Customer Questions That Make You Crazy

“…employees can respond to ‘seemingly dumb questions’ in one or two ways. They can respond in a sarcastic and condescending way, or they can listen for the need behind the question, empathize, and answer in a way that preserves the customer’s dignity (while still having a secret chuckle).”

Dennis Snow, Lessons from the Mouse

Before we dive in, I want to say that the book Lessons from the Mouse by Dennis Snow (linked it so you have no excuse not to go look at it) irrevocably changed my views on customer service. It’s an amazing–albeit a short–read and truly worth the time of any person at any level in any career. The quote I included here is part of a section that centers around the questions that customers (mostly the external ones) ask us that make us scratch our heads or pull our hair out. Still the latter in my case… and I read the book. You could be the most elite of employees and welcome each person into your wholesome heart with all the sincerity of a saint but a customer somewhere, SOMEDAY, will still ask you something that makes you question the future of mankind.

A customer walks into your place of business and asks if you are open. The urge to reply “it would seem we are!” while sneering over your superior wit is squashed only by the fact that you really need your job. In a restaurant your customer may point at the burger menu and ask if all the options have meat. In a bank the customer may ask if there are fees on the free checking account. In nearly any work environment someone will absolutely ask if you work there even though you’re in a uniform and have a name tag.

Why do they do this to us?! Our beleaguered minds may think our customers are out to torture us. To bend us to their will because they know we can’t (usually) reply the way we want to. The thought has probably crossed your mind that the customer must be a complete nincompoop (that word is seriously underutilized). Any number of negative thoughts can follow these tired questions.

This post is not meant to demand that you be a better employee and coworker. It’s not to insist that you stop laughing behind the backs of your customers when they question the obvious. These questions drive me absolutely insane most days even though I understand what the questions mean. I certainly laugh or complain about them. When a customer calls me and asks if we are open, I am likely scribbling an angry little dude onto a piece of paper while plastering a friendly expression on my face to answer the question (because you wear your voice on your face, which I will certainly write about in a future post).

Before we continue, here is what that angry little dude looks like: undefined
(I think the colorful stuff is fire but in my state of annoyance, who knows!?)

OK now to the crux of the matter… Why am I ruining your fun and why does it matter? After all, it’s possible I just ruined your fun when you realized how sarcastic you may have come off in the past… and it definitely matters.

Customer service is about uncovering the needs of the person seeking your help and providing solutions to the best of your ability. Customers don’t always know how to ask the question they really want the answer to. Instead they dumb it down in their minds to the most simple of inquiries and leave it in our capable hands to uncover what they actually want from us.

We all deserve raises for that alone. I bet you didn’t know you were a mind reader! Well, you are. Because you know the answer–or at the least know the need–of almost any person who asks a silly question. And if you can uncover that need and give them the answers they desire without spewing sarcasm and revealing your inner little angry dude then you are a step above those around you who don’t understand the concept or necessity of uncovering needs. Let’s break down the questions above now that I have bestowed this wisdom upon you:

“Are you open?”
I once worked with someone who got this question and replied with “well you made it through the front door!”. The customer was not impressed. Never be that employee–save the sarcasm until your customers are out of earshot. When you get this question, the customer probably doesn’t know your hours and your workplace might not have a giant, lit OPEN sign in the doorway. A simple “Yes! We open at nine each morning and close at five” is a sufficient answer. Unless those are not your hours in which case I beg you not to quote me verbatim.

“Does everything on the hamburger menu have meat?”
Sure, we know hamburgers have meat. And we know the customer can read the menu where every item listed is a hamburger… with meat. And if the customer actually read the menu they would see no option for veggie burgers. But your customer is really hoping you’ll take the initiative to offer a vegetarian option so bite your tongue on the “hamburgers usually do have meat” reply and just answer the question they are really asking you. And if the answer is no… don’t say no and wait expectantly for the customer to pick something out. No creates negative experiences (another future post topic!). Try “Everything in that section has meat but we have some great vegetarian options in the salad and sandwich menu if you’d like me to show you that!”

“Are there fees on your free checking account?”
One of the more seemingly obvious questions a customer might ask you. You know there are no fees but what is the customer actually asking? They probably want to know what sort of charges they might see on their account. The free checking account might have no requirements or cost the customer money on its own. But they could be charged for ATMs or over-drawing their account and that is most likely what they are asking you. It wouldn’t kill you to avoid “free means free!” and instead say “the account won’t cost you something each month but you would see a charge if you went into the negative or if you used someone else’s ATM.”

“Hi, do you work here?”
This is arguably my least favorite question as a service worker. Do you know how tempting it is to say “no, I don’t!” and turn my back just for the laughs? I am definitely not alone because it’s the first question listed on this Reddit page about annoying customer questions. In my current job I do not have a set uniform so I suppose I am not immediately identifiable. Except I wear a name tag, business casual clothes, and walk around with a tablet chatting with people. But I digress. This question is asked a lot and there is such a simple reason why… The customer literally just wants you to offer your assistance. How does the most obnoxious question have the simplest need attached?! The customer wants you to reply with some variation of “I do! What can I help you with?” or “Let me find someone who can best help you.”

Service doesn’t need to be rocket science and doesn’t require a crystal ball. It definitely has its moments and these questions are just some of them. But if you can turn the “seemingly dumb questions” (seriously, go read Lessons from the Mouse) into an opportunity to uncover the customers’ needs then you are on your way to great service, loyal customers, and fewer annoying work days!

Service Success Story
The last question I wrote about was the dreaded “do you work here?”. As much as I abhor this one, I am 100% guilty of using it. One recent time was in a Home Depot. I asked someone wearing a bright orange vest if they worked there. Luckily this person was a great service worker and just smiled saying “I don’t work in this area but I know who does. Let me call them over. What is your question? I’ll let them know so they send the right person over.” The employee could not help me with my request but they knew who to ask and even took a personal interest in making sure I got the right help. Awesome! Also… sorry Home Depot lady for asking the question. Forgive me?

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2 thoughts on “Customer Questions That Make You Crazy

  1. I listened to an interesting podcast a few years ago that discussed how customer service (especially the customer is *always* right model) as a wholly American idea. Societally we’ve ingrained this idea mostly into everyone’s head, but culturally around the world it’s not the case. (Point: when I was in Germany and the rental got a flat and the only car they could give me was a manual I couldn’t drive and they didn’t offer another resolution– my American customer service brain kicked in but to no avail). Anyway, an interesting counterpoint is how culture influences our reactions to customers– and also how it may, in some industries, hurt the employee most of all (thinking food service here) when we prioritize the customer over the employee.

    https://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/481887848/the-new-norm

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  2. When we were moving into our current home, we had the amazing idea of doing as much renovating, decorating etc as possible right at the beginning, before we moved the furniture in, before we had new carpets to avoid getting paint on and huge kitchen appliances to work around.

    At the DIY store for the third time in a week, completely exhausted, I’d totally lost my mind and was staring blankly at a shelf, trying to make myself care about different types of paint roller. An employee came over and asked if I was alright. I couldn’t articulate anything so I just said “No. Help me!” He took my shopping list out of my hand and brought me round the shop to get everything I needed.

    The next time I was in, a couple of weeks later and much less stressed, he stopped as he walked past and asked if I was feeling better. This is a HUGE shop with probably thousands of people through the door every week. I was so impressed that he remembered me. Stuff like this makes all the difference 🙂

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