Probing Questions to Improve Your Customer Service – With Examples

Lots of question marks on multicolour sheets


Want to better understand your customers’ problems? Try introducing more probing questions into the conversation.

Here we share some great examples of probing questions you can use straight away, alongside advice on key probing techniques and skills.

What Is a Probing Question?

The definition of a probing question is:

“A question that you ask to gain greater insight into what someone has just told you, helping you to dig a little deeper, as well as uncover the reasons and emotions behind what they have said.

Probing questions can also be thought of as ‘troubleshooting questions’ to ask customers.”

Why Is It Important to Probe a Customer When Trying to Assist Them in Resolving Their Issues?

Asking probing questions in customer service can help you improve the overall experience by responding to a customer’s actual needs instead of making assumptions. It can also help to improve First Contact Resolution (FCR) rates.

The importance of asking probing questions and training probing skills in customer service is twofold:

  1. Finding out the facts behind the situation
  2. Determining the customer’s feelings

As Neil Martin, Creative Director at The First Word, explains:

A thumbnail photo of Neil Martin
Neil Martin

“There are functional questions that you ask to find out who they are and what has happened. But we also want to ask probing questions for an equally, if not more, important purpose, and that is to understand how they feel.

“If you can understand how they feel, you can understand why they have contacted you and, crucially, how you can best help them.”


16 Examples of Probing Questions in Customer Service

To Find Out the Facts Behind the Situation

Want to improve your agents’ problem solving? Here are some probing question examples that can be used in customer service to help gather more information:

1. “When did this situation begin?”

Establishing when the problem began is key to isolating the root cause.

Establishing when the problem began is key to isolating the root cause.

This will also give the agent greater insight into how long the customer has been suffering with the problem, which has the potential to influence their next steps.

2. “Just to make sure I’m not missing anything, can you please tell me what you were doing when the issue first began?”

It’s also key to find out whether the customer inadvertently created the issue themselves. You just need to be careful about how you frame it so you do not sound accusatory.

3. “Has this happened before?”

Understanding this will tell you whether the problem is a one-off incident or systemic.

You can also gain insight into how to solve the issue by asking the customer how they’ve dealt with the issue previously.

4. “Could you tell me how it looks/sounds?”

You need to gain an understanding of the whole picture.

If you can better visualize the problem, you may be able to link it back to something you’ve previously come across for a faster resolution.

5. “Have you tried to fix this yourself before contacting us?”

By getting to grips with the actions the customer has taken to resolve the issue, you can ensure that you are not passing on any advice that has previously failed.

6. “What difficulties did you run into when you tried to…?”

If the customer has tried to fix the issue themselves, look more closely at this. There may be reason in their logic, meaning that you can work together to problem-solve.

7. “You mentioned [insert issue here]. Could you tell me a little bit more about that, please?”

It is often the case that a customer will provide a really long response to your opening question, but you want to focus on the issue at hand.

Active listening and probing questions (such as the one mentioned immediately above) will enable you to do that.

To develop you agents’ active listening skills, read our article: How to Train Active Listening in the Call Centre – With Four Exercises

8. “Just to make sure that I fully understand the problem, could you give me an example of what you mean by…?”

When customers fail to explain the issue clearly, help them out by asking for an example. This will clear things up for you and make it simpler for the customer to articulate their problem.

9. “As you’ve just told me about [insert issue here], is there anything more you can tell me about it?”

Not all the information that customers give you will be relevant. If you want to refocus a customer on a specific point without dismissing the rest of the information that they have provided you with, this is a polite probing question to reframe the conversation.

10. “What do you want to get out of this call today?”

Sometimes customers expect you to be mind-readers in solving their problems. This question can help you to gauge customer expectations and manage them thereafter.

For more on managing customer expectations, read our article: How to Manage and Exceed Customer Expectations – With Examples


To Determine the Customer’s Feelings

To best control the call, we want to understand how the customer is feeling. Sometimes this can be straightforward, as we can tell through their tone of voice and language selection.

However, this is not always the case. If you are struggling to decipher the customer’s reasons for calling or how to approach the issue, asking these probing questions will help you to come to an understanding.

11. “What impact has this had on your…?”

Knowing this will help you to determine the customer’s main priorities. With these priorities, you can find the best possible solution and adapt your approach in respect of this.

12. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

How often you think about something is a reflection of how much you care about it. If it’s a long time, this is a cue to show real empathy and start to put things right.

For practical advice on training advisors to use empathy in the contact centre, read our article: How to Coach Empathy in the Contact Centre – With Three Training Exercises

13. “Is there a timeframe that you’d like us to work within?”

Does the customer have an important event coming up? How urgent is their request?

This will help give you a sense of the importance of the matter to the customer and it also sets you up to manage their expectations.

14. “Is this issue with your [insert item/ service] causing other problems?”

If the problem is preventing the customer from doing anything else, we can realize just how frustrating the issue is for them, setting us up for a sincere apology with a show of genuine empathy.

15. “How did you feel about that?”

This question is one to ask once you’ve built rapport, as you can then feel more confident in directly asking the customer about how the situation has impacted them – without startling them.

16. “Do you have any worries or concerns about doing [insert solution]?”

If the customer does not sound convinced by the solution that you’ve put forward, this probing question will give them the opportunity to raise any concerns.


Five Techniques to Improve Your Probing Questions

Want to know how can you better weave these probing questions into your customer conversations?

