Questions have been an important tool for humans since, well, the dawn of language. By asking questions, we are able to learn information that can help us reach our goals and avoid problems. Back in caveman days, this meant that we could more easily find food and avoid saber tooth tigers; today, it means that we can more easily find the best Mexican food and avoid sleazy car salesmen.
The ability to effectively ask questions and decipher the information that you get back (words, body language, micro expressions) is an incredibly valuable skill. Detectives make their living by being able to ask the right questions and understand the answers they get; lawyers either put people in jail or keep them out of it thanks to questions. At some level, asking questions is a part of every single job available to people today—especially in marketing and sales.
This really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us. Salespeople regularly ask questions to gauge a prospect’s interest in a product or to ask about a budget, and marketers regularly use forms and surveys to find out more about the audience that they’re trying to reach. But just because we’re asking questions doesn’t mean we’re asking the right questions. And if we’re not asking the right questions, the information we’re getting back from our customers isn’t going to be as valuable as it could.
Asking Questions 101: Open-ended vs. Closed-Ended Questions
Ultimately, asking any question is a good thing for your sales or marketing process: It will help you to better understand your customers, which will help your sales team to sell and your marketing team to market.
That being said, questions come in two main flavors: Open-ended and closed-ended. Open-ended questions are questions that are asked where there are no preset answers for the other person to choose from; they formulate their own answer and communicate it to you in their own words. Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, are questions that come with answers built in. Closed-ended questions have a limited number of answers, while open-ended questions have an infinite number of potential answers.
For example, any yes/no question is a closed-ended question, since there are only two possible answers. Any form or survey that makes use of a sliding scale (think, “On a scale of 1 to 10”) or drop-down boxes would also constitute closed-ended questions.
Value of Closed-Ended Questions
Okay, so based on the title of this article, you already know that we’re biased towards asking open-ended questions. But that doesn’t mean that closed-ended questions don’t have their own value. I want to talk a bit about that value before diving into open-ended questions.
Closed-ended questions are very important in data analysis, for one simple reason: By having your potential answers standardized, you make analysis easier. This is why surveys are often done on sliding scales and why things like patient intake forms or a census make use of multiple-choice answers. Can you imagine having to analyze the results of a census based on open-ended questions instead of the multiple-choice responses we are all familiar with? It would take years to analyze the results, and by that point the results would be pointless.
Similarly, because closed-ended questions tend to be quicker to ask and answer, they can be ideal in some cases—like when a visitor to your website wants to fill out a quick form to download an ebook.
Closed-Ended questions are incredibly important for anyone who needs to gather a large amount of information quickly and then analyze it quickly. That goes for governments and businesses alike.
Closed-ended questions they allow you to capture and gather large amounts of information, sort of like skimming the top of a parfait. Sure, doing that lets you taste all of the yogurt on top, but you miss out on the granola and fruit sitting below the surface. You can only get to that good stuff by narrowing your view and digging a little deeper, and that’s where open-ended questions come in.
Why Open-Ended Questions Are Important
Closed-ended questions limit the answer that a person can give. In the case of a yes/no question, there are only two possible answers. In the case of a multiple-choice question, the only possible answers are answers that you, the questioner, has thought to include. By relying on closed-ended questions, we increase the chances that we are going to miss out on insights that can help us frame our understanding of our customers.
On the other hand, open-ended questions remove the assumptions of the questioner so that the other person can truly offer an accurate answer.
Don’t buy it? There have been studies conducted that show that doctors who ask their patients open-ended questions get more accurate and helpful feedback that doctors who ask their patients closed-ended questions. Thanks to this high-quality information, the doctors are then able to better treat their patients.
This value can carry over into any other career, including sales and marketing. Salespeople who ask their prospects and buyers open-ended questions open themselves up to learn more about the wants and desires of their buyers, and this in turn helps them to close sales; marketers who ask their audience open-ended questions help themselves to have a greater understanding of the buyer’s journey, which lets them create high-quality content that their buyers want.
Putting It Into Practice
In today’s marketing and sales environment, you are going to be pretty dependent on closed-ended questions. That’s how most forms work, and form submissions are an essential part of lead generation. In that regard, keep on keeping on!
But that isn’t permission to completely write off open-ended questions. By weaving these types of questions into your surveys and other interactions that you have with clients and customers (interviews, calls, etc.) you can increase your understanding of their needs and use that understanding to sell more, better, and faster.