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Focus on the Customer

In addition to improving your understanding of the problem, information gathering can be used to learn more about your customers’ expectations and how they view their responsibilities. Questions that focus on the customer, rather than the problem or immediate objective, can sometimes generate more information than any other method. Why? Because, people rarely have an opportunity to talk about themselves, and when given that opportunity, many take full advantage of it. In the process, they often provide more information about problems you are being (or will be) asked to address than if you questioned them specifically about those problems.

Questioning Strategies

To illustrate the value of customer-focused questions to the participants of a consulting skills seminar, I decided to run a two-part experiment in which they unknowingly participated. In interviewing them several weeks before the seminar to assess their needs and customize my material, I first asked each participant questions regarding my immediate objective: the class. I asked, for example, “What do you want to get out of the class?” and “What topics do you want this class to focus on?” Their responses varied from brief statements to “Gee, I don’t know.” None of the participants’ answers provided detailed information about their needs.

But that was just the first part of my experiment. For part two, I told them to forget the questions I had just asked, because I had others I wanted to ask them. Then, instead of asking questions regarding my immediate objective, I focused my questions on them: their problems, their concerns, their environment. I asked each of them questions such as: What is a typical day like for you? What problems do you experience in identifying customer needs? Have your customers ever given you information that later proved to be incomplete? Do they ever misunderstand your instructions?

If I hadn’t cut off their responses, they’d still be talking today. Given the opportunity to focus on familiar problems and everyday experiences, they overflowed with information. In the process of responding to my questions, they talked about problems in establishing priorities amidst conflicting demands. They described conflicts they had with other groups, which hampered their ability to meet their commitments. They explained the difficulties they faced due to staffing constraints. To a degree that would impress even Columbo, they told me about their organization, their division, and their day-to-day challenges. What they told me was exactly what I needed in order to understand their environment and to tailor the seminar to their needs.

Of the several class participants, one in particular stood out. This woman talked nonstop for half an hour after I asked her only one question: What are some of the problems you experience in working with customers? In responding, she not only answered all my questions in considerable detail; she also answered a few I hadn’t thought to ask.

As it turned out, she really was a talkaholic, who took great pride in her ability to talk endlessly (her colleagues concurred when I revealed the details of my experiment during the seminar). Nevertheless, when I initially asked her what she wanted to get out of the seminar, she said she had no idea. The contrast between her responses validated my views about the value of customer-focused questions in information gathering.

Talk-Inducing Topics

The more you learn about the context in which your customers work—and how they perceive that context—the better youTl understand their problems and identify appropriate solutions. Learning about your customers’ context turns out to be relatively easy: Simply ask about their frustrations, concerns, and priorities. Ask what’s working and what’s not. Ask what’s making them happy and what’s driving them crazy.

These questions may sound irrelevant, yet they are extremely effective in stimulating the flow of ideas and can help you serve your customers long after the immediate problem has been resolved. And you don’t have to wait until you’re addressing a specific problem to ask these questions. In fact, the best time to use these questions is in information-gathering meetings designed not to address specific problems, but to discuss changing needs and priorities. Furthermore, these questions generate considerable feedback from both new and longtime customers.

If you’re concerned that your customers may be reluctant to open up, simply start by asking them to describe a typical day or some of the problems they experience in doing their job. Both questions are proven talk-inducing approaches. In my experience, the problem isn’t getting people to start talking, but getting them to stop. In fact, it’s a good idea to have a mutually determined ending time before the meeting begins.

The following paragraphs summarize ways to expand your understanding of your customers. Be sure to ask your most important questions first, in case you run out of time before you get to the rest. As my talkaholic student demonstrated, a good first question can eliminate the need for any other.

  • What causes your priorities to change? Have your customers identify two or three key factors that make priorities change. Ask how these changes in priorities take place. Of the factors your customers describe, ask which they have some control over and which they see as beyond their control. As you listen to their responses, be sensitive to issues they describe that might make it hard for you to succeed in meeting their expectations, no matter what solution you devise.
  • What’s unique about this department? Find out what they view as unique about their own responsibilities and their staff’s. Ask what aspects of their work they find particularly frustrating, and what (or who) gets in their way and makes it hard for them to meet their obligations. People often believe that their work is more tedious, demanding, and pressured than everyone else’s. Whether you agree with their view is unimportant. What you’re seeking is their perspective, because it could have direct bearing on the solution you recommend.
  • What interactions do you have with other departments or with outside organizations? Understanding the flow of information (both electronic and human) into and out of a business unit can be useful not just for your immediate effort, but also to gain a general understanding of the relationship between these customers and the others with whom they have contact. Search the implications of this information for ways to help resolve their problems.
  • What would you like to change in this department? Of course, some things aren’t changeable, but answers to this question can give you some useful insight into the functioning of the area. Talk to several people in a department about what they’d like to change, what they consider inefficient, and what they find tedious. The similarities or differences in their responses will tell you a great deal about trouble spots, sources of resistance, and factors you might want to keep in mind in responding to their needs.
  • What would you like to keep the same in this department? If your job is to implement change, it is easy to see everything as needing change. To avoid this viewpoint, it is helpful to inquire specifically about what people in the department would like to preserve. As with the previous question, the similarities and differences in the responses of several members of the department may reveal both opportunities and risks in addressing their needs.
  • What kinds of situations make it difficult to meet your deadlines? Many people can, on a moment’s notice, provide a long list of things that affect their ability to meet their deadlines. Some are valid reasons; some are dog-ate-my-homework reasons. Listen for what they perceive as deadline disrupters, and you may learn about factors that could have a bearing on your success in meeting their expectations.
  • What departmental activities take too long? Try to get a sense of how they interpret “too long” with regard to the activities they name. Find out how long they think these activities ought to take. This kind of question can give you insight into customers’ expectations, especially if their responses pertain directly to your immediate work for the department. Like the preceding questions, this question can give you some sense of what customers view as reasonable or unreasonable.
  • What are the department’s criteria for success? In other words, what are the factors whose presence are critical to the success of the department and whose absence are an impediment to success? This question can help you understand what’s most important to the department in general, and therefore what may be most important in seeking a solution to any specific service request. This question can provide a fascinating focus for discussion, because the customer department itself may never have thought about its responsibilities from this perspective.

In addition to generating useful information, questions such as these help you strengthen your relationship with your customers. People often complain about the idiosyncrasies, peculiarities, and unpredictabilities of their work, but rarely does anyone invite them to talk about it. So when you ask, it’s likely you’ll get an earful. In the process, these questions will enable you to develop a perspective of the goings-on in the department above and beyond anything you’d ever learn by focusing on immediate needs.

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