5 All-Purpose Open-Ended Questions
July 26, 2022 by Bill Rosenthal

5 All-Purpose Open-Ended Questions

In a sales meeting, the kind of question least likely to put your listening skills to work is the closed question: 

“Are you concerned about costs?”

That may sound like a substantive question, but when the customer answers “yes” or “no,” the conversation stops. Furthermore, it generates almost no information. That your customer is concerned about costs is meaningless. Who isn’t concerned about costs?

“How have you been managing cost issues?”

It seems like the same question. But instead of a simple one-word answer, this question is likely to elicit at least a sentence, or maybe a paragraph. And when the customer answers with a sentence or a paragraph, you can take notes, play back information, summarize, or reflect feeling. In other words, you can exercise your listening skills.

Learning to convert a closed question to an open one is a vital skill for a sales person. Open questions often begin with “what,” “why,” “how,” or “give me an example.” They work best when you create them on the fly. Nevertheless, you sometimes need to prime the conversational pump when you have nothing to go on. I have five open questions that apply to almost any situation, and I use one when I have no other way to get the sales conversation under way.

Question 1. What will make this meeting most effective for you?

This is a great question to open a meeting with. At the same time it gets the customer talking, it signals that you care about how his or her time is spent, and the answer can give you guidance on how to manage the meeting.

Question 2. How has a your business changed?

I love this question. If your business has not changed, then you’re not doing it right. Everybody has a response to this question, and it speaks directly to our struggle for success.

Question 3. How has your work changed?

This one is a lot like the previous question, but it’s more personal and may get a more enthusiastic response from some people.

Question 4. What stands between you and your goals?

I like this one because it is so flexible. You can particularize it so you’re addressing personal goals, organizational goals, or departmental goals. Learning about a customer’s goals is crucial to understanding the customer’s needs.

Question 5. What would happen if you reached those goals?

I like this one because it gives the customer an opportunity to use his or her imagination, and it can put them in the frame of mind to think in the longer term, which is often necessary to making a sale. 

In our sales training programs, we teach the importance of open-ended questions, and we spend time practicing the listening skills you apply to customer answers. All other things being equal, the salesperson who sells the most is the one who listens the most effectively. That’s partly because the salesperson who listens the most effectively learns the most about the customer’s needs. But there is more to it than that. Listening, really listening, builds relationships. It builds them so effectively that therapists, who do most of their work by listening, find patient infatuation to be an occupational hazard.

Learn more about probing and listening in our course, Socratic Selling Skills®.