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It happened again! I walked into one of those posh, ultra-luxurious shops on Fifth Avenue and the smartly dressed, beautifully coiffed sales associate asked “May I help you?” I’m sure she’d been trained on the company value proposition and was knowledgeable on all the new product lines, but what she didn’t know is this is one of the worst ways to greet a customer! Too often this question is met with a polite “No thank you. I’m just looking.”  That’s because “May I help you?” is a closed-ended question—it can be answered with “yes” or “no.” The next time you go shopping, listen to the number of closed-ended questions you’re asked: “Do you like this one?,” “Do you have a budget?,” “Is this the right color?,” “Will that be all for today?”

It’s been said good salespeople have good answers, but great salespeople have great questions. So, what are the great questions? That’s easy! They’re the same questions journalists use to write a great story: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why. By using open-ended questions, you will encourage your customers to talk more. Studies have shown the more a customer talks, the more engaged a customer becomes, and the more likely he or she will buy. It also means you’ll talk less and have the opportunity to listen more. And listening more means you’ll get the right information you’ll need to make the sale.

Now, let’s get back to those great questions. Asking a simple open-ended question such as “How is your day going?” may get your customer talking, but it’s unlikely to generate much useful information for the sale. To be effective, you’ll want to ask questions that will help you understand your customer and his or her needs.

Many closed-ended questions can easily be turned into open-ended questions by starting with the word ‘how’. Rather than risking a negative response to the question “May I help you?,” try opening with “How may I help you?” or “What brings you into our store today?” You may still receive the “I’m just looking” response (a topic for a future post), but you’ll avoid having the first words out of your customer’s mouth be “No!”

Understanding why your customer is in your store is one of the most important things you need to know. A simple “What are you looking for today?” can get the conversation rolling. If you sense they may be a new customer, ask how familiar they are with your store or your product. Asking whether the item will be a self-purchase or a gift is also a great place to start. If the item is a gift, you’ll want to know the sentiment behind it: “What occasion are you shopping for?” or “What sentiment would you like this gift to convey?” are good questions to pose.

Understanding your customer’s style will help you determine what items might most appeal to him or her. Here the frequent “do you” question (closed-ended) can be converted to an open-ended question by using “what” or “tell me about.” For example, “Do you have a favorite color?” becomes “What is your favorite color?” or “Tell me what colors you like.” If someone is struggling to explain their own style or someone else’s, you can help them along by asking which designers they like, what do they enjoy wearing when at work or at home, or which actors they like. Even asking what type of music someone listens to can offer clues into their personal style. Of course you can still use “do you” paired with “prefer” for comparisons, such as, “Do you prefer silk or satin?”

One of the most inane questions you can ask is “Do you have a budget?” 99.99% of customers have some idea of how much they’d like to spend on their purchase. By asking, “What price range do you have in mind?” customers should be able to give you an idea of what they’d like to spend. The price question can be tricky and should be treated with care. For additional ways to handle this sensitive question, see my previous post “The Perils of the Price Question.”

There are a myriad of questions that will help you help your customer, such as: when will they need the item by, how often do they intend to use it, how did they hear about your store, when may you follow up with them, etc. There may also be questions specific to your product. The smart salesperson knows how to use the right question at the right time, and maintains a well-balanced dialogue with the customer. Start by listening to the questions you’re asking and think about how to turn them into open-ended questions. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and it will require some conscious practice. But soon you too will be asking great questions!

If you would like help turning your closed-ended questions into open-ended questions, post your question into the Comments section below.

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