Last updateWed, 19 Feb 2020 12am

The Needs Assessment: Open-ended questions

In the previous article we started discussing the topic of "The Needs Assessment" and how important asking questions is to the overall success of the selling process. Additionally, we talked about how important the NA=A/DA theory (Needs Assessment equals Answers, so Demonstrate the Answers) to the overall selling process. This month I want to continue the needs assessment process talking about the types of questions that professional salespeople should be asking. The proper questions professional salespeople should be asking are "Open-Ended Questions."

If you have taken any communication courses or journalism courses you would have learned that open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no response. The customer must give more information. As a salesperson you have to get the customer talking and giving you the maximum amount of information possible. Therefore all Needs Assessment questions should be phrased as open-ended questions. It is the extra information that an open-ended question can give you that contains the vital details and information that you will need in order to determine the direction of the balance of your sales presentation.

Open-ended questions begin with one of the following words: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How or Tell Me.
I find that many salespeople have fallen into the bad habit of asking closed-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are those that begin with words such as: Do, Have, Will, Are, Did, Could, Would, etc. My advice would be to listen to yourself and your fellow salespeople carefully. I believe that every time that you ask a closed ended question the customer loses a little bit of confidence in you and you sound uncertain in your sales presentation. With the groups that I speak to I like to plant a hypnotic seed in their heads. The seed is that every time you hear yourself or a fellow salesperson say the word "or" or "er" you just asked a closed-ended question. Questions such as:
  • "Did you want round or marquis er princess cut?"
  • "Do you want to get her earrings or a pendant er a bracelet er a watch?
  • "Is this the first place you have shopped or have you been looking?
  • "Do you have a birthday or anniversary or some special occasion coming up?"


As you can see from these bad examples it is very easy to fall into the trap of asking closed-ended questions. My experience tells me that this will be one of the most difficult habits for the majority of salespeople to break. You can also see how the customer can lose a little bit of confidence in the salesperson, and how easy these questions are to answer with a yes or no as opposed to divulging valuable information. With each and every closed-ended question it is very easy to change a word or two and turn them into a high quality open-ended question. The proper way to ask the above questions is:

  • "What shape do you prefer?"
  • "What type of jewelry do you have in mind?"
  • "What has she seen before that she would love to have?"
  • "What is the special occasion?"

Clearly these questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no answer and the customer then must reveal the valuable information that you are looking to attain.
There are four basic types of open-ended questions that we will be exploring during the Needs Assessment step. They are:
  1. Information Questions
  2. Key Questions
  3. Business Questions
  4. Add-On Questions

Information Questions
The first type of open-ended question is the information question. This type of question is designed to get into the customer's shoes so to speak. Information questions are those that you would be asking while completing the Customer Profile Card that we talked about in a previous article. Through the customer profile system you would be asking questions to find out the customer's name, address, phone number, etc. In other words these questions are designed to find out as much personal information about the customer as possible. Other examples are:
  • "What type of work do you do?"
  • "Where do you live/work?"
  • "Tell me about your family?"
  • "How often do you wear your fine jewelry?"
  • "Tell me about your jewelry wardrobe."

Key Questions
A key question (or essential question) is one with more than one reason, benefit, or purpose, for asking. The majority of the following key questions should be asked with every client, as they are that important. I believe that in sales there is a logical sequence of "next best questions." In the majority of situations the key questions will give you the track which you can follow to determine the next best question for the particular selling situation.

A key question is a powerful question that will give you more than one piece of information, or more detailed information, both of which will help you complete the sale successfully. The Seven Key Questions and explanations for why each question is so vitally important for retail jewelry are as follows:
  1. Who recommended our store? This question is valuable in the sense that should the customer have been recommended by someone you know, you now have something in common with the customer and may be able to relate to an individual of which you are both familiar. Further, I would want to thank any customer who is recommending me and/or my store with a thank you note, gift certificate or at least a telephone call. An added benefit is that even if the customer wasn't recommended by anyone, based on the fact that you asked the question it implies that you get a lot of recommendation. Thus the trust factor is increased substantially.
  2. Who are you shopping for? When selling jewelry, it is essential that you know the gender and the relationship of the person that is to receive the merchandise. I know that a person is willing to spend more on their spouse's anniversary or birthday than they would on a graduation present for the daughter of a friend. One should never guess anything about anybody. Don't ask a closed-ended question like "Is this for your wife or girlfriend? You never know what kind of an answer you would receive from a question like that. You certainly wouldn't want to offend anyone for any reason.
  3. What brings you into our store today? As we have previously discussed, this question is the transition question between a non-business conversation and a getting to a business conversation. Let me reiterate this isn't a question that should be asked as a greeting or approach. It is used after you have attempted a non-business conversation or determined that the customer is in a hurry and suffering from "time poverty." This question will also cause many customers to simply tell you exactly what they had in mind.
  4. What have you seen before that he/she would really like? This is a key question because of all the valuable information that it can give you. You may find out that the customer has just started shopping, the competitors that they have been shopping, a price range, a category or a wealth of other valuable, usable information.
  5. What's the special occasion? This question will tell you the emotional reason behind the purchase. Thus allowing you to focus on the emotional reason rather than simply the technical aspects of the purchase. Should you find that it is a twenty-fifth anniversary and the customers are taking a cruise to celebrate you would want to share in the excitement of the trip and the occasion. This single question is the essential question to help build a relationship with the customer rather than a simple buy-sell relationship.
  6. What's important to him/her in selecting a new ___? This question is, with out a doubt, the most important question of the key questions. Yet, it is also the most frequently missed question. This question will give you all the information you need in order to determine the type of demonstration you need to give. You may find that the demonstration should be emotionally based, technically based, or you may find that the client needs your help in determining the quality and/or type of jewelry that fits the specific need. Additionally, you may find out what the client doesn't want, a price range, what other items the customer already has, and any multitude of other valuable information.
  7. When is the special occasion? This question is designed to put urgency to the purchase. Should the customer respond that the occasion is in the next couple of days, weeks, or even months, you would want to tell the customer "that it is coming up quick" or "Terrific, let's get this taken care of so you don't have to worry about it any more." The last thing you would want to do is to tell the customer that they have plenty of time to look around.

