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  • Writer's pictureJesse Good

Enquiring to Discover Customer Needs

Yes, I spelled it with an 'e' on purpose.

This piece is the an entry in the "Happy to Help" Series, ongoing articles focused on elevating customer service experiences.

Last week I wrote about the simple act of engaging your customer by acknowledging their presence and greeting them. Once you've taken a few seconds to engage your customer, the next step is to enquire about their needs. Yes, I spelled it with an 'e' and it was intentional. It can be spelled that way (Google it). It helps with the alliteration (wink) and makes long-term training easier.

A True Story

Cammie called to order a pizza for her family from a prominent national restaurant chain. The person who answered quickly blurted, “Thank you for calling Awesome Pizza. Can you hold?”


Without even giving Cammie a chance to respond, the employee put her on hold. After waiting on hold for about five minutes, Cammie hung up. Cammie called back, was again asked to hold, but was again put on hold without the opportunity to respond.

Cammie explained to me that as a kind of social experiment, she wanted to wait and see how long she would be kept on hold.

So she waited...

and waited...

and waited.

Cammie’s curiosity began to get the best of her as she realized that the restaurant was only about ten minutes away. So, while still on hold, she got in her car and drove there. She walked in the front door and immediately observed that the establishment didn’t appear busy. There was no one waiting and likewise no one was taking orders on the phone.

After a few moments, an employee came to take her order at the counter. She ordered her pizza and was about to pay for it when she saw a second employee head for the phone. She explained to me that it was almost fifteen minutes before she would have been assisted with her order on the phone, and with no apparent "rush" at the restaurant.

While the girl who took Cammie’s money did engage her, she didn’t really ask about anything except how she could help make Cammie’s wallet a little lighter. Of this incident, Cammie said, “She did ask who I was on the phone with. I lied and said it was a friend. But now looking back I wish I would have said, ‘I’m on hold with you waiting to order a pizza.’”


The second skill associated with Discovering what your customer needs is to enquire. This is where you get down to the nitty-gritty of why they are your customer. Work to really Discover—enquire about what they need from your business. Engage them by doing more than just putting them on hold, and then enquire about their specific needs. Few businesses have success in guessing what their customers want—even though they often try.

Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • Is this your first time visiting our facility (or using our product)?

  • How did you hear about us?

  • What brought you in today?

  • If it’s not their first time, find out what brought them back. Is it the product? The service? Something else?

  • Did they come in because of a coupon or special offer?

  • Are they aware of your online presence (assuming you have one)?

  • How many people are they expecting? How many participants need to be serviced?

I worked at a fast food restaurant through most of high school. At places like the one where I worked, the goal during lunch time is to have every car through the drive-thru in ninety seconds or less. Some people see it as an equation that looks like this:

Speed = Great Service.

The reality is that speed does not equate to great service. It may be one element of Delivering service but should not be used as the primary means of measurement. Engaging and enquiring should take as long as necessary to take care of your customer. Interestingly, an article published by QSR Magazine showed that...

While Wendy’s had the fastest drive-thru time,

they tied with McDonald’s and Burger King

for the least polite employees.

As previously mentioned, taking your time with each customer doesn’t mean that you can ignore all the others, but rather, acknowledge their presence, and let them know you will be with them as soon as you can. Few people will mind waiting when they see how friendly you are and that you genuinely care about their needs.

So What Do People Do Who Are Good at Enquiring?

Those who are great at enquiring know how to ask the right questions. I worked with a bowling center that was set up such that when guests entered they came to the front desk. The cashier would not only charge them for games and shoes but enter the names of bowlers on each lane as well. This added a personal touch to the transaction. It also allowed service providers to find out if any players needed bumpers, how many people were playing, and how many games they planned on playing. Knowing the number of people on each lane and the number of games they would be playing was vital to operating an efficient wait-list when the bowling center was operating at capacity.

We observed that many guests had trouble with the question, “How many games do you want to play?” They would stop and think about it, then discuss it with a spouse, date, or friend. Then they would think some more. They struggle because the answer could be any number of games, depending on their time constraints. This ties in with engaging your customer before enquiring about their needs.

