When to use funnelling questions in customer service (and when not to)

Funnelling questions: questions that guide a conversation partner from providing general information to explaining specific details.

In customer service interactions, these kinds of questions are particularly valuable. They allow agents to extract more information on a certain topic quickly and efficiently. So, the employee can get the customer on-topic, get the conversation flowing smoothly, and get the relevant information required.

But funnelling questions also have a proper time and place. At certain points in a conversation, they can prove limiting or inappropriate.

So, when should you use funnelling questions in customer service, and what makes them less effective?

What are funnelling questions?

Imagine a funnel. At the top, you have a wide opening, which gradually tapers into a narrow bottom. This is what funnelling questions do to your customer service conversations. They start wide, open, and general, and taper the conversation down to the details and information you need.

How to ask funnelling questions

The funnel technique requires you to start with a general question, then become more restrictive with each step.

Step 1: Open or general questions

Open questions motivate the customer to talk — you’re giving a general topic for the customer to answer with the things most bothering them.

 Step 2: Probing question(s)

The next step for funnelling questions in customer service is to probe — ask questions that clarify or dig deeper into something the customer has said. These are leading questions that guide the customer to focus on the information you want. They’ll start open, and close to more single word/phrase responses as you pinpoint the information you need.

Step 3: Closed question/summary

You end the funnelling techniques with a summary of the requirement or information you’ve gathered. And, usually, a closed yes/no question to confirm the customer agrees with what you’re saying.

N.B: Sometimes you can ask funnelling questions in the other direction — particularly when you want to get the customer more relaxed. This means you could start with closed questions that are easy to answer, and gradually open them up, inviting more information.

When are they useful?

Funnelling questions in customer service have two main uses: getting the conversation with the customer running smoothly, and finding out key information.

Funnelling questions encourage customers to talk by creating a natural flow in the conversation. They point the customer in the direction the conversation should go, making it easy to answer your questions.

You can also find this questioning method useful during high-tension customer service interactions. For example, when a customer is upset, angry or stressed. These questions show that you’re really digging deep into the problem and taking the customer seriously — which helps calm the tension.

Importantly, funnelling questions are also key to allowing agents to dig deeper into an issue. They guide the customer to the specific details needed to diagnose the problem. (And so devise a solution.) For example, pinpointing the cause of a technical problem.

When should you avoid the funnelling technique?

You don’t need to apply funnelling questions in customer service rigidly. Doing so can come across as robotic — you’re following a script, not paying attention to the customer.

Sometimes, you might want to confirm information with a closed question midway through the funnel. Sometimes, other types of questions may prove more useful.

Plus, there are times in customer service when empathy needs to come before questions and progress. You need to make customers feel heard and validate feelings. Only then can you use questions to show that you’re invested in solving the problem.

Funnelling questions are great for getting (and keeping) the conversation flowing, and guiding the customer towards the information you need. But eventually, you’ll need to move away from questions and on to explanations and answers. Customers will tire of ongoing questioning.

Funnelling questions in customer service

As with any technique in customer service, there’s a time to use funnelling questions (and a time when you shouldn’t.)

Simply, using funnelling questions in customer service helps you create a good conversational flow and dig deep into the details of an enquiry or problem.

Just beware of applying the technique too rigidly — lest you misunderstand or come across as unempathetic and robotic.  

Useful links

8 probing questions to use in customer service conversations

Questioning techniques in customer service

Seven empathy statements for customer service