What, Why, How: Customer Service Questioning Techniques

Published on:

May 6, 2021

Customer Service Questioning Techniques

As famous English writer, Rudyard Kipling once wrote:

"I keep six honest serving men, They taught me all I knew; Their names are What and Why and When, And How and Where and Who..."

His, and our point, is that there’s a lot in a question. They allow us to explore the world around us, as well as people’s motivations, feelings and opinions. 

In customer service, knowing the right questions to ask to get the information you need is the difference between an adequate customer service experience and an outstanding customer service experience. Customer service questioning techniques can help you achieve this.

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • What are customer service questioning techniques?
  • Types of questioning techniques in customer service
  • Questioning skills
  • Why customer service questioning techniques are vital

What Are Customer Service Questioning Techniques?

Think about the last time you had a customer with a problem. Beyond their name and how you could help, what else did you ask them?

Was it immediately apparent what their problem was or did you need to ask a lot of questions to get to the root of the problem?

Chances are it was the latter and that you used a lot of different types of questions to help uncover and resolve the problem. This is what we mean by questioning techniques, for customer service specifically, it can be defined as:

Questioning Techniques Definition:

“Questioning techniques is an all-encompassing term that refers to the many different types of questions we present to customers or clients. Using a variety of questions helps uncover valuable information.”

The importance of knowing which questions to use cannot be understated.

Think about it this way — you’re the expert on your service or product. A customer might call up with an issue, but not really know what to ask to get the answers they need to resolve the issue.

A great example of this is within the telecoms industry. Broadband providers have huge call centres on-hand to help customers resolve problems with their service. While we won’t say they all get it right by any means, they serve as a great example to show that the call agent is the expert. Customers may know there is an issue with their broadband from a symptom of the problem, such as slow speeds or dropping connections. But they don’t know what the problem is. The agent is there to figure it out and will use a variety of customer service questioning techniques to do so.

What Are the Different Types of Questioning Techniques?

We’ve mentioned a couple of times there are many different types of questioning techniques available for call agents to use. To resolve issues effectively, you need to use a variety of question types, which we’ve covered in-depth below.

Open and Closed Questions

Open and closed questions are the most common types of questions. To understand one, you need to understand the other.

Open questions most often start with what, why and how. They can’t be answered with a one word answer like yes or no.

A closed question is the opposite of an open question. They most often start with where, what, when or who, but they can only be answered with one word. There’s a couple of examples belBoth question types have their purpose and can help you retrieve valuable information from customers. 


Closed questions can help you establish the basics. This includes things like your customer’s name, relevant dates and other pertinent information. Closed questions are also really helpful for confirming you’ve understood a customer.

Open questions, on the other hand, are used to help better understand the customer and the reason for the call. They can help reveal customer’s feelings, thoughts and opinions about your product or service. This information can then be used to help resolve and improve.

Call handlers are most often advised to use open questions wherever possible. This helps customers feel like they’re being listened to and able to express themselves.

This said, call agents should be wary of stacking open questions. This can convolute answers or encourage customers to skip questions altogether. Best practice is to ask one open question at a time, followed by a closed question to ensure you’ve understood the information correctly. 

Funnel Questions

The funnel effect is a questioning technique that has roots with lawyers and journalists, but has been repurposed for customer service. It is used to “funnel” answers to a result the questioner desires. For lawyers and journalists, this was a powerful technique to get incriminating statements or admissions from interviewees. For those in customer service, it’s a powerful sales tool and a great way to clean information from customers.

It works in three steps.

Step 1: Open Questions

Begin with open questions about the subject. This will reveal information to move onto step two.

Step 2: Probing Questions

Probing questions are questions that help the customer think more deeply about the query. They examine the reasons, emotions and beliefs behind the information already given during open questions. Probing question examples could include:

  • Why do you think that is?
  • What would you like to see as a resolution?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • Could you give me an example of what you mean by that?

Probing techniques are hard to master, so don’t worry if you get a little stuck with them initially. Probing skills come with great training and experience in knowing how to ask probing questions. 

Step 3: Clarifying Questions

The final step involves using closed questions to confirm there is a shared understanding. This ensures the call agent has definitely understood the customer so they can figure out how best to help them with all the knowledge they need to do so.

Using these three steps together is the funnel questioning technique. They work well for call centres as guidelines to help agents get the best information out of customers, so they can provide the best service possible.

This said, this technique shouldn’t be followed as an absolute rule. Sometimes, call agents will need to use closed questions to confirm responses from open questions. So you should still be human and flexible to customer needs, even if you’re using funneling questions. 

TED Questions

Unrelated to TED Talks, TED questions can help you ask better probing questions in customer service. It’s a simple acronym — Tell, Explain, Describe. 

Examples of TED Questioning Include:

  • Tell me, how did that make you feel?
  • Tell me, how did this affect you?
  • Explain to me, how did this happen?
  • Explain to me, what impact has this had?
  • Explain to me, what difficulties have you faced?
  • Describe how that felt
  • Describe how that looked
  • Describe your ideal resolution

As you can see, each question uses one of the acronyms to help ask a probing question that will reveal the customer’s reasoning and emotions. TED questions are great to use when you’ve heard something in another answer that you want more information on.

