There is no place for rhetorical questions in customer service

Last week I travelled through a domestic airport, nursing a nasty head cold. The typical customer journey at an airport includes going through the security checkpoints, which involves interacting with multiple staff before eventually getting to your seat on the aircraft.

Like most of us when we have the flu, we feel miserable, a little fragile and don’t always look 100%.

On this particular day when walking through the security check point I was asked by an employee; “How are you today?’. My immediate and natural response was “actually, I’m feeling pretty miserable today”, with Kleenex in hand and eyes watering.

My expectation of a caring conversation from someone in the service industry would be to show some empathy or respond in a way that is at least relevant to the customer’s feelings. For example; ‘oh that’s not good to hear’, or ‘sorry to hear that and I hope you get well soon’.

Unfortunately, the security staff member smiled at me and continued chatting to their colleague without acknowledging in a human and relevant way my answer to their question. Since when did rhetorical questions become acceptable in the service industry?

Are we not in the business of asking questions to create relationships and gather information? I am not looking for some self-reflection when I go through a security check point. I don’t want someone to ask me how I am feeling when I already know that I am feeling pretty miserable. I would much prefer someone to ask me how I was feeling because they were showing interest in me as their customer.

Questions can be dangerous if we ask them and we don’t mean what we say nor care what answer we get in return.

I spend a great deal of time at the moment working with clients who are rewiring their teams’ service behaviours to include more thoughtful questions when interacting with customers.

The result of that specific incident at the airport, which was a very brief and meaningless interaction, actually made me feel worse than I did before I arrived. The employee did not have a neutral impact on me, or a positive impact on me, but rather a negative impact on me – all because he asked a question he did not mean.

Jaquie Scammell
‘Why serve when you can inspire’