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Managing Customer Expectations by Understanding Your Customers' Context

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Do you find yourself solving the customer's immediate problem, just to have another one take its place? Naomi Karten explains that to prevent this type of outcome, you must ensure that information-gathering efforts examine the problem from all possible perspectives.
This chapter is from the book

Study the problem before you solve it

If you singlemindedly focus on your customers’ immediate problems, without considering them in a broader business context, you may overlook the way the problematic situation interacts with other processes and activities both in and outside the organization. Even if you succeed in solving the immediate problem, you might create another one to take its place—and the subsequent problem might be bigger than the first. Customers might reasonably view such an outcome as a failure to meet their expectations.

To prevent this type of outcome, you must ensure that information-gathering efforts examine the problem from all possible perspectives. As Donald Gause and Gerald Weinberg state, “If you can’t think of at least three things that might be wrong with your understanding of the problem, you don’t understand the problem.”1 For many people, this is not the customary approach.

Categorize the Context

A variety of questions can help you think about what might be lacking in your understanding of the problem. The questions in the preceding chapter were designed to help you ask appropriate information-gathering questions. The questions in this chapter help you take into account all relevant aspects of the problem. To identify appropriate questions, start by devising categories of issues about which you might want additional information. One way to identify such categories is to use an attention-directing tool that Edward de Bono calls Consider All Factors.2

Consider All Factors

According to de Bono, “doing a CAF” means preparing a list of all the factors that have to be considered in a situation, without making any attempt to evaluate the factors. The resulting list of items is likely to overlap, and not to be in a priority sequence. Doing a CAF is an effective method of identifying a broader range of relevant issues than might be identified otherwise.

For example, you might determine, via a CAF or using any other means of devising categories, that four pertinent categories of questions are business, impact, timing, and risk factors. You would then formulate a series of specific questions within each of these categories to help broaden your view of the problem you have been asked to address. Sample questions for each of these four categories follow.

Business factors. These questions broaden your understanding of the business environment in which the problem has arisen.

  • What financial factors contribute to this problem?
  • What business factors could cause the problem to grow or change in ways so that it could be seen in a different light?
  • What steps have competitors taken to address this problem?
  • What business benefits might there be for leaving things as they are?

Impact factors. These questions help in understanding the factors both in and outside the requesting department that either affect or are affected by the problem.

  • What areas of the company are affected by the problem?
  • What business processes outside this area are affected by this situation?
  • What will be the long-term impact of modifying the current process?
  • Who might resist our attempts to tackle this problem?

Timing factors. These questions concern the changes in the problem over time, and the decision to address the problem now.

  • When did this problem first arise, and why?
  • Why has this problem not been addressed before?
  • What makes this a particularly good or bad time to address this problem?
  • What would be the positive and negative consequences of waiting a month or a year to address this problem?

Risk factors. These questions focus attention on negative situations that could arise in addressing the problem.

  • What does the problem entail that is so new or different as to pose a risk?
  • What factors might reduce the level of risk that the problem poses?
  • What does past experience tell us about com plications that might arise if we address this problem?
  • In what ways is the risk of addressing the problem less than the risk of leaving things as they are?

Develop Your Own Questions

If you find these categories and sample questions helpful, you can formulate additional questions to guide your information-gathering efforts. Other categories of questions, such as those pertaining to training, data access, scheduling, and security, can serve equally well if they facilitate your analysis of the problem from various perspectives.

Many of these questions are ones you undoubtedly already think about, so organizing them into categories simply helps to make your thinking about them more systematic. Do not be concerned if some overlap exists between questions in different categories, or if certain questions seem to fit in more than one category. The idea, as de Bono noted, is not to generate a list of mutually exclusive categories, but to develop questions that help you stretch your thinking and expand your understanding.

Some of these questions may require you or your customers to do some hard thinking or even some research to come up with the answers, but the effort is worthwhile if it identifies even a single piece of information that changes your understanding of the problem. Such questions can be useful not just for you to ask your customers, but for customers to ask themselves before seeking your assistance. Consider compiling and distributing a list of such questions to help your customers structure their thinking about problems.

For customers who prefer to solve their own problems rather than solicit your assistance, such questions help to improve the odds that they take all relevant factors into account in developing a solution. Too often, customers overlook important factors, run into problems when the solution they devised ceases to do what they need, and then turn to you for help. By educating customers to improve their own information-gathering skills, both you and they benefit.

Draw Conclusions from the Responses

After answering these types of questions yourself or with your customers, you can ask a few additional questions to evaluate the information you’ve gathered and make some decisions about your next step. For example,

  • What issues did these questions raise that are critical to consider in addressing the problem?
  • Did these questions raise any issues that we had initially overlooked?
  • Has our view of the problem changed as a result of asking these contextual questions?
  • Do the responses suggest that we shouldn’t address the problem in the way we had planned? If so, what should we do next?
  • Do the responses suggest that we shouldn’t address this problem at all?3
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