Business Questions
Business questions are the questions that you will use to get the information that you need to complete the NA=A/DA step. Again, the goal is to get the prospect to open up with you and tell you exactly what it is they need and want. To further explain, business questions are those that relate directly to the merchandise or jewelry that the customer is about to view through the demonstration. Questions such as:
  • What size diamond did you have in mind?
  • What shape do you think she would prefer?
  • What length has she worn in the past?
  • How often will she being wearing her fine jewelry?

These are just a few examples of business questions, but as you can see all business questions are used to determine valuable information about the product that needs to be demonstrated. Every selling situation is different and requires different questions to determine the appropriate items to show.

Add-On Questions
An Add-On Question is one, or several, that is asked in order to determine what appropriate add-on items you may want to introduce later in the sales presentation. Should you be able to determine a real need or desire for additional goods during the needs assessment step, I assure you the success you have in selling additional goods will be greatly increased, through asking questions early in the sales presentation.

For example, a gentleman is looking for an engagement ring. Somewhere during the needs assessment process you should ask, "What did you have in mind as a wedding day gift for your bride?" To which he may reply, "What, I have to get her a wedding day gift, too?" Then you might say, "Well, it is tradition to give pearls to the bride as a wedding day gift. I would hate for your new bride to be disappointed on her wedding, day wouldn't you?" Then later on in the sales presentation you would come back with, "How about we look at some beautiful pearls that will make a great wedding day gift?" This increases the likelihood of showing and selling the pearls.

Add-on questions are an area where I find many salespeople are weak in their selling skills. This component of the selling process will make a tremendous amount of increased sales for you. My suggestion is to look at every selling situation that you encounter and determine a set of add-on questions for each situation. In future articles we will discuss adding-on in much greater detail. However, I can tell you that most salespeople do not maximize the selling opportunity when it comes to selling additional goods. Having information that the customer has given you in order to determine what, if any, add-ons are appropriate is the key to success in the process of selling additional goods. Remember, adding on is a customer service. In all likelihood the customer is going to buy the additional goods anyway, it might just as well be from you as opposed to your competition.

In conclusion, asking questions is the key to any successful sales presentation. Be curious, find out as much as you can about your customer, and use every opportunity you have to make the conversation personal rather than a simple buyer/seller relationship. Therefore you will be able to establish trust and demonstrate the correct item for every customer that you serve. Remember to make your conversation, or needs assessment, conversational rather than interrogational through responding to the answers to every question. As mentioned in the communication article several months ago, the conversation must be two-sided, not just question/answer - question/answer. Your customer will become very uncomfortable in an interrogational situation. You will make more friends, find out more information and be more successful when carrying on a conversation where you ask a question, the customer answers and then you comment on the answer given. When customers are comfortable they are buying, when the customer is uncomfortable they tend to leave without making a purchase. This particular subject of the needs assessment process takes a tremendous amount of practice. Give the time and effort necessary to make yourself an expert at the needs assessment phase and the dividends will be enormous.

Author, trainer, consultant and speaker Brad Huisken is President of IAS Training. Mr. Huisken authored the books "I'M a Salesman! Not a PhD." and "Munchies For Salespeople, Selling Tips That You Can Sink Your Teeth Into," he developed the PMSA Relationship Selling Program, the PSMC Professional Sales Management Course, The Mystery Shoppers Kit, "The Employee Handbook" and "Policy & Procedures Manual," The Weekly Sales Training Meeting series along with Aptitude Tests and Proficiency Exams for new hires, current sales staff and sales managers, along with the new Weekly Jewelry Sales Training Series. In addition, he publishes a free weekly newsletter called "Sales Insight." For a free subscription or more information contact IAS Training at 800-248-7703, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., www.iastraining.com or fax 303-936-9581.