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Questioning Techniques for Selling and Teaching

Updated on March 9, 2010

Although selling and teaching would seem like opposite worlds, they do have questions in common. Salespeople use questions to learn what their customers want and need. Teachers use questions to help their students think about the topic being taught. This hub is about specific types of questions both can use to be more effective.

There are two primary types of questions: open and closed. By using the right balance of open and closed questions, salespeople build relationships while teachers build minds.

So let’s look at the differences between these two types of questions and the characteristics of each.

Open Questions

Open questions require the person doing the answering to do some thinking. They are used to get someone to express their thoughts, opinions, and possibly feelings about a subject.  Open questions are an invitation to open the conversation, not limit it.

Salespeople should use open questions to let their customers say more about what they need, what they want, and what issues or problems they are having – all related to the product or service being discussed.

Teachers should use open questions to challenge students to think more deeply or give an opinion about the topic being discussed.  Or they may use this type of question to stimulate the interest and curiosity of students.

Open questions have the following characteristics:

  • They usually begin with words like “what,” “why,” “how.”
  • They can’t be answered with just one word, like “Yes,” or “No.”
  • They may also begin with phrases such as “Tell me more about…” or “Please describe…”
  • They help the customer or student discover things for him or herself.
  • They encourage the customer or student to do the talking, rather than the salesperson or teacher.

Closed Questions

Closed questions are intended to restrict or narrow possible responses.  They are used for two different purposes.

  1. When a salesperson or teacher needs a quick “Yes” or “No.”  For example, a salesperson might ask, “Are you going to do these repairs in the next three months?”  The teacher might ask, “Have you completed the homework assignment.”
  2. When a salesperson or teacher needs a specific piece of information.  For example, a salesperson might ask, “How will you be paying for this carpet?”  The teacher might ask, “How many centimeters are in a meter?”

Teachers tend to use closed questions for evaluating and assessing students.  This is why they are often used for test questions.

Closed questions have the following characteristics:

  • They can often be answered with a single word like “Yes” or No,” or “Red,” or “Tomorrow.”
  • They allow a specific fact to be obtained.
  • They are relatively simple to answer.
  • They tend to close down ongoing conversation.

Open Question Traps

Open questions are usually preferable to closed ones, but both have a place in an ongoing conversation.

Sometimes, however, a salesperson or teacher will use a “false” open question. This happens when the question begins with a phrase like “Can you (or anyone) tell me…,” thinking the person will provide a thoughtful answer. Unfortunately, the answer to the question is actually “Yes (I can tell you)” or “No (I can’t tell you).

When preparing questions to ask your customers or students, first ask yourself “Could this question be answered in one word?”

A Combination: Summarizing Questions

At some point, the salesperson or teacher wants to bring the conversation to a close. For this purpose, a summarizing type question can be used. This question usually begins with a phrase such as “Based on what we’ve been saying, do we agree that…?” or “Am I correct in stating that…?” This question could be answered by a “Yes” or “No,” (closed) but invites further clarification or discussion (open).

The summarizing question has the following characteristics:

  • Reviews progress.
  • Summarizes discussion to that point.
  • Establishes a check point for continuing the conversation.


Whether you are a salesperson or teacher, open and closed questions can be used to engage your customers or students in an ongoing dialogue.

Open and closed questions are in important part of sales presentations. For more information about organizing your sales presentations, see


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