Why Customers Ask Vague Questions (and What To Do About It)

Mathew Patterson | October 14, 2021

This post is part of The Supportive, Mathew Patterson’s column for customer service professionals. Learn what The Supportive is, or browse through all of the posts from this series.

Every customer service person knows this moment: You read a customer’s question for the first time, and within seconds it is clear that you are going to have to write back to them asking for very basic details before you can even start to help.

It might be their account name, the text of an error they are referring to, or the name of the plan they want to switch to, but it’s usually something that seems obviously necessary to answer the question.

So what’s that all about?

It comes down to the way our minds work. In short, once you know something, it’s really hard to imagine not knowing that thing, and we can fail to realize that the person we’re talking to may not have the same information in their head.

It’s sometimes called “the curse of knowledge,” and it can result in customers reaching out for help without a clear sense of what their support provider does or does not already know.

Most of the time our customers are not being lazy or deliberately confusing; they truly don’t know what information they need to provide in order to get help.

As customer service professionals, we are not immune to the same curse. We’ve all got brains filled with months or years worth of knowledge and skill in troubleshooting, in addition to internal company knowledge about how all our products, tools, and systems work.

Too easily we forget that our customers don’t know about any of that — and why should they? They assume the person they are talking to knows everything about the problem and can easily fix it. So a customer service interaction can quickly become two people misunderstanding what the other knows and needs.

The good news is there are ways to improve the situation, both by working to retain our empathy under trying circumstances, and by reducing information asymmetry where possible. For example:

  • Use tools that automatically record contextual data like the customer’s browser, their path on your site, and their account name, and attach it to the customer’s query. Help Scout does this well, as do other tools.
  • If you often need specific details, update your contact forms to ask for them explicitly. Explaining how you will use those details to more quickly identify the issue and provide more specific help can encourage customers to take the time to provide more information upfront.
  • Consider offering real-time channels like chat, where you can ask for what you need piece by piece in a conversational manner.

There will always be frustrations and missing information, but it can help to understand that it’s rarely intentional. We’re all trying to communicate clearly with each other and mostly failing … but that’s just being human, isn’t it?

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Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.