Whenever I ask salespeople in my classes which type of questions are most effective, open-ended or closed, the overwhelming majority select open. The reasons given are that open questions are best at getting the customer talking and for finding out unexpected information. After all, if you’re in a solution sale, it’s critical to find out as much as possible about the customer’s business and current situation in order to uncover pain points. They do like closed questions, however, when they are trying to gain agreement towards the end of the call.
In this article and the next, I will point out why these beliefs are actually incorrect when applied to complex sales, and may actually hinder your sales effectiveness.
Since open questions are so admired, let’s first examine why an inordinate focus on them can be a mistake. Two simple reasons: Open questions just do not make the difference that most people think, and can even make it harder to get customers to open up about their needs.
To fly in the face of so much “conventional wisdom”, I’ll need some pretty strong wings. For the first point, that they don’t make such a difference, let’s see what Neil Rackham, author of the most widely-cited book on sales questioning, had to say: “We carried out several studies and were astonished to find that there is no measurable relationship between the use of open questions and success.” He goes even further: “Most major companies are spending a fortune teaching people a distinction that—at least in the larger sale—does nothing useful in terms of improving sales results.”
On paper, it would seem that a question that calls for a yes or no or a short answer would get just that. However, normal conversations are not conducted on paper. Real people follow the context and the intent of the conversation and respond to that, not the strict structure of the question. Let’s take an extreme example: If you ask me, “Do you know what time it is?”, I’d have to be a real jerk to say “yes” and nothing more.
Now, a more realistic example: Once, after a prospect told me his salespeople did very little planning before sales calls, I simply asked, “Does that concern you?” He answered “You bet it does,” and then went on for about three minutes about how their lack of planning was leading to low close rates, looking unprofessional, etc.
To pursue the second point, that open questions can backfire, let’s first take a look at the object behind a sales conversation. Ideally, the aim of a sales conversation is to get the prospect talking about their needs in such a way that they arrive at the conclusion that they must have what you are selling.
The first step, then, is obviously to get the prospect talking, which is not always easy. Open questions can actually shut down conversation if used too early. The advantage of open questions, that they make people think deeper about their answer, can be a disadvantage at the wrong time of the call. Because closed questions are easy to answer, they can help to get the conversation rolling. To demonstrate, imagine that our first question to your customer is “What are your major strategic initiatives for the next year?” A question like this is incredibly open-ended, and if your customer answers it in good faith, will provide you a tremendous amount of useful information. The problem is that you haven’t earned the right yet to ask them to: a) think deeply about the question and, b) confide the answer to a stranger.
It’s like if someone introduced themselves to you and their first question was, “Tell me all about yourself.” How would you react? You probably would not be willing to open up and share your deepest feelings and ambitions. The question is just too intrusive at that point in the conversation.
Here’s a better way: “I read in your annual report that your market share is growing in the high-end segment; is that still a priority for you this year?” This question is easy to answer and shows that you did your homework, both of which should improve the quality of the sales conversation. As the prospect opens up, you can gradually make your questions more open as well.
The second step is to guide the conversation into needs that you can fill with your solution. At this point, you’re asking the customer about challenges they face to uncover areas where you can help. Open questions may be all you need—provided the customer gives you just the right combination of problems, opportunities, changes and risks that you are listening for.
When they don’t, closed questions are a low-key way to steer the conversation back to the right direction without losing the conversational momentum. If the prospect neglects to mention a challenge that you suspect they actually do face (either through reluctance to admit it or simply forgetfulness), you can target a specific area by asking something like: “What percentage of your sales staff follows the process?”
Because the point is to maintain conversational momentum, you can sometimes even dispense with questions altogether and inject a “door opener” statement, such as: “that must be quite a challenge for you.” Try it; it works just as well as a question and is much less intrusive.
Of course, open questions are extremely valuable, and in my next post we will see how they are actually most valuable when sales lore suggests they should not be used.
 SPIN Selling, Neil Rackham, p. 15-16.