Open Ended Questions Are Overrated


It’s like a religion almost.     

Every sales trainer since the turn of the 20th century has proselytized* that open ended questions are the key to sales success.  Those glorious questions like “How do you market your business?”, How would you describe your relationship with your current supplier?” and “How do you differentiate yourself in the market place?” are a constant in any sales training revival session.

The thought is that these types of questions will get your customer to leap to his feet and open up to you about his motivations, beliefs and values.

Except when they don’t.   The reality is that open ended questions are effective when there is already a good degree of trust established.  Open ended questions asked when trust is low can feel intrusive and just too much work to answer.  Both of these feelings by the way, shut down the sales process.

Here’s why it happens.  When you ask,   “I’m curious, how do you market your business?”  The client often thinks “Who the heck are you asking me that?” (The client rarely says this out loud, but rather will insert “brush off” language like “I’m really happy with my current supplier”).   The client could think as well “Gee, that’s complicated and you know what?, I’ve got work to do”.  Both of these reactions are the result of an unbelieving, untrusting audience.   

There’s a better way to get at the same information when trust is low.

Here’s how:  Say “I’m curious, is the business marketed online, offline or both?”   Think psychologically why this makes more sense:

  1. You took the “you” and “your” out of the question.  When trust is low a question about how you do something (especially something important like “marketing”) is a little too personal.  By saying “is the business marketed…” defers to something that, while it may be close to the client’s heart, is an it and not a you. 
  2. You gave options like “marketed online, offline or both?”.   Every Malcolm Gladwell Blink reader knows that options help decisions to be made and ideas to be chosen.   Wide open questions with no options, especially in this harried, rushed world, can stop communication altogether.  If the client has choices of responses, they are more likely to respond.  


So here’s the message.  Take your list of open ended questions and ask yourself a closed ended one before you use them. “Does the client/prospect trust me or my company enough to be asking these questions this way?” If the answer is “no” or “I don’t know”, take the “you” out of the question and add options to choose from. 

Till next time,

Go Forth and Grow The Business.


* Yeah! I can knock this off my “Bucket List” now. I always had a dream to use “proselytize” in a blog!

3 thoughts on “Open Ended Questions Are Overrated

  1. Mark,

    I admit to being guilty of preaching the value of asking open-ended questions during sales calls and meetings. However, I do agree with your pespective that they are ineffective when a prospect doesn’t yet trust you.

    It can aslo be valuable to ask close-ended questions when the other person grunts a short response or obviously does not want to elaborate. Closed questions can help “warm people up” and become more comfortable with you.

    Good reminder that one approach is seldom useful ALL the time.

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