Retail Sales: Asking Open Ended Questions

I started in sales selling Mary Kay as a fresh faced 22 year old. I sucked at it. I was really, really bad. All my friends were too broke to buy Mary Kay (reasonably priced though it is) and none of their mums would take me seriously when I showed up in my maroon skirt suit and ill-fitting pumps.

But I learned some things. Mostly that MLM businesses are not for the faint of heart – you really need to not care about people’s financial issues and never take no for an answer to be in MLM. That’s how it works. But I also learned the power of open ended questions.

Think about the word NO. It is, by its very nature, a negative thing, but it’s also a conversation ender. Can I buy you a drink? NO. Do you like my shoes? NO. Will you buy my product? NO.
When a customer says no, it’s an invitation for them to then walk away because the conversation is over, usually before it’s even begun. This is fair enough – people are allowed to say no, even when that $20 sale is the difference between you making budget and actually getting your commission this week, or not. People are allowed to not enter into a relationship with you.

But let’s do our best to not let that happen, because relationships with customers are what works, what sells and what makes us feel like our souls aren’t a little crushed by the end of the day.

Open ended questions invite people into an interaction with you that doesn’t lead to a no. It can’t lead to a no (unless you get a right prick, in which case leave them to it), it can only lead to a conversation that initiates the relationship between customer and salesperson that we are all so desperate to get. Open ended questions are things we ask that do not give the option of a yes/no answer, instead they require full sentences (or at least more than a grunt). Open ended questions are the beginning of a dialogue that ends with ‘and how would you like to pay for that today?’

So what are some open ended questions you can ask? It definitely depends on what and where you’re selling, but most of these can be adapted to any sales scenario. And also to any potential dating scenario – has anyone else noticed how much dating is like sales? Just as soul crushing when it doesn’t work at any rate….

What have you been up to today?
How was work today?
What brought you into the store today?
What do you have planned for your week/weekend?
What are you looking/browsing for?
Who are you buying for today?
Can you tell me about your [product being replaced]?
What made you choose your last product?
What are your concerns?
Do you have any questions I can answer?
What other products catch your eye?
Do you like this product or this one?
What difficulties have you had with your current product?
How long has it been in between products?
What do you love about your current product?
What is your highest priority with this product?
What would solve this problem for you?
When do you need this product by?
Who else will be using this product?
What has been your experience with this product?
How did you hear about the product/store?
How would you like to pay for that today?

Of course, in between your open ended questions there will be some closed questions. I like to use the opener “are you buying for yourself or someone else today?” for people who have been in the store a while (when I’ve been busy with another customer). Here’s an example conversation from when I worked in menswear:

Me: Hi! Are you shopping for yourself or someone else today?
Woman: For my partner.
Me: Awesome, is he too busy to shop today?
Woman: Yes.
Me: I find a lot of men would much rather their better halves shopped for them. Is it for a special occasion or just a wardrobe update?
Woman: We have a wedding to go to on the weekend.
Me: Oh, that will be nice – what are you wearing? (Then attempt to match the guy’s shirt/accessories to her dress colour).

See how that closed question is nicely buffered by questions that get the customer to engage with me? A good trick is to always ask a closed question when you know that the answer is going to be yes – the more times a customer says yes (even to inane questions that have nothing to do with the sale) the more friendly they’ll feel towards you! Just one of those weird psychological quirks our brains have, same as liking someone who mirrors our body language and speech.

See how awkward the same scenario is with ALL closed questions

Me: Hi, are you shopping for yourself today?
Woman: No. (Also, she’s in a menswear shop, so it’s a mostly stupid question anyway)
Me: Ok, are you shopping for your son?
Woman: No. (at this point she’s losing interest in my interrogation)
Me: Ok, who are you shopping for?
Woman: My husband.
Me: Awesome, is it for a special occasion?
Woman: Yes, we have a wedding to go to (imagine if this was also a no – three strikes and I would be out, I promise)
Me: Great. Do you like this shirt?
Woman: No.

Try and read the above aloud to just see how awful it is – I’m desperate, she’s bored – the whole exchange is a disaster. Not all closed questions can be exchanged for open ended ones, but most can if you try. Here’s a list of questions you can swap:

Is this the first time you’ve been in the store? – What brings you into the store today?
Can I help you? – Are you shopping for yourself or someone else today?
Do you like this one? – Do you prefer product x or product y?
Do you see anything you like? – What products catch your eye?
Can I help you find something? – What problem are you trying to solve today?
Do you have a budget – Just don’t ask this. Just sell them stuff, they’ll let you know when they can’t afford it. Assume everyone is a millionaire.
Do you want this product? – What excites you most about this product?
Would you like to try this product? – What would make you try this product?

Now for an exercise – go into any retail store (preferably one where they don’t know you) and remember every question the salesperson asks you. Note how many are closed questions and then come up with a list of open ended alternatives that would have helped them make the sale. Think about your own language when people are buying from you – how many closed questions could be swapped for an open ended one?
Post your examples in the comments and I’ll add to the swap list as we go on! Happy Selling!

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