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The Art of Asking Open-Ended Questions

When qualifying, you bring value to your prospects, clients, and yourself through the questions you ask -- but only if they're good questions. Allow me to introduce you to a concept I call "high-value questions."

Simply stated, a high-value question for sales is one that creates a learning experience for either the questioner (you), the person being questioned (your prospect or client), or both. Naturally, the best high-value questions provide insight for all parties concerned.

One characteristic of most high-value questions is that they are open-ended instead of closed-ended. I suspect you’ve heard this distinction before, and perhaps you’re applying it already. Let’s make sure you’re using open-ended questions to their full value.

How to Ask Open-Ended Questions

If at the end of the meeting, I ask a prospect or client, “Did you find this meeting helpful?” that’s a closed-ended question since they can only answer "yes" or "no." And while it’s good to know that they found the meeting helpful, unless they volunteer some elaboration to their answer, you don’t know in what ways they experienced value. Maybe they’re just being polite.

On the other hand, I could ask, “We’ve been through a bit of a process to get to this point, have we not? Can you tell me the value you feel you’ve received by going through this entire process?”

Now what happens? Your prospect or client clearly articulates their perception of the process, which helps you to get even clearer on your value. In addition, asking your prospects and clients about value actually helps them reinforce it in their own minds. The net result is you become more referable and earn the right to ask for referrals.

Examples of Open-Ended Questions

Here are some open-ended, high-value questions that reps can ask their prospects:

  • What are the top priorities in your business at the moment?
  • What are some of the best decisions you’ve made related to ____________?
  • How are you feeling about your current situation related to _____________?
  • If we were meeting five (10, 20) years from today, what must happen for you to feel good about your situation related to ___________?
  • What opportunities do you see on your horizon?
  • What challenges do you see in making this happen?
  • If we were to work together on this, what are the top two or three outcomes you’d like to see?
  • How will you be measuring our success related to these outcomes?
  • What’s the biggest risk for you to not make progress on this situation?

How to Turn Any Question into an Open-Ended Question

So here’s your action step for the next few days. Start to pay attention to the questions you are asking your prospects, clients, and everyone else you encounter. Did you just ask a closed-ended question when an open-ended question would have yielded more information for both parties? Where appropriate, start to turn some of your closed-ended questions into open-ended questions.

Here’s a quick little trick I discovered that might help. If you find yourself asking a closed-ended question, you can always open it up at the end. For example, if you start by asking “Did you find value in this process?" you can follow it up with, "If so, please tell me in what ways.”

There is so much to this topic that I couldn’t possibly cover it in just one blog post, so you can expect me to revisit this concept in future posts. In my next article, I’m going to give some very specific high-value open-ended questions that you can use to bring value to your prospects, clients, and yourself very quickly.

Editor's note: This post is an excerpt from Bill Cates’ newest book, Beyond Referrals, and is reprinted here with permission. It was originally published in February 2015 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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