To resolve a customer issue efficiently, you need to ask good questions. But don’t let the modesty of this activity fool you. The art of asking effective questions dates back to the Classical Age and the time of the ancient Greeks.
The Socratic method is a questioning style that encourages critical thinking and brings to light underlying misconceptions through skilful questioning. Its creator was the Greek philosopher Socrates who felt ‘the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.’ According to Socrates, questioning everything was the only way to acquire knowledge.
The art of asking effective questions promotes healthy two-way communication today too. It takes a depth of thought, a refined questioning technique, and higher levels of reason and analysis, just as it did in the time of the Greeks.
But what is asking effective questions all about?
How to ask effective questions
During any interaction, it’s a good idea to keep in mind a concept common to computer science and mathematics termed GIGO, which is short for ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ If you don’t ask good questions, the data you get and the consequent solution will be nonsense.
It helps to have total clarity on an issue to provide accurate help, even more so in customer service, where you have a limited window of time to help impatient consumers.
Learning to ask effective questions and become a good listener helps you problem-solve quickly. Here are some ways to ask effective questions and perfect your questioning technique.
Understand the typology of cognition
Bloom’s taxonomy is a powerful learning tool to help you understand how humans think. Initially used by teachers in class discussions to measure student understanding, you can refer to its six stages for asking effective questions during customer interactions too. Here’s how to implement this with customers:
Stage one: Recall
Ask the customer when the incident occurred, and describe what happened as they remember it.
Stage two: Understand
Clarify their description by getting them to answer questions that explain what they said in more detail.
Stage three: Apply
To corroborate data, ask them to take a screenshot before the problem arises, when it arises, and after it’s active.
Stage four: Analyse
Recommend an appropriate solution to try and resolve the issue but if the fix doesn’t work, ask the customer to describe what happens when they try. Based on their answer, you can repeat stages one to four again.
Stage five: Synthesise
Invite the customer to participate in your shared support activity. Whether or not you fix the issue, ask the customer how you can improve your service or product further.
Stage six: Evaluate
Finally, ask the customer to rate the help they received and invite their detailed feedback on what worked or didn’t work for them so you know how to model future improvements.
Use different types of questions
Asking the right questions will help you arrive at accurate resolutions, and there are several types of questions you can put forward to help you summarise the problem. Consider these six different types of questions you can ask customers:
1. Closed questions
Closed questions are designed to clarify issues by inviting only yes or no responses or factual answers.
For example: ‘Is your computer switched on right now?’ Or, ‘What is the operating system you’re running?’
2. Leading questions
Like close-ended questions, leading questions will ‘lead’ the respondent towards an answer or outcome you want by making a positive response the easiest.
For example: ‘Now that we’ve cleared your doubts, let’s agree on a price?’ Or, ‘Many customers prefer this product; how do you feel about it?’
3. Open-ended questions
These are neutral questions meant to gather insights, not just answers. They help you gain a broader perspective or understanding of the issue.
For example: ‘What happens when you use the recommended software?’ Or, ‘How was your experience using our self-service portal?’
4. Follow-up questions
Follow-up questions help you extract more information from what was previously shared. They can zoom in or out to ensure you have enough details and that other important stuff isn’t left out.
For example: ‘Can you describe the error message you received in more detail?’ Or, ‘How can we improve our self-service option for you?’
5. Funnel questions
The funnel question technique is a series of questions that narrow down with more probing questions to reach an outcome or clarity.
An example sequence: ‘What operating system are you using?’ ‘What happens when you run the diagnostic tool?’ ‘Can you try these steps and tell me the result?’ ‘Could you send me a screenshot of the error message that’s popped up?’
6. Rhetorical questions
A rhetorical question isn’t real; it’s a statement presented as a question for effect. Rhetorical questions don’t expect a real answer because the answer is obvious.
For example: ‘Do you want a painless resolution to your complaint?’ Or, ‘Are you going to miss out on your free offer?’
Techniques for asking effective questions
Customer service is all about managing dozens of complaining strangers daily. Unfortunately, this leaves room for unpredictability in your interactions as you never know what sort of day a customer might have had before calling in, their level of dissatisfaction with a product, or even their mood.
