“An infinite question is often destroyed by finite answers. To define everything is to annihilate much that gives us laughter and joy.”
― Madeleine L’Engle
If you’re a retail operator, F&B owner, manager, supervisor, or any business where customer service plays a critical role, you need to ask one question all the time: Do you question your service team? If yes, how often?
Questioning your service team does not mean setting up one-on-one interviews with them, interrogating them on what they do on a daily basis. It means talking and listening to them about their issues, problems, and achievements.
Why you should question your employees, not give answers
Questions stimulate the mind to discover, challenge, reflect. Answers tend to create conditioning, demand specific contextual relevance, comprise of opinion & fact that need to be distinguished, serve to form a temporary certainty and ultimately expire or change. So what good are answers without reference to time? Questions though, are to me time agnostic.
Meet Ronnie, the Starbucks barista
Let’s jump into the shoes of a new Starbucks Barista. Ronnie, a newly hired employee, is thrown into work just after 30 minutes of “orientation”. In the next few hours, he needs to familiarise himself with the menu, operate the machines, serve the orders and please the customers. Now for a moment, pretend Starbucks doesn’t have a world-class training program in place. In the 30 minutes of orientation, Ronnie’s supervisor, eager to get him off to a flying start, systematically rattles on about every combination of orders possible including uncommon preferences and dietary precautions, what’s on promotion, what he still thinks is on promotion since last Christmas, before methodically demonstrating how the Point-of-Sales system processes loyalty cards, transactions, and staff benefits. In those 30 minutes, how much do you think Ronnie has remembered?
Ask questions to answer questions
Now in contrast, skip all that, and imagine Ronnie’s manager asked him a series of questions instead: 1) What do you think is important to make a customer happy? 2) What would make you happy being a part of this team? 3) What can I do to help you understand your job better?
In the case of Ronnie, asking questions which continuously stimulate people instead of guiding them towards a desired outcome not only helps to hasten the process of learning, you may also discover some interesting points and derive unexpected answers when you ask questions. Some may say, “ask the right questions to get the right answers”. How about simply asking questions which potentially provide the most answers? From there, filter the answers accordingly to what you had intended to find out.
How to be a leader who asks questions
Approach a hiring manager for characteristics she/he thinks is critical for great customer service and five words will typically pop up – Patience, Assertiveness, Expediency, Commitment and Desire.
Again, if you wind up espousing the merits of these five qualities to your new customer service staff then the lesson hasn’t sinked in yet. How can an outcome be meaningful if we don’t understand the meaning behind it? If we find it challenging to lead the service team to achieve a business outcome, how much harder is it to lead them to adopt the above characteristics? Lead with questions.
- Patience – understand when to be patient. Do you recall a time in your life when you wished you had paused for a moment and just held back your reaction while your emotions subside? Could there have been an alternative outcome?
- Assertiveness – know how to be assertive. Will you be more confident in handling customers if business knowledge is readily available and the business empowers you to resolve problems? Can we do more to help you achieve this?
- Expediency – learn the importance of speed of response. Why does waiting with uncertainty of a response irritate us? How do we judge if one customer deserves more attention at the expense of another?
- Assurance – establish that commitment will be rewarded. Do your interests align with what the company has to offer and stands for? Do you have a goal we can help you achieve that is within our means?
- Desire – embrace the desire to improve. How can your daily activities be improved for your benefit? Do you know how this also helps improve business outcomes?
So the next time you feel an overpowering need to feed your service team with answers, ask yourself this: are you helping them manage human dynamics as independent thinkers?