Answering Interview Questions: The Open-Ended vs. Close-Ended Kinds

There are two types of questions asked on an interview: open-ended and close-ended. The key to answering both is to make sure you answer fully, positively and that you always leave room for options.

An open-ended question starts with who, what, where, when, why, or how. “How did you positively effect change in your department?” “What would you say are your greatest skills?” Hiring managers ask these questions because they want to know more about you without having to do all the talking. This is your time to speak. Answer each question as thoroughly as possible, stay focused, and try not to ramble. Remember to capitalize upon your strengths and/or accomplishments.

Here’s a sample interview question:
“When and why did you decide to go into advertising sales?”
And a sample response:
“I have been working as a sales assistant for a year, reporting to the Ad Director. All the sales people were in and out of his office on a regular basis and told me how much they loved their jobs. The nice thing about sales is that it allows you to be out and about. I don’t think I would enjoy sitting behind a desk all day. I also think that I am a people-person and would be great as a sales person.”

And, a second sample response:
“As a sales assistant for the Ad Director, I learned the behind-the-scenes aspects of sales. I was able to work on RFPs and sit in on sales meetings. Another part of my job involved answering the Ad Director’s phone, in which I was able to interact with clients. I always asked clients if there was anything I could help them with prior to forwarding their calls. Sometimes they just needed a rate card or a media kit. I enjoyed talking to these clients and really felt like I helped them get information they needed to do their jobs. I think I could use my enthusiasm and ready-to-serve attitude to become a very successful sales person.”

And, my analysis of the two responses:
Both candidates could have the same exact job responsibilities but respondent #2 was better able to communicate her accomplishments. Respondent #1 is broad and unfocused in her response. Let’s break it down. She says: “I don’t think I would enjoy sitting behind a desk all day.” First of all, this statement is a negative, which you should avoid in all your answers. Secondly, how many people do you know who do like to sit at a desk all day? Third, it doesn’t help to differentiate this person from her peers. Respondent #2 is more to the point. The candidate shows some experience with client contact and an understanding of the sales process. Instead of saying “ I think that I am a people-person and would be great as a sales person,” the second candidate clearly states her strengths as to why she’d be an effective sales person.

Now, let’s talk about closed-ended questions for a bit.

Close-ended questions elicit a “yes” or “no” response. Although there are times when a simple “yes” or “no” are called for, most of the time you should elaborate. Interviewing potential employees is a technique and not all hiring managers are good at it. No matter what the situation, I can guarantee that the interviewer does not want to be the one doing the talking. Therefore, try to always answer, “yes, because….,” or “no, however…”.

Sample Question:
“As marketing manager, did you ever accompany a sales rep on a client meeting and present to that client?”

Sample response #1:
“No, I rarely went on sales calls, and if I did, the sales reps always took the information we provided and presented it to the clients.”

Sample response #2:
“No, I didn’t go on sales calls and present to clients. The sales reps took the information I provided and presented it to the clients. However, I do have experience giving presentations. Each time I wrote a new category presentation or developed a new promotional program, I presented it at our internal sales meetings to our reps as well as upper-management.”

Here’s my take on the answers…
The two candidates could have the same exact experience but respondent #2 presents himself as being more senior. Instead of simply answering the question that was given to him, he was able to read into the question to get a true understanding of what the interviewer wanted to know. He concluded that the interviewer was looking to see if he had acquired any presentation skills at his current job.

A final tip — keep all doors open!
I once met a woman who had a few years experience in magazine marketing. I asked her: “what are you looking for as a next step?” Her response was: “I’m not really interested in staying in the publishing industry…” At the time, I was recruiting for an agency that specialized in media, primarily in magazines. When I made it known to her that perhaps she was wasting her time meeting with me because all I work on is publishing, she tried to sing a different tune. By that time it was too late. I wasn’t interested in placing someone who was lukewarm about the industry. I wanted someone who was bubbling over with enthusiasm.

There are two other things to note about this last example. When I had initially spoken to this woman on the phone I told her that I worked primarily with magazine companies. I also suggested she check out our company Web site, which clearly listed our clients and the types of jobs we filled. By stating, upon meeting me in person, that she didn’t want to stay in the magazine industry, she illustrated poor listening skills and proved that she didn’t do her homework. Let’s just say that this candidate was not making a good impression.

So, next time you go for an interview, make sure to put on your listening cap, try your hardest to get a true understanding of what the interviewer is looking for with EACH QUESTION and craft your answers to show that you have the skills necessary to excel at the job.

Carpe diem…


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