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How to Use Open and Closed-Ended Questions to Best Understand Your Customers

It’s not merely enough to ask your customers questions. The kinds of questions you ask, and the phrasing, matter just as much.

How to Use Open and Closed-Ended Questions to Best Understand Your Customers

Albert Einstein believed in the power of asking the right question. He said:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Whether it’s physics or sales and customer success, questions matter. How, when, and what you ask customers determines if and how they use your product or service., 

Open-ended questions are particularly powerful with customers. Open-ended questions enable you to dig into your customers’ minds, open new conversations, and reveal new perspectives.

In short, you need to understand what open-ended questions are, why they matter, and how to use them. So in this post, we’re going to talk all about them. We’ll cover:

Ready? Let’s get to it.

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<h-circle>1<h-circle>What is an open-ended question?

An open-ended question is a statement or question that requires the respondent to explore and discuss concepts, interpretations, and reasoning. Open-ended questions do not have predefined, one-word answers, such as “Yes” or “No”. 

Instead, these questions require respondents to respond in full, meaningful answers and in their own words. You can structure open-ended questions both as statements or in the form of a question. 

Statement: Talk to me about your experience with our onboarding process.

Question:
What did you think about our onboarding process? 

Either way, open-ended questions require at least a full statement as an answer, which makes them great for gathering opinions, ideas, and other data points.

Open vs. closed questions

Open-ended questions are the opposite of closed-ended questions, which can be answered from a selection of answers.

If you’re ever confused, think of it this way: If you were to ask a question on a survey, what element would you use for the response, multiple-choice questions, or an open space for someone to write a short paragraph? 

If you’d use a freeform box, it’s an open-ended question. If you could use multiple-choice, true or false, or yes or no options, it’s a closed-ended question.

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<h-circle>2<h-circle>Why you should care about open-ended questions

Most businesses already know asking questions is important. You don’t need Einstein to tell you that it should be one of your top priorities to gather information about your customers.

But we often don’t think carefully enough about how a question’s phrasing influences the answer. It’s not merely enough to ask questions. 

If you don’t ask your prospects and customers the right kinds of questions — open-ended questions — you'll not only get less valuable information, you’ll also bias their responses. 

How open and closed-ended questions bias answers

In a Pew Research poll conducted after the 2008 presidential election, pollsters asked, “What one issue mattered most to you in deciding how you voted for president?”

To some respondents, the question was framed as closed-ended. The closed-ended question had five options and respondents could also volunteer an option not on the list. 

To the others, the questions were open-ended; there were no predefined responses.

Interestingly, 58% of respondents chose the economy when it was a predefined response, but only 35% mentioned it when it wasn’t a predefined response. 

Further showing the bias of predefined responses, in the closed-ended poll, just 8% of respondents volunteered an option not on the list of predefined responses. 

By comparison, 43% of open-ended poll respondents provided a response other than one of the closed-ended poll’s list of responses. Clearly, respondents without a list of predefined responses were much more likely to come up with their own and vice versa.

As this example shows, open-ended questions are important because they allow respondents to show you what’s in their minds. They force respondents to think, explore their thought process, and make connections. Closed questions are often leading questions where a person will reflexively choose a predefined answer without fully thinking about why.

This concept is as true in a customer poll as it is in customer meetings too. 

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<h-circle>3<h-circle>How and when to use open-ended questions 

Given their significant, multifaceted power, you can use open-ended questions in just about any scenario, business or otherwise. Vs close-ended questions, open questions are far more versatile and helpful.

But here’s a few situations where open-ended questions really flex their muscles.

Making conversation and building rapport

Where are you from? What do you do for work? Do you have any siblings? 

Do you want me to stop now?

As Harvard Business professors, Alison Brookes and Leslie John, explain in the HBR: “No one likes to feel interrogated—and [closed-ended] questions can force answerers into a yes-or-no corner.”

Too many closed-ended questions can make a conversation feel like a job interview. Or worse, an interrogation for the other person. You might think only having to give a single-word answer is easier, but when faced with close-ended question after close-ended question, the conversion becomes neither enjoyable nor rapport-building.

If you find your conversations tend to stall out before they begin, or you feel like you’re not connecting, pepper in more open-ended questions to start the conversation. 

TIP: Before asking more questions, make sure to listen for the full answer. Don’t cut the other person off before their answer is complete.

Here are a few examples from Sales Hacker of great open-ended questions to start sales conversations with that will help you immediately build rapport:

  1. What will make this appointment worthwhile for you today?
  2. What motivated you to take this call with me?
  3. How did you get involved in this project?

During the sales discovery process

Often, the full scope of a prospect’s needs and pain points aren’t readily apparent. You need additional information. This is especially true when a prospect doesn’t fully understand the nature of the problem they’re trying to solve.

Open-ended questions provide a tactful approach in this situation. They reveal your prospect’s flawed underlying assumptions and misconceptions because they force the prospect or sales lead to describe their thinking. 

