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How asking better questions can enhance your customer service

Posted February 2, 2023 - Updated January 10, 2024
Illustration of a pile of question marks, with one standing out in colour

There are questions, and then there are the right questions. Being able to distinguish between the two, and the application of that knowledge, can make a big difference in the answers you'll get back.

This, of course, begs an important question in return: How so?

As fundamental as asking questions seems, the practice is not often the subject of critical thought. People tend to pose their queries on autopilot, allowing for bias and other motivations to muddle the clarity of thought. Sometimes, for example, people will aim to formulate questions in a way that is overly verbose. This can be at the expense of clarity, confusing the respondent and downgrading the quality of the response. There are also times when people rush to ask "big" questions without gathering the necessary context, and other times when people become so focused on ticking boxes that they miss the bigger picture.

The art and science of asking questions are central to customer experience (CX). By excelling at the practice, brands can design better strategies with customer feedback, reduce frustration in customer interactions and improve their most important metrics.

Whether you're working to improve the customer journey, build your brand or boost sales, you need to be asking questions that are clear, relevant and more likely to generate thoughtful answers. In other words, adopting strong questioning techniques can enable you to uncover more of the information and insights you need to create a better overall customer experience.

The hidden costs of asking bad questions

There's an art to asking questions; just ask social psychologist and behavior change expert Tijs Besieux.

In a piece for Harvard Business Review, Besieux wrote that people with the ability to ask great questions are "seen as more empathetic. They also lower the threshold for others to speak up, increase the quality of decisions and foster collective intelligence." Simply by homing in on the right query, Besieux continued, people (and the companies they work for) can "unlock hidden opportunities, deliver better results and mitigate unforeseen risks."

Without good questions, the opposite is also true. Those "hidden opportunities" that could have led to a shot at a cross-sell or up-sell will stay hidden, lost to time. The overlooked chance to demonstrate empathy comes at a cost, too: According to Salesforce Research, 63% of consumers and 76% of B2B buyers expect businesses to know their unique needs and expectations. Failing to meet customer expectations is a surefire way to reduce your customer satisfaction score (CSAT), which was identified by executives as the number one metric used to measure digital CX performance in a report by TELUS International, in partnership with Statista.

It doesn't stop at CSAT, either. When your support team is engaging with your customers, the failure to ask the right questions can lengthen average handle times (AHT), increase your customer effort score (CES), decrease your first call resolution (FCR) and negatively impact other KPIs you use to define and measure success.

And beyond the actual support interaction, subpar feedback questions for customers can take a toll when you're striving for continuous improvement. For brands that send out a call for feedback after their support interactions, it's important to ask the types of questions that will elicit specific, relevant and actionable responses. Simply asking customers to comment on their experience overall with a required free-form response is likely to undermine both your ability to detect trends and the survey response rate. Instead, a sound approach would be to provide sliding scales for a customer to rate the interaction's efficiency and their satisfaction with the resolution, as well as an optional text field to input further comments.

Effective questioning techniques for customer service

Excellent questions can take many forms in customer service, but in general, the first step is to assess the situation at hand. Start by letting the customer explain the reason that prompted them to reach out for support.

For more involved issues, ask open-ended questions that prompt customers to think more deeply about the situation. Consider questions like: "What background information can you provide on the issue you're experiencing?", "What exactly went wrong?" and "What can we do to better meet your needs?" Getting your customers to ponder and explain the crux of the matter can provide more clarity about the most effective solution.

Simple clarifying questions can also help you gather information, such as: "What do you see on your screen or device right now?" or "At what time during the day do you notice it acting up?"

For brands who count on their customer experience agents to identify and explore opportunities to cross-sell and up-sell, questions are the key to understanding where value can be added. In this sales context, asking effective questions can help you to understand what matters most to your customers, rather than spending time explaining all of the features and benefits of a product or service. To get to the bottom of what is motivating your customers, ask questions about their goals and their frustrations. Examples could include: "What is most important to you as you explore options?" or "How will you know that you've made the best choice?" You want these questions to be open-ended to solicit a thoughtful response.

Adding value requires bringing a perspective that addresses clients' objectives and challenges. It begins with asking powerful, thought-provoking questions to ignite divergent thinking.

Applying 'emotional engineering' in CX

Developing a better question-asking strategy begins with "emotional engineering," said Matt Dixon, a customer experience analyst and best-selling author, in a conversation with TELUS International. Emotional engineering is the idea that the language and techniques agents use to handle customer issues can reduce the perceived effort it takes for customers to get their issues resolved.

"There are companies out there that are investing in teaching their frontline representatives sophisticated language techniques [that are] rooted in human psychology and behavioral economics," Dixon explains. "They get the customer to feel like it's a lower effort experience, even if at point of fact, it's a high effort experience."

While companies continue to deploy chatbots and self-service solutions to streamline the CX journey, it's important to remember that your human agents are essential for resolving more sensitive and complex queries. By training your team to be empathetic and to ask questions that validate a customer's experience, you maximize your chances of success when it comes to customer retention. This is critical, as research from Bain & Company shows that growing your customer retention rates by as little as 5% can result in profit increases of 25% to 95%.

Thinking critically about your customers' mindset is crucial to everything from customer support, to sales, to your business's overall CX strategy — but so is making the most of the answers you receive. After all, asking your customers the right questions is important, but only if you genuinely listen to what they have to say.

It's time to start asking better questions

If you keep asking the same questions, you're likely to keep getting the same results. Customer experience leaders can generate real value from thoughtful inquiries. Effective questions help agents address customer needs during support interactions, draw out insightful post-interaction feedback and unlock up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.

Ready to think critically about important customer experience questions? We centered our podcast on the idea of asking big questions to today's big thinkers in digital CX. Listen to Questions for now wherever you enjoy podcasts.

Dr. Dave Chatterjee, associate professor, management information systems at the University of Georgia, on the Questions for now episode: "How can brands rethink data security to maintain customer trust?"

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