Good questions don’t matter if you ignore the answers

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Pop quiz!

Which of these Edwards had scissors for hands?

A) Edward Scissorhands
B) Edward Snowden

If you chose (A), congratulations! You know more than the host of the news show “Daily Share” on HLN.

The host brought on a guest to discuss NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and his recent foray into the Twittersphere. Unfortunately, for her and fortunately for us, the show had unwittingly booked an internet prankster who “interview-bombed” the conversation by discussing Edward Scissorhands instead.

When she asked:

“Jon, Twitter shut down Isis’s account. Why do you think Snowden is any different?”

He responded: “… to cast him out, to make him invalid in society simply because he has scissors for hands, I mean, that’s strange. People didn’t get scared until he started sculpting shrubs into dinosaur shapes and whatnot.”

Unfazed, she forged ahead with her next question. “Some people say it’s hypocritical that Snowden has asylum in Russia. Russia has a lot of human rights violations.”

Jon Hendren, equally unfazed, continued. “We’re treating him like an animal, somebody who should be quarantined and put away. Just because he was created on top of a mountain by Vincent Price and incomplete. With scissors for hands and no heart.”

“But what about the choice he made to live in a country like Russia?” she persisted.

“I mean, where else is he going to go? You know?” Hendren replied. “We cast him out. We got scared when he poked a hole in a waterbed with his scissor fingers, and that was unreasonable of us.”

“Well thank you for giving us you opinion today” She wrapped up.

This conversation has so many layers of weird that I can hardly keep up.

One thing is clear though. She wasn’t really listening to what he was saying.

Often clients ask me for advice on the best questions to ask customers. But, as this interview shows, asking the right questions is only half the battle. You have to listen as well.

If you look at the moderator’s questions, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them (well OK, maybe equating Snowden with ISIS is a bit of a stretch – but I digress). Her questions are (mostly) perfectly fine. It is her utter and complete lack of response to what he is actually saying that makes this conversation surreal.

I see this kind of dynamic when companies talk to their customers.

Here is a typical exchange:

Customer: “So the problem we have is that when we try to upload files, I can’t tell where they go”

Product Guy: “So what you’re saying is that it would be great if you could have some kind of notification protocol that informs you of the location. ”

Customer: “well umm… ”

Product Guy: “Like a pop up toast or something like that?”

Customer: “Yeah, I guess. I think so”

Product Guy writes down: Customer wants pop up toast telling them where the file was uploaded.

Notice how Product Guy completely put words into the customer’s mouth. The customer never said that. He did agree to Product Guy’s suggestion, but it was only a half-hearted yes. However, that doesn’t come across in Product Guy’s notes. It now looks like a customer request, which it isn’t.

Here’s how Product Guy could have done it differently.

Customer: “So the problem we have is that when we try to upload files, I can’t tell where they go”

Product Guy: “Where would you expect it to go?”

Customer: “Well I always look in the media library but it’s never there. It always ends up in some weird place and I have to search to find it, and then move it to where I want.

Product Guy: “That’s sounds really frustrating! Tell me why you expect it to be in the media library”

Now you’re having a real conversation. Now you are actually responding to what the person is saying, and getting much more detailed information.
In this scenario, maybe the solution would be to make the default location the media library. Or maybe there was something about the terminology that was causing confusion. Maybe the Media Library should be called something else. Maybe the default location should be renamed. By understanding the problem better, you can come up with the right solution more easily.

Here is the bottom line. Asking the right questions is important, but it only gets you halfway there. Listening closely, and digging deeper for details is even more important.

Jana Sedivy
Jana Sedivy is Founder and Principal of Authentic Insight, a consulting practice specializing in Voice of Customer research and strategy for B2B tech companies. Over the past 17 years, she has lived at the intersection of people and technology and holds 21 patents about how to make that interaction as smooth as possible. She helps tech companies take the guesswork out of product decisions by helping them understand their customers better, providing market insights throughout the product life cycle. She is also deeply uncool but has finally made peace with it.

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