A business telephone call is a dialogue - a two-way exchange of information. When you are not listening, you will probably either be explaining something or asking questions to get information.

Questioning as a Telephone Skill

Questioning is a systematic process that enables you to find out information. In business telephone calls, ask questions to accomplish two aims:

  1. To get the information you need.
  2. To verify or confirm information you've received.

Of course, you'll ask these questions in a conversational way and not make it sound like an interrogation. There are two types of questions often used in business telephone conversations, namely direct and indirect.

Direct Questions

Sometimes your telephone call will be designed to find out very specific pieces of information. In such calls, you need to ask a series of direct questions.

"What date have you selected for the regional meeting?" "Will Mr. Jones be able to make his 2 pm appointment?" "Does that time suit you?"

Direct questions are straight forward. They focus the conversation on a limited topic, and they obtain specific information.

Direct questions (sometimes called closed questions) can be answered with a few words, such as "yes" or "no".

Indirect Questions

In some telephone conversations, you need to find out more general information, share ideas or discuss opinions.  For these situations, you would ask a series of indirect questions.

"Why have you chosen to stay with your present supplier?" "What are your goals this year?" "How is your company organized?" "When last did you have an appointment with us?"

Indirect questions encourage general, wider-ranging responses.  They open up avenues for further thought and discussion.

Indirect questions (sometimes called open questions) cannot be answered with a word or two.  They are designed to get the other person to talk freely, at some length, and in his or her own way.

Using Direct and Indirect Questions

When is each question type most appropriate?

  • Direct questions are used when trying to find out specific information, come to an agreement, or confirm information received.
  • Indirect questions are used when trying to determine needs, uncover problems or understand issues or concerns.

Guidelines for Effective Questioning

Learning how to use questions effectively on the phone takes practice. Here are a few basic guidelines.

1. Select the appropriate questions.

Plan a general line of questioning before you make the call. Ideally, you'll identify the information you need, then prepare questions to get the conversation moving along. You cannot anticipate every question, but you can make an educated guess.

2. Listen to the answers to your questions.

Remember, questioning is one of the broader skills you use in a professional business conversation.  Don't tie yourself too tightly to a strict line of questioning.  Don't start forming your next question until you've listened to the answer to the last one.  Be sure you don't answer the questions yourself.

3. Timing is important.

In a telephone conversation, timing is everything.  Avoid interrupting the conversational flow with a question out of context, but take advantage of conversational opportunities when they arise.

4. Continue questioning to confirm or verify information.

Verifying is a special aspect of questioning. To verify, summarize what has been said (what you heard the other person say), then ask for confirmation with a question.  Here are some examples: Summarize: "So the appointment will be on Thursday at 2.30...." Confirm: "...is that correct?"

5. Avoid conducting an inquisition.

There is a very small difference between an intense question and answer telephone call, and an inquisition. If you ask too many questions without adding your own comments, your listener will feel as though he/she is being interrogated.  It's best to acknowledge each answer briefly or comment in a relevant way before asking another question.

6. Don't think too much about the types of questions.

Although it's useful to know and use the direct and indirect questions, don't concern yourself too much about the types themselves. After all, it is the answer, not the question that is the most important. Remember that your telephone contact may not respond in the way you expect. Don't panic if he/she replies with a one-word answer to your best indirect question!  Take note of the information and change your questions accordingly.

 
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