended questions implicitly ask for a more meaningful response. They encourage people to provide elaborate insights into their knowledge or experience of a specific issue.
Open-ended questions build trust and rapport as the speaker feels heard and appreciates that the questioner is genuinely interested in them and their experience. As we have written about before, trust is a key element of a successful sale.
Closed-ended questions lead to conversational dead-ends
When we believe that our role, as experts, is to educate potential buyers on our product we tend to lead with closed questions, because we are refining our position against a prescribed list of possible outcomes.
In our eagerness to ‘sell something’ we make the limiting assumption that potential buyers think and talk about our product or service in the same way that we do. In doing so, we don’t seek to understand the needs of the buyer and might miss the real potential of the sale as the result.
Experts ask open-ended questions. So should sales people.
Salespeople should properly ‘diagnose’ a potential customer before they go on to offer their product or service as a solution.
While a salesperson might be an expert on the product or service they offer, the potential customer is the expert on their unique business situation, and in the case of a sale this is the most important information.
No real understanding and trust can develop between salespeople and customers if customers aren’t given the space to explain the context in which they do business, express their unique needs in their own words, and feel heard throughout the process.
What’s more, closed-ended questions give potential buyers an opportunity to shut down conversations with a quick ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, while open-ended questions keep the sales conversation going.
Not only do open-ended questions allow us to understand potential customers, they give us the opportunity to make sure the customer fully understands the value of the product or service we are recommending.
Switching from closed- to open-ended questions
Next time you visit an existing customer, pay attention to the questions you ask them and think of ways how you can change closed-ended questions into open-ended ones. Here are a few examples to guide you:
Closed: Are you using any particular software system to process your sales orders?
Open: How are you currently processing your sales orders?
Closed: What’s the most frustrating thing about your current processing system?
Open: In your own words, what would the perfect order processing system be?
Closed: Have you considered other order processing systems?
Open: Why do you prefer your current order processing system to alternatives?
Think through the different responses these closed- and open-ended questions might result in and how they might add value to the sales conversation!