As you engage them, you may get an idea of what they will want to do. Typically, a family that has younger children will only want to play one game. On the other hand, a group of college students will almost always play two. In working with the bowing center, we found that by changing the wording, the process could be made easier for both the guest and the employee. Our employees began asking a closed-ended question, “Would you like to play two games today?” This way the guest only must answer “yes” or, “no.” It also helped as a suggestive sale to put the thought of two games into people’s minds.

Our observation was that most guests would reply with either, “No, just one game,” or, “Yes, two games.” It made things easier for the guest as their answer now had a limited number of possibilities rather than an infinite number.

A note of caution—your job is to build relationships and make the customer happy. If a family comes to bowl with mom, dad, and three kids under the age of ten, they will not want, let alone be able, to bowl two games. In cases like these, service providers still asked a closed-ended question, but varied the number of games. “Did you and your family just want one game tonight?” Again, they have the yes-no option, but you are starting them off with the answer they will probably give. Don’t get greedy and try to upsell two games to every single person. It will only cause more work for you later when they realize they only want one game.

LISTEN Has the Same Letter as SILENT

What else do employees do who are good at enquiring about their customer’s needs? They listen...a lot. Think of what it’s like when you are eavesdropping. You are hanging intently on every word, syllable, and detail. One challenge you may face is that customers don’t know what they want. And sometimes, they don’t know that they don’t know what they want.

I had the opportunity of working in the customer service department of a training company that offered communication skills to business executives. The business model was such that our organization certified trainers to train this communication content where that trainer was employed. Everything was set up to be very easy for our client trainers. The whole training was available on a platform they could install on a computer after becoming certified. One of the tools we offered was a website containing exclusive content for the client trainers while offering tips, suggestions, and training outlines.

It was not uncommon for client trainers to contact us explaining that they needed access to this website. As we enquired about their needs, we would often Discover they already had access and were actually trying to install the trainer software (which was on a USB included with their trainer materials).

Watch for Nonverbal Cues

Listen to what they tell you they need, and if you need to, help them figure it out. Think about when you go to a restaurant for the first time. The server is always ready with recommendations to help you decide what you want to order. As you enquire about your customers’ needs, listen to what your guest is telling you, but also pay attention to what your guest isn’t telling you. Things you might ask yourself include:

  • What does their body language tell you?

  • Are they with other people?

  • Are they alone?

  • Are they on a date?

  • Are they with friends?

  • Are they happy?

  • Are they upset for some reason?

  • Do they look puzzled and lost?

  • Have you seen them before?

  • Are they in a hurry?

  • What does their demeanor tell you?

At a miniature golf-centered entertainment venue I managed, a gentleman came in, already in a bad mood. Mike, one of the other managers, observed this gentleman’s attitude, engaged him, and enquired about his needs. Mike Discovered that the man and his children had been to three other entertainment venues that day and for one reason or another, things fell through at each of the other locations. Once he got that off his chest, he felt better, acted nicer, and it gave us an opportunity to really impress him.

Mike was happy to help, and knowing that he needed a little extra attention made it easy to make his day better. This man eventually became a “regular,” returning to the facility on almost a weekly basis.

Tom Connellan explains many of the “secrets” behind the incredible service at Walt Disney World in his book, Inside the Magic Kingdom.

“At the core, [Disney employees] are all about

cast members listening to guests—as opposed

to listening to themselves.”

He goes on to cite an important example where some executives thought certain menu items in one of the restaurants should be altered. But when front-line employees were consulted, they stated that from listening to their customers, most liked the menu just the way it was. The change never happened.

Similarly, with each person you engage and enquire about their needs, you have an opportunity to learn about how they use your product and what you can do to build the relationship and make them a faithful repeat purchaser.

Next Steps

Once you have adequately determined your customer’s needs, you’ll be able to recognize if they have any questions that need to be answered, or issues that need to be resolved. Oftentimes there won’t be, and after enquiring you can move on to the second step of customer service performance which we'll cover soon.

However, there will be times that you need to be prepared with the third skill of Discovering, and that is to enlighten them about your processes. Follow along next week for tips on enlightening your customers.

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Jesse B Good

Speaker, Author, Customer Experience Marketing Expert

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