17 Probing Questions to Improve Your Customer Service

Lots of question marks on multicolour sheets


We share many great examples of probing questions that will help you to better understand your customers and provide an improved level of service.

In the article, we also share probing techniques and skills to help better present these questions to your customers.

What is a Probing Question?

Probing questions are questions that you ask to gain greater insight into what someone has just told you, helping you to uncover the reasons and emotions behind what they have said.

In the contact centre, we ask probing questions for each of the three reasons below:

  1. There are grey areas in the information that the customer has given you
  2. You cannot be sure of the customer’s intended outcome
  3. The customer does not sound convinced by the course of the conversation

Just remember, there are two parts to asking probing questions, finding out the facts behind the situation and determining the customer’s feelings, as Neil Martin, the Creative Director at The First Word, tells us.

A thumbnail photo of Neil Martin

Neil Martin

Neil says: “There are those 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.”

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some probing question examples for better understanding a customer query and how they are feeling too.

Examples of Probing Questions in Customer Service to Gain More Information

Here are ten examples of probing questions that can be used in customer service to help gather more information that will improve your contact centre problem solving.

1. When did this situation begin?

Establishing when the problem began is key to isolating the root cause. This will also give us great insight into how long the customer has been suffering from the problem, which will influence our next actions.

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

A key question to understanding whether or not the customer inadvertently created the issue themselves. We just need to be careful about how we frame it, so we do not sound accusatory.

3. Has this happened before?

Understanding whether or not this is a repeat problem will tell you whether the problem is a one-off incident or systemic.

Understanding whether or not this is a repeat problem 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?

We want to gain an understanding of the whole picture, and if we can better visualize the problem, we may be able to link it back to something we’ve previously come across.

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, we can ensure that we 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 closer at this. There may be reason in their logic, meaning that the customer and advisor can work together to problem solve.

7. You mentioned… 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 we want to focus on the issue at hand.

It is often the case that a customer will provide a really long response to your opening question, but we want to focus on the issue at hand. Active listening and this probing question will enable you to do that.

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… is there anything more you can tell me about…?

Not all of 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 would be your ideal outcome?

Sometimes customers expect us, as the contact centre advisor, to solve their problem and to blow their socks off in the process. If we sense that this is the case, we can ask this probing question 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

Try to Avoid Asking the “Why?”

As you may have noticed, none of our recommended probing questions begin 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.

A picture of an avoid sign

If the customer did something wrong, they likely did it because we didn’t set clear expectations of how to use our product/solution.

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.

Examples of Customer Service Probing Questions to Assess How the Customer Is Feeling

To best control the call, we want to understand how the customer is feeling and adapt our approach.

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.

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…

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 problem 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. What was your main motivation for contacting us today?

While we can only ask this in certain contexts, if the customer seems fairly relaxed, this will tell us what made them pick up the phone today and not tomorrow. Perhaps there’s an important deadline that we should be working towards that the customer isn’t telling us about.

16. Could you describe to me how you felt 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.

17. How will this affect you?

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.

Using 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.

“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.

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!’

“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…

By sharing that you would likely react in the same way as the customer, you are essentially validating the customer’s feelings, which will likely encourage them to be more open with you.

2. I can tell that this has been really difficult for you…

This statement helps to acknowledge that the customer has been through a “difficult” situation and, by showing acknowledgement, we appear attentive. This will make the customer more comfortable in continuing to share their feelings.

3. I’m really sorry to hear that…

In a lot of cases, all a customer really wants is an apology. If we give them that apology, once we have an understanding of the problem and they start to express their feelings, we open up the space for them to continue sharing.

To find a great list that’s full of our favourite empathy phrases for customer service, read our article: 18 Empathy Statements That Help Improve Customer-Agent Rapport

3 Techniques to Improve Your Probing Questions

Up until now, we have mostly shared great examples of probing questions. But how can you better weave them into your customer conversations to deliver improved levels of service?

Here are three questioning techniques that will help you do this in the contact centre.

1. Use the “Know, Feel, Do” Approach

It is so easy for us, during conversations, to take the ‘we’ve got something to say’ approach, but we instead want to first think about what the customer needs to know.

We need to be asking probing questions to answer this key question, while we also want to find out how the customer is feeling.

“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?

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 questioning techniques like these, read our article: Practical Tips for Effective Questioning and Probing Techniques

Which Probing Skills Will Improve Your Questioning

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, to ask the most relevant probing questions. But sometimes this can be very difficult, as some may bombard us with information.

So, to do this, we need to listen carefully to not only what is being said, but the vocabulary and the tone that the customer is using too.

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 a contact centre advisors, read our article: The Top 10 Most Important Customer Service Skills

In Summary

Probing questions help you to identify the reasons and emotions behind what the customer has just said.

There are many questions like this, including the 17 examples that we have put forward in this article, as well as probing techniques to help you to ask the right question at the right time.

These include probing techniques like “Know, Feel, Do”, the Filter Effect and the TED approach.

Finally, we want to ensure that our advisors are equipped with the best skill sets to ask probing questions and develop great conversations.

With this in mind, we should be actively coaching advisors some key probing skills, including active listening, empathy and patience.

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

Published On: 15th Jan 2020 - Last modified: 15th Jul 2022
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , , ,

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