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How to ask effective questions

When you ask a question is as important as what question you ask.

How to ask effective questions
[Photo: Christin Hume/Unsplash]

A strong brand needs to talk to its customers–whether it’s through a feedback form, over the phone to provide customer support, or in person at a retail store. One common question asked of customers by businesses is, “How did you hear about us?” In itself, this might be a simple query, but misplacing it in conversation can spoil a customers’ overall experience.

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An example:”How did you hear about us?”

“How you ask is everything,” reads the landing page of Typeform, a SaaS company that allows users to create conversational surveys and forms (and one that I currently consult for). It’s common for organizations to ask their clients and users how they heard about them, their event, or their product. They want to know if their marketing is working.

But what’s the right way to ask this question? To get a useful answer, it’s crucial to ask at the right place in the interaction, and in the right way. We can’t just ask. The fact that people say things like, “I hate to ask, but…,” “Don’t hesitate to ask,” or “Just ask!” tells us that asking for things is more complicated than we think.

We can learn about effective ways of asking questions by examining real talk “in the wild” to see how people actually do it, and the impact that different ways of asking have on the conversation. This is what I did when I analyzed calls from customers to a double-glazing sales company. Callers wanted new doors or windows, and, generally, salespeople asked them lots of questions about what type of windows, what size, what color and how many, before taking the caller’s name and address to make an appointment. But in the conversation below, the salesperson asks the “how did you hear about us” question before eliciting the customer’s requirements.

01 W: Good morning, Doors and Windows,
02 C: Hello, um do you uh do windows, do
03 you uh install them.
04 W: We do. Yeh?
05 C: Yeh, uh, I- I couldn’t get a quote could I.
06 Um,
07 W: Yeah,
08 C: For my house,
09 W: Yeah. Is it t- to obviously supply and install
10 the windows.
11 C: Yeah supply and install yeah.
12 W: Okay, and uh how did you hear about us?
13 (1.9)
14 C: Uh I’ve just- looked it up on the internet.
15 (0.5)
16 W: Okay, uh w- what sort of windows were you thinking
17 of.

Everything runs pretty smoothly until line 12 when the salesperson asks “How did you hear about us?” A silence of almost two seconds opens up. This long gap is our evidence that the question has caused some friction in the call. When a conversation is running smoothly, the gaps between turns are usually minimal–200 milliseconds, or less. The customer does eventually reply, but the delay in responding, coupled with the ‘”uh” at the start of their turn, revealsthe temporary suspension of progress toward the overall conversational goal.

Problem one–location

In this case, there were two obvious problems with the question. The first problem is its, location–when should the salesperson ask this question? It’s probably clear to you that such “marketing” questions should come toward the end of a conversation (or online form), once you’ve dealt with all of the customer’s business. In the example above, the salesperson asks how the customer heard about them before asking much more relevant questions about what type of windows the caller prefers, and about other things relevant to progressing the purpose of the call. Sometimes people spot their own location errors, and attempt to fix them by saying things like, “Oh, sorry, I forgot to ask you earlier…”

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Other common location errors include asking for people’s names at the start of an encounter, rather than focus on their reason for calling. In many types of service encounters, asking for a potential customer’s name before they’ve made their reason for calling clear will lead to resistance, because callers want to know about the service being provided before giving their name and other contact details.

Problem two–entitlement

The second problem is one of entitlement. The (potential) customer is not obliged to answer, “How did you hear about us?” In fact, they would be doing the double-glazing company a favor to supply such information. A better way to ask is to start with a preface (e.g., “Just before you go”) and reduce the entitlement of the request (e.g., “Would you mind telling us…?”). Asking marketing questions at the end of a conversation reduces the potential friction of asking in the first place.

A few years ago, the phrase “check your privilege” went viral. Roughly speaking, it is a way of reminding someone that they should consider the position they speak from. You can apply the same principle to conversations, except it’s about checking your entitlement. When you make a request, think about how entitled you are to make it. How much effort will it take for the other person to fulfill it? How important is it? Design your request with these contingencies in mind. “Can I have…?” “I need…,” “Give me…,” “I was just wondering…,” “Have you got,” “I want…,” “Would it be possible to….”

If you use the same request every time, you’re probably not a good conversationalist. You need to check your entitlement.

We are all searching for frictionless ways to have conversations and interactions. Keeping in mind each of these rules can help us navigate more effective encounters–no matter who, when, or how we are making them happen.


Elizabeth Stokoe is a consultant at Typeform and Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University. She is the author of Talk: The Science of Conversation, published by Little, Brown (2018).

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