Work with me for any length of time and you’ll hear me ask one of 2 questions when I work with customers:
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- Can I draw you a picture?
These are my two signature business analysis questions I use when I’m framing a problem with a customer and helping us come to a common understanding of how to solve it.
This happens a lot: the customer comes with a “need” that sounds suspiciously like a frankenstein-style solution that has been cobbled together to solve the symptoms of a problem. I wrote about this in my post Starting From Solutions: When a customer requests a solution. But how can you get the customer to stop talking about solutions and start talking about the problem? By doing 2 things:
- listen to the customer
- listen to yourself
Listen to your customer
While you may not agree with the solutions that your customer is offering to solve her problem, you can listen for some very important information:
- who is impacted by this problem both directly and indirectly?
- what are the tools or processes they are describing?
- why is it important that they solve this now?
- what’s the emotion behind this problem? (annoyed, excited, angry, etc)
These clues give context about the nature and priority of the problem. The first 2 bullets tell you something about who and what are involved in this problem. The second 2 bullets help you assess the “pain” around the problem.
It’s easy to catch the information from the first 2 bullets. You may even ask a few clarifying questions to understand this as the customer is giving you the details.
The second 2 bullets require you to listen by engaging your emotional intelligence skills. This is where you need to listen to yourself.
Listen to yourself
As the customer is describing the problem, are they are using words or body language that indicate:
- the discomfort that this issue is creating
- how they feel about the problem
- ways that they would solve the problem
These words are tapping into their emotions that are triggered by the problem. Listen to yourself for a moment. How would you feel if these issues were happening to you? Can you relate to how they are reacting? Emotions are data. The information they are sharing can help prioritize the area(s) that need the most attention.
Now that we’ve listened to the customer and ourselves, let’s move the conversation in the direction of identifying what to do by asking my first signature question.
“What problem are we trying to solve?”
This question is to intended to reset the conversation. To move the speaker away from emotional responses to the problem and back into looking at the facts around the problem. I’ll often follow this question with a brief paraphrasing of what I believe the problem to be. For example:
“What problem are we trying to solve? It sounds like the problem you are having is that the system is showing you all the available forms instead of just the forms you need to complete the policy processing.” Is that correct?
Asking the questions in this way – and then paraphrasing the problem you’ve heard so far – gives the stakeholder a potential problem statement to focus on. Is there more information needed? Great! Using the question “What problem are we trying to solve?” opens the door to clarifying that problem.
Can I draw you a picture?
The second question is my introduction of a visualization of the problem. I’ll ask this question when I feel like we need help getting to the problem to solve. Pictures also help to focus the conversation on details which may or may not be meaningful. Often, seeing this information in a structured format can give the customer a new way of engaging with the problem.
I use the term “picture” pretty loosely here. A picture might mean a table of information, a quick workflow or a diagram of some type. Don’t focus on finding the “right” technique. Instead, use something simple or your go-to technique. Attempting to find the perfect model will only waste time and take away from the conversation.
The model represents a point-in-time understanding of the problem. Use the picture only as long as needed to identify the problem to solve and agree to the priorities.
There you have it! These are my two signature questions. Do you have questions that you use? I’d love to hear about it. Share them with me.