You need to prepare for any situation. Here’s a to-do list to implement so that your efforts are productive when asking effective questions:
Create a questions tool kit
Have a fallback set of questions to begin, mediate, and end every customer interaction. Fallback questions save you from having to think up things on the spot or rack your brain to recall what you should be asking when talking with a customer.
Be patient and wait for answers
A common mistake is asking questions faster than the customer can answer. Most of us need a few seconds to think when asked a question, so try not to treat a customer’s silence as an opportunity to throw another question their way. Doing so causes unnecessary confusion and wastes everyone’s time and energy. Instead, keep a minimum wait time so people can answer at their own pace.
Use a mix of questions
Structure your questioning style so you’re asking effective questions that are open-ended and probing, as well as more focused and close-ended. This way, you can help the customer deliver the precise data you need to identify the problem and come up with a solution.
Get the sequence right
Asking effective questions in the proper sequence is a big part of successful communication. For example, in a classic study on intimacy between strangers, people who asked questions on shallow topics and then moved on to more personal ones built greater connections than others who asked questions randomly.
What you ask can also influence the answer to your next question. For example, asking a customer what they like about the service and then what they like about the product can positively influence how they think about the product.
Use a natural style of talking
More people will react positively when you sound like a warm and friendly human than if you sound like a robot or corporate drone. So even if you’re working with a set of scripted replies, personalise them using your own words, so the other person enjoys talking with you and is happy to answer your questions.
Don’t dismiss any answer
Even a confusing reply has meaning. Your customers aren’t trained communicators, so they may not know how to phrase something best, clarify what is happening, or narrate things in the right sequence. It’s your job to extract information skillfully. Just because a customer doesn’t know how to speak about their issue clearly doesn’t mean they aren’t having one. Every detail brought in is worth examining, even if it seems confusing or contradictory at first glance.
Asking effective questions vs ineffective ones
When you design and deliver them correctly, questions are powerful tools, and in most conversations, you won’t have to stick to a list.
The beauty of asking effective questions lies in adapting, including, and discarding what you ask based on how the conversation flows.
The best way to ask effective questions is to keep them brief, clear, and at the level of the person you’re interacting with. Limiting the scope of what you ask and using simple language makes you far more likely to gain insightful and useful answers.
Avoid asking ineffective questions that are too vague, where the person needs clarification or loaded questions where they may feel like there’s a reply you want them to give versus what they feel. Rhetorical questions, in particular, can sound condescending and alienate your customers while engaging with them.
Finally, avoid asking questions that waste time and don’t elicit productive replies. Like, ‘Are you connected to the internet?’ when the customer is already calling you via Whatsapp or social media.
Why is asking effective questions important?
Asking effective questions is a great way to learn all you can about something, clear up miscommunication or doubts, and ultimately resolve issues effectively.
They also help you build stronger relationships with other people. Your capability to ask the right questions earns their trust and a vote of confidence in your skills and abilities as a support professional.
Asking effective questions is also a great help in tense or stressful encounters. Humans tend to lean on one another for emotional cues. When you’re facing an angry or upset customer, asking effective questions can de-escalate the situation by allowing them to calm down. Gathering their thoughts and framing a reply allows them the space to step back from their emotions.
Finally, asking different types of questions—like leading ones or funnelling through a reply sequence—helps persuade people to think a certain way or change their thoughts entirely.
Why you should ask effective questions
Perfecting this skill won’t just help you resolve issues quicker; it’ll improve your emotional intelligence, problem-solving ability, and high-level thinking, which enables you to ask better questions—a payback loop.
You’ll also refine your conversational technique by learning to communicate clearly and avoid misunderstandings.
Having good communication skills is essential for growth, both personal and professional.
Interested in putting your ability to ask effective questions to the test in your career? Cocoroco offers exciting work opportunities in customer service for international brands on a fully remote platform. Registration and applying for jobs are free, with no hidden costs. So sign up to start looking for work right away.