Questions – knowing what to ask and when for better customer service

As we mentioned in a recent post (The Art of REALLY listening to the customer) in customer service, “Before you can help, you need to understand,” and that’s especially true when you’re dealing with a complaint or other problem situation.


When the goal is understanding, listening might be essential but it’s not enough. Imagine yourself as the customer service detective. You need to probe, explore, establish, clarify, confirm, verify… and to do that you need to ask questions.

The importance of asking the right question

The right question builds on the conversation so far and seeks to elicit more information from the customer. In other words, a question can show that you’ve been paying attention and want to know more.

The way you phrase your questions can help guide the customer from problem towards solution. The right questions can give you enough information to be sure that the solution is workable. Questions give you answers.

Basic Question Types

  • Closed – Either a binary question in that there are only two possible answers: “yes” or “no”; or a question with only a single answer. Good for establishing facts or narrowing down the discussion to a limited number of options.
  • Open – Designed to elicit more detail; Usually begins with “What…”, “Why…”, “Who…”, “When…”, “How…”, or “Where…” Good for exploring details and possibilities, widening the discussion, and gathering information.
  • Multiple – A series of questions asked back-to-back. Not that good for anything. Has the potential to confuse and most people will answer just one of your stream of questions, ignoring the rest.
  • Leading – A question designed to elicit a particular response (“Don’t you think…? Wouldn’t it be better if…?) Often perceived as not listening and possibly manipulative.
  • Hypothetical – The classic “what if…” question. Can be useful for exploring options or new suggestions. Useful if the conversation is going in circles.

As you might imagine from the above, in most customer conversations your main tools are open and closed questions, with maybe a strategically placed hypothetical or two.

3 levels of open questions

A bit like swimming, you can jump straight into the deep end with your customer conversation and when that works it feels like quite the achievement. However, there’s usually a lot of floundering about and there’s always the possibility of drowning.

To bring a bit of structure and sense to your use of questions, the following 3-level model might help…

  1. LEVEL ONE: Information – At this point, you’re fact-finding, asking questions to discover details: What happened? Where did it happen? Who did it? When?, etc.
  2. LEVEL TWO: Meaning – Once you have the facts, you need to understand their significance: What does it mean? What do you think? What are the benefits / risks? How do you feel about that?
  3. LEVEL THREE: Concerns – And now you can explore the relevance or impact of all that on for the customer: Why is that important? Why do you think that would be best? Why does that concern you? What’s the biggest worry here?

Naturally, any customer conversation is unlikely to follow a nice linear 1-2-3 pattern. Replying to the responses you get, you may need to hop nimbly from level to level, adjusting the depth of your questioning, depending on the customer’s reactions and/or emotional state.

The key is to pay close attention to what the customer is telling you. Then ask questions that show you’re listening and are focused on understanding the situation in depth, before moving on to focus on finding a solution that will both address the customer’s concerns and meet your own needs too.


To explore fundamental questioning techniques in more detail and find the best ways to use them in your customer service, give us a call on 01582 463464.  We’re here to help!

Categories: Customer service

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