Clarifying questions in customer support: a best practice guide

A successful customer support interaction sees the agent not only answering questions competently, but also asking the right ones, at the right time.

To do so, agents can mix and match a diverse range of questioning techniques.

Some guide the conversation towards key information. Some help to prevent misunderstandings from occurring. And clarifying questions — the focus of this article — are the latter.

Clarifying questions are useful for several reasons, but they can also cause frustration when used incorrectly. So, here’s a best practice guide to clarifying questions in customer support.

What are clarifying questions?

Clarification, in a customer communication context, is where you offer back the information you’ve gleaned from the speaker. You paraphrase what you understand of what they’ve said, and ask if that’s correct.

In short, clarifying questions are the questions you ask to confirm the information a customer has provided.

Sometimes, the messages you get from customers can become complex. For instance, they might cover a large and ongoing issue alongside the customer’s feelings, order history, and timeframes.

Clarifying questions, then, are how you make sure you fully understand everything.  

Note: Clarifying questions differ from probing questions. Probing questions seek to gain new information from a customer. Clarifying questions, meanwhile, seek only to enable and confirm a better understanding of information already given.

How to ask them

Clarifying questions are easy to construct. For a simple example, all you need to do is paraphrase what the customer has told you — as you understand it — and follow your summary up with, “…is that correct?”

Asking for clarification means admitting when/if you don’t understand something the customer has said. You can ask for a specific example to gain a better understanding of the point they’re making. Or, you can paraphrase and ask if you have everything correct. It’s important to be ready to be corrected in case you have misunderstood something.

The best way to understand how to construct and ask a clarifying question is by seeing examples.

When you said [XYZ], what did you mean?

I don’t quite understand what you mean.

So, you’re saying your feel [X]/you need [Y], am I understanding correctly?

You said [Product Z] isn’t working, can you give an example of what you mean?

The purpose of clarifying questions

Knowing when to use clarifying questions comes from knowing what they’re for.

  • Clarify the information you don’t understand

If you don’t understand what the chatter has said, you can use clarifying questions to clear up the misunderstanding.

  • Confirm the information you do understand

A common and useful time to use clarifying questions is to conclude your questioning part of the chat session. Use clarification to confirm understanding once you have the information you need.

You can also use a clarifying question to confirm the action the customer wants you to take to resolve the issue.

  • Demonstrate you’re listening and understanding

Empathy is a core part of what makes a customer service experience a great one. And careful use of clarifying questions can help you to subtly demonstrate that empathy.

When you paraphrase what the customer has said, you’re showing that you’re listening and that you understand what they’re feeling and saying. Or, in cases where there’s been a misunderstanding, you show that you want to understand properly. This is a good feeling for the customer because it’s clear you’re taking them seriously.

  • Keep track of complex issues

Using clarification midway through a conversation also allows you to pause and take stock of the situation in cases of complex support needs. You can keep the different threads of the issue drawn together and maintain a clear overview of the situation.

When shouldn’t you use them?

When not to use clarifying questions isn’t a list of exact moments, but rather a general idea. That is, you should avoid using this kind of question all the time. They’re better used sparingly.

Following up every message from a customer with a question to clarify it is a great way to breed frustration.

Overuse suggests to the customer that you either don’t care enough or are too incompetent to understand what they’re saying. Which, in turn, suggests that you won’t be able to help them. They won’t feel valued, understood, or listened to — and all this culminates into a bad customer experience.

Clarifying questions in customer support

To sum up, clarifying questions are the sprinkles of your questioning technique sundae. Used in moderation, these questions can not only help you avoid misunderstanding but also demonstrate competence and empathy.

But just as you don’t want an ice cream that’s all sprinkles, customers don’t want a support session saturated with clarifying questions. The best practice when it comes to this type of question, then, is to use them as an embellishment for your support.

Further reading