Keep It Open-Ended

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On a recent road trip with my family, we pulled off the freeway for a quick lunch. We stopped at a restaurant with a drive-thru, and given current events, the cashiers were standing in the parking lot, moving from car to car, taking orders. 

For the record, it was 115 degrees Fahrenheit out there, so along with this criticism comes a significant amount of respect that the employees were there to serve me in the first place.

When it was finally our turn to order for our family of five, we ordered our first meal. The cashier asked, “Is that it?” She then proceeded to ask, “Is that it?” after every item we ordered. And this isn’t the first time I’ve had an experience like this with a customer service professional. Why is a question like this so annoying as a customer? Let’s break it down.

The problem with closed-ended questions

With each occurrence of “Is that it?” I felt the need to defend myself. Do you see the pattern?

Me: I’d like a hamburger.
Cashier: Is that it?
Me: No. I still have four people to order for.
Cashier: Is that it?
Me: No. I still have three people to order for.
Cashier: Is that it?
Me: No. I still have two people to order for.
Cashier: Is that it?
Me: No. I still have one order to go.
Cashier: Is that it?
Me: Yes.

A closed-ended question is a question that requires a yes or no answer, and phrasing it improperly or using it too frequently, makes a customer feel like they are inconveniencing the person serving them. It requires the customer to respond negatively saying “no” in order to get what they want.

What are some other closed-ended questions that customer service professionals frequently ask during customer interactions? Try these on for size.

In some cases, these questions can be used to conclude an interaction and sincerely communicate to customers that we’ve done everything in our power to resolve their issues. That intention diminishes each time a question like this is asked — especially when asked five times. A disinterested, dismissive tone of voice also doesn’t help.

Keeping it open-ended

Now, let’s rethink this experience with a positive, open-ended line of questioning.

Me: I’d like a hamburger.
Cashier: What else would you like to order?
Me: I’ll take a cheeseburger and fries.
Cashier: What else can I get you?
Me: I’ll take a salad.
Cashier: What else would you like to add?
Me: How about some chicken tenders?
Cashier: What other items would you like?
Me: Last thing. I’ll take a grilled chicken sandwich.

Notice that none of the questions, in this case, could be answered with a yes or no. I could either continue with my order or say, “that will be all.” Open-ended questions invite the customer to take all the time they need. It communicates to them that we are here to serve them — to understand and meet their needs.=

In conclusion, I challenge you to think about some open-ended questions you can ask customers to swing the door wide open for them to do business with you. Here are some ideas for questions to ask — and I recommend mixing these up so you sound human and unscripted.

  • What else can I help you with?
  • What else can I help you learn today?
  • What other items would you like to look at during your visit today?
  • What else would you like to add to that order?

These questions may vary depending on your line of work. Have you already adopted the open-ended question in your customer interactions? Leave a comment below and share your favorite questions to ask customers.

Jeremy Watkin is Director of Customer Experience and Support at NumberBarn. He has more than 19 years of experience as a customer service and contact center professional leading high performing teams in the contact center. Jeremy has been recognized numerous times as a thought leader for his writing and speaking on a variety of topics including quality management, outsourcing, customer experience, contact center technology, product marketing, social media, and more. When not working you can typically find him spending quality time with his wife Alicia and their three boys, running with his dog, or dreaming of native trout rising for a size 16 elk hair caddis. Be sure to connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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