Here are five questioning techniques that can help:

1. Use the “Know, Feel, Do” Approach

“Know, Feel, Do” Approach

It is so easy to take the ‘we’ve got something to say’ approach, but we instead should think about what the customer needs to know.

“Consider how the customer feels and how we want them to feel. If we can manage that, we have a real handle on how to help someone. This bit too often gets missed when we become obsessed with information,” says Neil.

So, think about probing questions in two ways:

  1. Gaining the information to move the conversation along – The Know
  2. Gaining the insights to meet the customer’s emotional needs – The Feel

The Do part involves the action that you take once you have used probing questions to unlock the know and the feel, as you then have all the information you need to move forwards.

As Neil says: “If there is an action that either we or the customer needs to take, just make that really clear. After all, we all really like simple, easy steps.”

2. Follow Up Probing Questions With a Closed Question

One way to think of probing questions is as the second phase of three when getting to grips with a customer’s problem.

Stage 1 – Ask Open Questions:

The first step in any contact is to ask open questions regarding the matter at hand, so you can listen out for key bits of information, which you can then probe into to find a solution…

Step 2 – Ask Probing Questions:

Once you are aware of the key issue at hand, probing questions are used to gather more information, as well as the emotion behind that, which will lead you to move forward with the contact.

Step 3 – Ask Closed Questions:

As your probing questions begin to bear fruit, confirm your suspicions as to what the issue may be by asking simple “yes” or “no” questions. These will help to confirm both your, as the advisor, and the customer’s understanding of the issue.

This three-step approach to contact handing is also known as “The Funnel Effect” and it can provide a nice guide for advisors to use.

But it is best not to use this rigidly, as it isn’t always best practice to immediately follow up one step with the next. Maybe it is better to ask multiple probing questions before following up with a closed question, for example.

3. Consider the TED Approach

TED stands for Tell, Explain and Describe. These are used to introduce a probing question, so the customer focuses on giving us the most relevant information to answer their query.

For example, here’s how we can frame three of the probing question examples above by using the TED approach:

  • Tell me, what impact has this had on your…?
  • Explain to me, what difficulties did you run into when you tried to…?
  • Describe to me how it looks/sounds?
Tell Explain Describe TED Questions

By adding these simple words to your probing questions, you can nudge customers into giving you specific details of the issue, without coming across as overly demanding.

“This technique can be really good when the customer is struggling to explain something really complicated, as we can approach the query from a number of different angles. Just be careful that your use of TED questions doesn’t become repetitive,” adds Neil.

For more information on the TED questioning technique, read our article: 15 TED Questions for Customer Service – With Examples

4. Try to Avoid Asking the “Why?”

As you may have noticed, none of our recommended probing questions begins with the word “why”. This is because we don’t want to accuse customers of being to blame for the problem. That’s not good customer service.

If the customer did something wrong, they likely did it because we didn’t set clear expectations of how to use our product/solution. That will be their interpretation at least.

Yet it can be difficult to avoid the word “why”. If you find this the case, try reframing the question with an opening like “Just so I have the full details…”

By reframing the question in this way, we can take away the potential feeling that you are accusing the customer of being in the wrong.

5. Use Empathy Statements to Complement Probing Questions

When you empathize with people, they often switch from telling you the facts to telling you how they feel, as Neil Martin tells us.

When you empathize with people, they often switch from telling you the facts to telling you how they feel.

“Sometimes customers are ready for an argument and armed with the details of what happened – but really what they want to say is ‘This has really upset me!’” says Neil.

“So, while using empathy statements is not technically asking a question, it has the effect of a probing question, because it helps people to open up and move away from the factual side of why they are contacting you.”

If we also add an inflexion to the end of our empathy statements, as we naturally would when asking a question, the customer can be encouraged to express themselves and we can probe deeper into their response.

Here are three examples of how to use empathy phrases as probing statements:

  1. I’m sure that I would feel the same in your situation…
  2. I can tell that this has been really difficult for you…
  3. I’m really sorry to hear that…

For a list of useful empathy statements, read our article: Empathy Statements for Customer Service – with AER Statement Examples


Soft Skills That Can Also Help You Deliver Probing Questions

While you can use probing techniques to improve your questioning, what matters most is the soft skills that lie behind that.

Here are three of the most important advisor soft skills that will positively influence their ability to use probing questions:

1. Active Listening:

We need to find out the customer’s primary reasons for calling in order to ask the most relevant probing questions.

We need to listen carefully not only to what is being said, but also to the vocabulary and the tone that the customer is using.

But sometimes this can be very difficult, as some may bombard us with information. So, to do this, we need to listen carefully not only to what is being said, but also to the vocabulary and the tone that the customer is using.

2. Empathy:

We want to probe into how the customer is feeling – not just for information to solve their query.

Showing empathy is central to this, and we can do this through the tone of our probing questions, as well as by using empathy statements.

3. Patience:

We can’t jump in with a solution before the customer has had the chance to express everything that they want to. This can lead to resentment.

Instead, we need to be patient and listen out for those golden nuggets of information in the conversation, so we build rapport and offer the best possible solution that’s tailored to the customer’s functional and emotional needs.

For more necessary skills for contact centre advisors, read our article: The Top 10 Most Important Customer Service Skills

For more advice on coaching advisors to have better conversations with customers, read our articles:

Author: Robyn Coppell

Published On: 2nd Jun 2023 - Last modified: 6th Jun 2023
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , ,

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