To Make the Sale, Ask Open Questions
November 28, 2016 by Jeanie Bress

A friend of mine, who has been collecting Social Security for three years now, says it has been an interesting experience to become part of the senior demographic. The telemarketing calls change, both in terms of the services the telemarketers are trying to sell you and in the assumptions they make about you. Last week, my friend got a call from someone who claimed to be concerned about his health.

“We are calling people in the community who are eligible for Medicare. Tell me, do you experience pain in your knees or back?”

More than half (57%) of the 65+ age group report having frequent pain, and back and knee pain account for more than twice as much as any other kind. If he was targeting senior citizens, the caller had a good chance of getting a “yes” answer. 

But my friend is a triathlete. He competes in the 65-69 age group and trains 10-12 hours per week. While he says he is always a little sore as a result of his workouts, he is too active to be subject to back or knee pain. So he answered the question with one word: “No.”

The caller disconnected, and my friend never even found out what he was selling.

I predict this caller is not going to make a successful career in sales. Unless he intended his inquiry to be a blunt screening technique, it was the worst opener I’ve ever heard. A closed question — one that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” — can end the sales conversation before it even starts. Sales success depends on listening skills, and a closed question rarely prompts a response that allows you to use your listening skills.

Ask open questions to get longer answers. Open questions often begin with “what,” “why,” “how,” or “give me an example.” Here’s an example of a closed question: 

“Are you concerned about costs?”

That may sound like a substantive question, but when the customer answers “no,” the conversation is over, just like the telemarketer’s call to my friend. Even if the customer answers “yes,” you have to follow up with another question to keep the conversation going. Furthermore, a closed question generates almost no information. 

“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. 

In our sales training programs, we teach the importance of open 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 listening and probing in Socratic Selling Skills® or Socratic Selling Skills® for Salesforce.com® Users.