Monday, July 18, 2011

Before you can find an answer, you have to know the question.

I had an interesting conversation the other day. I have a colleague who is a consultant, and he does some volunteer work with SCORE, an organization that provides mentoring and other services to small business owners. Recently a client asked if he knew anything about salesforce, and he asked if she was referring to the web-based CRM tool, or to something else. Since he answered her question with another question she concluded that he would not be able to answer her question.  That was an unfortunate assumption because my colleague probably did know the answer. As the conversation progressed, my friend continued to trying to figure out whether the questioner wanted to know about the software, CRM in general, or if she had some other specific questions. She was not sure. All she knew is that she wanted to know about salesforce.
This sort of miscommunication is not uncommon. In the accounting field, clients often want help with their “QuickBooks.” The difficult thing for people trying to help clients with questions about QuickBooks is that the questions do not address the real problem or problems. Is the problem that the books are not set up in a way that reflects the business? Are they too complex? Is there a specific question about how to bill clients or how to pay vendors? Is payroll a problem? Is there an issue with inventory? Without knowing what the client means when he or she says, “Can you help me with QuickBooks?” it is simply not possible to help. If it is a question about how to prepare an invoice or record a payment, then the answer may be short and simple.  If the client has a lot of questions, the most satisfactory response might be to suggest a couple of hours of training or a formal class.

At one time in my life, I worked in financial services. The common client question in that industry was something along the lines of, “Can you help me with my investments?” There is no single answer to the question because it is not specific. I had no idea if the client wanted help setting up a savings program, understanding investments, planning for retirement, or figuring out a way to pay for a child’s college in 15 years. There were plenty of times that the client wanted help with everything I just mentioned and more.

The common element in each of these examples is that the questioner does not know what to ask, and it reduces the likelihood that he or she will find an answer. The solution to this problem depends on whether you are asking or answering.

If you are the person asking the question, take the time to think through what you want to know. If your question is very broad, break it into pieces. In the last example, from financial services, you are much more likely to find useful answers to your questions if you are specific. If you see a financial planner or investment advisor, taking the time to narrow your focus will help the person addressing your concerns tailor a response to your needs. If you really do need help with “everything,” or you do not know enough to be specific, then you can frame your question that way.  If you have a lot of questions, make a list.

When you ask a question and the person you ask responds with more questions, do not assume that he or she is trying to avoid your question. It is more likely that he or she is trying to understand your question, or if the question contains many parts, is trying to understand your priorities and objectives.

If you are responding to a question, and the question is unclear, then your first goal should be to help the client clarify what he or she wants to know. If the client really does want an overview, then you should be able to establish that fairly quickly. If he or she has more specific concerns, then you may need to ask questions that will enable you to discern those concerns.