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Handling Questions and Your Answers Effectively

During the interview or conference you will definitely receive questions and you need to have a plan to handle any question.  You should keep two rules in mind to help you effectively control questions and your answers.

The first rule in handling questions effectively is to encourage questions. This signals you are being open and honest about information being discussed. Do not assume if the customer does not immediately voice a question that he/she does not have any. He/she may be unsure how to phrase the question or uncomfortable about asking questions. Provide the opportunity for questions by testing your understanding of what was stated. Use open body language to invite questions.

The second rule is to listen carefully to the question. Make sure you understand what is being asked. This is not as easy as it sounds. The customer may have difficulty expressing what they are asking or if he/she is hostile, body language may overwhelm the question. Another difficulty is the customer may provide too much background or irrelevant information before getting to the point. To avoid giving the incorrect answer, clarify the question with probing statements (e.g., “Let me make sure I understand you correctly. You want to know if …?”). Additionally, show you are listening by your attentive body language, such as leaning forward, tilting your head in reflection, and maintaining steady eye contact.   handle

SEER Format

When explaining a complex subject, use the SEER format. This acronym can help you formulate strong, spur‐of‐the‐moment answers:

  • S = Summary (one‐sentence statement of your answer)
  • E = Elaboration (key points to support your answer)
  • E = Example (specific illustration to clarify and make the key points memorable)
  • R = Restatement (restatement of summary)

SEER Example:

Question: “Why did I not receive all of the child support payments listed in this letter called the Notice of Collections?”

Your Answer:

S: “You did not receive all of the child support payments since you received public assistance in the past.”

E: “As a condition of receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (public assistance), you agreed for the State of Oklahoma to keep the child support that is collected later for the time you received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The State of Oklahoma is not allowed to keep more than you received in public assistance.”

E: “When you received public assistance, you received your child support up front from the State of Oklahoma. Then, as the support is collected for the time you were on public assistance, the State of Oklahoma keeps it as reimbursement for paying you the child support up front. If more is collected than the State of Oklahoma had previously paid you, you receive the extra amount. The amounts listed on the Notice of Collections letter let you know the total amount that was collected, how much was sent to you, and how much was kept by the State of Oklahoma.”

R: “So the reason you did not receive all of the child support payments listed on the Notice of Collections letter is because you received public assistance in the past.”

This format should make it much easier to think on your feet. It gives you a structure for responding in a concise way to ensure maximum impact and recall.

Difficult Challenges

Several categories of questions can present difficult challenges.

Hypothetical question. Be careful about answering these types of questions. Hypothetical situations rarely have enough detail to provide an accurate answer. It is better to address the specific facts and the actual issue instead of exploring “what if” scenarios.

Two‐option question. With this type of question, the customer is trying to pin you down to a forced response with limited answers: “Shouldn’t Mr. Smith be punished for not paying his child support by going to jail or losing his driver’s license?” One of the pitfalls with this type of question is the tendency to be trapped into providing an “absolute” answer with which you are uncomfortable.
If you can answer a question with a simple “yes” or “no,” do so. If the issue is more complicated, explain why: “Mr. Smith should be held responsible for paying the child support. However, neither a contempt action nor a license revocation would be effective in this particular case since Mr. Smith lives in another state.” You can also expand your options if neither of the options suits you: “Since you have told me Mr. Smith is currently working for Wal‐Mart, we can send an Income Withholding Order so the support can be deducted from his paycheck.”

Long‐winded question. Generally, there are two reasons for long‐winded questions: (1) inarticulate people who think as they ramble and (2) articulate people who like to show off their thinking and speaking. The former appreciate help and need a guide. The latter appreciate a forum, and need to be limited. Listen long enough to be sure you understand the question, and then help the customer phrase the question: “So do I understand your question to be ….?”
The inarticulate rambler generally will appreciate the help and nod approvingly when you take the proverbial “ball and run with it.” Another option is to interrupt with a short‐answer question. However, since interrupting by talking over someone with a statement is considered rude, this is tricky.
Remember to listen long enough to grasp what the person is saying, and then ask a question about something just said that can be answered with a word or two. This technique can be effective in shortening the length of the interview, appointment, or settlement conference.

Unintelligible question. The customer may have an accent making it difficult to understand what he/she is saying. Pick out a phrase that seems familiar and attempt to reframe the question back to the customer. “Let’s see if I understand your question correctly, you want to know …?”

Off‐the‐record question. Even in a non‐political setting, someone may ask you a question “off the record” to obtain your personal opinion instead of the “official” word. Do not say anything you do not want on the record. If CSS has a policy with which you do not agree, avoid expressing your opinion. If you do so, you have given the customer permission to ignore the policy and may have created negative consequences for the case.

“Dumb” question. Do not cut off a question that may appear “dumb” to you. This is information that, even though it is simple in your opinion, the customer does not have and wants to know.

Show‐off question. Generally, this type of question is a monologue with a “Wouldn’t you agree?” or “Isn’t that correct?” thrown on at the end. Test your understanding of the question by rephrasing it back to the customer or if you can answer with a simple response, do so.

Hostile question. Customers ask hostile questions for any number of reasons:

  • They disagree with what you said or have incorrect information.
  • You have not established credibility with them.
  • They have misunderstood you.
  • They think they are “saving the day” for their point of view.
  • Their personality makes them look for a negative in every situation.
  • They have a hostile tone and facial expression without realizing it.
  • They are angry at someone else and taking it out on you.
  • Their question is neutral, but you have had a bad day and are “reading hostility into the question.”

Rephrase a legitimate question without the hostile tone.

For example: “Why are you demanding five years of back child support when I didn’t even know I was the father of that child. That is unconstitutional.”
Try to rephrase to emphasize its validity and then respond “Why is there a request for a judgment of past child support expenses in the Paternity Petition? The laws in the Oklahoma give us the opportunity to request the judgment and the judge will make the decision of whether it is appropriate.”
Above all, avoid matching hostility with hostility. Remain calm, present an open style of body language, and stay courteous. How you answer the question may be remembered much longer than the information itself.

Acknowledge the frustration the customer has. “I understand this is a very difficult situation. The legal process can be very intimidating.”

Additionally, keep in mind some customers may just have a hostile personality. This is not a reflection of you or your interactive style. Simply let the customer vent emotions, then calmly provide an appropriate response.