SalesBuzz: Closed-ended vs. open-ended vs. impact questions

Tibor Shanto, VARCoach and chief sales officer at Renbor Sales Solutions

Tibor Shanto, VARCoach and chief sales officer at Renbor Sales Solutions

For the longest time now, open-ended questions have ruled the day, while closed ended questions have been treated like a red-headed stepchild. One of the first things sales reps are taught is that they have to probe by asking “open ended” questions. While I would not question the effectiveness of open ended questions, I do have to wonder if it is “the better” question every time, for every situation.  In reality it is a question of context, there are definitely situations when the best type of question is closed ended.

If you are looking to “open” things up, discover what is going on in the prospect’s world, or gain an understanding of how you can impact the prospect’s world, open-ended questions are for you.  But if you are looking to finalize a phase of the sale, close down an outstanding issue, or in a situation where you need clear and definitive direction, you should go with a closed ended question.

As with most things, a lot of it comes down to labels and semantics.  What if we changed the tag from closed-ended to impact question?

If you look at the sales process, from lead to long-term client, there are stages, specifics will vary based on sector, product and other factors.  As a reader of this blog you have seen us refer to the EDGE process, Engage, Discovery, Gain, Execute; these generic stages, have subsets and sections and they also have specific attributes and actions.  Some stages are better executed using open ended questions, other sections, are better suited to closed ended questions.

The Discovery stage is usually the more crucial and longer that the others, it is also the stage that is best suited to open ended questions.  Looking at sales over the last 10 – 20 years or so, a key challenge has been to get reps to improve their approach to fully engaging with buyers and uncover their objective and opportunities.  This in contrast to the “Pitching” they used to do before that.  It makes perfect sense that sales leaders and trainers world emphasize questions that help reps uncover these things.  So the mantra and the battle cry became “ask open ended questions”, “open things up, get the client to talk”.

At the same time when it come to engaging a lead and testing if it is time to convert them to a prospect, closed ended questions serve the situation better.  Some question work really well in a face to face setting, others work better over the phone.  For example when you are on the phone with a lead that you are trying to get an appointment with, you don’t want to open things over the phone, that’s better done in person.  But securing the appointment is at times easier achieved using a closed ended question.

Towards the end of the sale, when you are dealing with the prospect’s nerves, and they ask questions to be reassured, you want to deal with it, address, close it down and move on.  Closed ended questions could be your friend.

There are very few absolutes, and so it is with questions.  The art is in asking the right question for what you need to achieve at that point in the sale.

Tibor Shanto

Tibor Shanto is Sales Practice Director of VARCoach and VP of Sales Effectiveness at Channel Test Factory. Tibor is a recognized speaker, author of award winning book Shift!: Harness The Trigger Events That Turn Prospects Into Customers. Called a brilliant sales tactician Tibor helps organizations increase sales through execute. Tibor is at, or + 1 (416) 822-7781.