Examples of great open-ended questions (from HubSpot) to ask in the sale discovery process include:

  1. Tell me about your operational goals for the next quarter.
  2. What problem are you trying to solve?
  3. What’s the source of that problem?
  4. Why is it a priority today?
  5. What would a successful outcome look like?

To handle customer objections in the sales process

Any salesperson or account exec needs to know how to handle objections. And open-ended questions are potent tools you should have in your objection-handling kit. 

An open-ended question in response to an objection relieves tension in the conversation. Rather than reacting to the customer’s objection, the open-ended question invites further thought on the objection. For example:

Customer: “I’ve always had luck with fax machines. I don’t see why we would change.”

Salesperson: “I understand that fax machines have worked well for you in the past.  Is there a specific reason why you want to stick with them?

In this example, instead of trying to convince the customer they’re wrong, the salesperson asks an open-ended question. This keeps the conversation going and enables the salesperson to learn more about the objection before deciding how best to respond. 

Here are a couple of examples of great open-ended questions to ask when handling objections:

  1. I guess you’ve got some concerns that I’ve not fully covered. Could you tell me what’s concerning you that might happen?
  2. It seems like you're hesitant to decide just yet. Talk to me about the things that make you want to put off this decision into the future.

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When collecting customer feedback

Nielsen explains the power of open-ended questions when collecting feedback about your business:

“In one-on-one usability testing, you want to get richer data than what’s provided from simple yes/no answers. If you test with 5 users, it’s not interesting to report that, say, 60% of users answered “yes” to a certain question. No statistical significance, whatsoever. 

If you can get users to talk in-depth about a question, however, you can absolutely derive valid information from 5 users. Not statistical insights, but qualitative insights.”

Although Nielsen is talking about usability testing, the concept translates. Open-ended questions also enable you to obtain important qualitative customer insights from meetings. 

The questions you ask when collecting customer feedback depend on what you’re trying to learn. But here are a few examples of open-ended customer feedback questions (from Nielsen):

  1. How does this product fit into your typical workday?
  2. How did this product or service change the way you do ____?
  3. What kinds of questions or difficulties have you had when using this product or service in the past?
  4. What’s most confusing or annoying about ____ ?

When you keep getting one-word answers

Sometimes when asking questions, the person you are asking may be shy, uncomfortable, or uncooperative. Or, maybe they’re not — maybe at that moment, you’re asking the wrong kind of questions.

If you start getting these kinds of answers, be on the lookout for close-ended questions, one of the main reasons for the one-word answer. Fortunately, the solution is easy. Swap your close-ended questions out and start asking open-ended questions instead.

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<h-circle>4<h-circle>Quick tip for creating your own open-ended questions

One of the easiest ways to come up with your own open-ended questions is to convert your closed-ended question into open ones. 

To do this, create a list of questions you typically ask in customer meetings. Look at that list of questions and pick out the ones that require yes or no answers, or go even further and list open vs. closed-ended questions. 

Then, take those closed-ended questions and reform them so the answers require customers to think and explain more. Also, be on the lookout for leading questions, and see if you can word your questions such that they don’t suggest an answer in the way they are worded.

Here are a few examples of closed-ended questions converted into open-ended ones:

Closed-ended > Open-ended

  • Are you satisfied? > How satisfied are you with this product?
  • Did you expect the product to shorten your sales cycle? > Tell me about your expectations before you tried the product. 
  • Do you like this new feature? > What did you like best about our last product update?
  • Who has final say on budgeting decisions? > How does the budget approval process typically work at your company?
  • Are you interested in purchasing this service today? > What led you to consider this service?

Note: A closed-ended question doesn’t have to have a yes or no answer. 

Notice that “Who has final say on budgeting decisions?” is listed as a closed-ended question but it doesn’t require a yes or no. Yet it’s still closed-ended because it has a limited set of possible answers. The open-ended version will lead to much more valuable insight.

<h-circle>5<h-circle>Questions Anyone?

Asking the right questions will help you ace your customer and sales conversations, but it will also benefit your relationships with your coworkers. From daily standups and project check-ins to one-on-ones and customer meetings, questions grease the wheels of a productive conversation. Most people enjoy talking about themselves and things they know about.

Open-ended questions can make a difference in your life even if you ask them to your best friend, your spouse or partner — everyone appreciates a question that does take a one-word answer.

So while we covered a lot about open-ended questions in this post, there’s more where that came from. Below are lists of other examples of open-ended questions that are helpful in a variety of work situations.

Looking to maintain momentum and alignment with your team? Here are 40+ Check-In Questions for Meetings.

Need to build rapport and identify top performers? Here are another 101+ Skip-Level Meeting Questions.

And finally, for those all-important one-on-one meetings, check out The Big List of 300+ One-on-One Meeting Questions

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