The art of asking outcome questions

Asking outcome questions is all about redirecting the conversation away from a problem and towards a solution.

They enable the person making the enquiry to take charge of the direction of a discussion.The information gained in response can hopefully lead to clearer and more harmonious communication.

Open and closed questions

Asking open-ended questions is a skill required by journalists, interviewers, teachers and anyone hoping to draw out more than a one-word response from their subject.

Close-ended questions can be answered with just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ while open-ended questions need thought and more than a simple one-word reply.

Example of a close-ended question:

“Do you like the product?”

This allows the customer to respond with a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘it’s alright’.

Example of an open-ended question:

“Tell me the things you like about the product?”

This prompts the customer to think about the product and give greater detail in their response.

Outcome questions take this premise a step further in that you’re trying to draw out a desired ending to a situation.

What not to ask

You know not to ask closed-ended question, but negative queries can be just as bad.

An example of this is asking:

“What’s the problem?”

You’re now likely to get a long rambling answer on every aspect of what’s gone wrong. Typically, the person will go over the same points again in a random order.

Although this is fine for finding out what’s occurred and the pain points for the client, it’s not going to help you move forward. At worse, you become stuck in a conversation that’s difficult to get out of and trickier to push forward.

Focus on the result

An example of an outcome question:

“What would you like to happen?”

You now switch the focus from what has happened to what the customer would like to happen.

This is a stronger situation to be in and one that’s easier to respond to for the customer service representative. Of course, they may not be in a position to resolve the issue there and then. But they’re now able to take away the information and give assurances that they’ll do their best to achieve the desired result.

Role-play both scenarios

It’s an excellent customer service training exercise to act out both scenes. The trainer should pair up the members of the class and give each trainee a role. In the first pair, one person will take the character of a client with a complaint. The other person will act as a customer service operative who makes only negative enquiries.

The second pair will take the same roles, except the customer service operative will ask outcome questions. All participants should be allowed to ad lib (within the structure of the setting) and go down the route the discussion takes them.

You may find that eventually the negative questioner will switch naturally to asking outcome questions. This is because they realise they’re allowing the client to go over the same ground again and again. They ultimately change track and start focusing on moving to a conclusion.

However, the customer service operative who has asked outcome questions from the start is obviously going to achieve the right result much faster.

This is an excellent assignment to use if you’re planning to film a customer service training video. It may require a little editing, but the material from this exercise is always fun and provides an ideal example of the benefits of outcome questioning.

A happy ending

No matter what the position or how bad the problem, there’s always a preferred ending. An essential technique in customer service training is to teach staff how to steer the conversation away from what’s gone wrong. Instead, they should move it forwards to solve the problem.