The style of wording can also help customers open up more. They feel as though the call handler is actively listening, engaged with their unique issue and cares about their feelings — as they should!

As with the funneling technique, TED Questions often work at their best with a mixture of open and closed questions between.

Leading Questions

Also known as loaded questions, leading questions are questions which hint at a particular answer. They “lead” customers to said answer, hence the name. They’re an effective questioning technique in both customer service and sales as they’re a form of persuasion.

An easy example of a leading question versus a non-leading question is, “how much did you enjoy our service?” vs “did you enjoy our service?”. The former makes the deliberate assumption that the customer did enjoy the service and leads them to a more positive answer. While the latter is more unbiased and allows the customer to form their own opinions without influence. 

For customer service, leading questions can be great when you’re dealing with an indecisive customer as you can guide them to a positive outcome for both you and the customer.

As with other customer service questioning techniques, they’re great to use in combination with other questions.

More Effective Questioning Techniques

Sometimes it isn’t the questioning technique itself that delivers such a great customer service experience, but the accompanying techniques and skills alongside the questioning techniques. There are plenty of customer service techniques you can use to enhance your questioning skills.

Signposting

Signposting is a great customer service technique that helps conversations flow more smoothly, including questions. As the name suggests, signposting is using statements to signal a question is coming.

The signposting technique allows customers to prepare and makes calls more organised. Some examples of signposting statements include:

  • “In a minute, I’ll ask you for your account number”
  • “In a moment, you’ll need a pen and paper”
  • “In a minute, I’ll transfer you to the relevant department”

As you can see, signposting isn’t a questioning technique per se, but it can work well in combination with questioning techniques to allow customers to prepare for questions. This can stop breaks in conversations while customers seek letters, pens and other bits as they know the information will be needed shortly. It can also help customers think through their answers ahead of having to give them. 

Customer Validation

Sometimes, just knowing that someone understands you can make a world of difference. Especially in turning around a negative customer service experience.

Validating customers as you question them can help enhance your customer service as you create an environment of interest and care. This environment can, in turn, encourage customers to share more information.

Examples of customer validation statements could include, “I understand why you feel like that” or “I think that’s a great choice”. Statements like these can reassure and support customers.

This said, tone is important here. Customer validation statements said in the wrong tone can come across as patronising. Remember to be authentic and human in your interactions for the best results. 

When used correctly, you can use customer validation statements alongside probing questions to encourage further information sharing.

Understanding Customers

This isn’t so much of a technique as a skill, but understanding customers can help you know when to use which questioning technique. 

For example, some customers just don’t want to be on the phone. They want a resolution as soon as possible. They don’t care about the finer details, they just want it to be over with.

Other customers want to express themselves. They want their feelings to be known by the company, regular updates and for the resolution to include assurances that it won’t happen again. 

As you can see from these examples, the customer service questioning techniques you use would vary. The former type of customer would have a more positive experience with questions that focus on the key information needed only. Whereas the latter customer would likely appreciate many probing questions using the TED questioning technique to uncover the reasons and emotions behind the call. 

It’s not always easy to know what type of questioning technique will best work on a customer, especially immediately. But this should become apparent as the call continues and you should adapt your questioning approach to meet the customer’s expectations.

Questioning Skills

Knowing customer service questioning techniques is a great start, but you also need specific customer service skills to accompany this knowledge. Most importantly, active listening. After all, there’s no point in asking questions if you don’t actually listen to the answers

Alongside listening, agents should also take ownership of the call. Often when a customer calls up, they’re overwhelmed by the problem. Someone else taking ownership of that issue and guiding the customer through it can make a huge difference to customer satisfaction levels.

As part of ownership, call agents also need to take action. It’s no good taking ownership in that call, if it’s then forgotten about the moment the call ends. So call handlers must be willing and able to take action to resolve queries and issues as soon as possible. 

Call handlers also need to be engaging. This means building rapport with customers, understanding individual needs and adapting their approach to those needs. This can be the difference between good customer service and outstanding customer service. 

Why Are Questioning Techniques a Vital Tool in Customer Service?

We’ll refer back to the same point we began with.

Questions allow us to explore other people’s emotions, needs and desires. In customer service, this allows us to better understand customers and, in turn, deliver a better service through this enhanced understanding.

Delivering a better customer service experience comes with it’s obvious benefits. Perhaps most importantly it can help grow your company through increased productivity and profitability.

Customer service questioning techniques can help express our genuine interest and care for customers. Overall, this helps businesses deliver a more human and authentic experience which is more customer-centric, so the importance of questioning skills is obvious.

We can help train your call handlers to enhance their customer service questioning techniques with our unique telephone skills and service training programme. Find out more.

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About Paul Freudenberg

Paul Freudenberg is a business productivity coach and consultant with a focus on operational excellence delivering improved profitability and business performance, and Founder of Awardaroo in 2005. Paul has set the mission of Awardaroo to help raise UK Business Productivity from one of the lowest in the G7 to one of the highest by 2030. Connect on LinkedIn

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