Resolve Issues by Asking Great Questions

Asking the right questions at the right time may help resolve customer or employee complaints while building relationships.  Three useful questions include:

Who is they?  A customer or an employee says “They said your products are overpriced.”  Another individual says “They said you expect them to do too much work.”  Both of these statements use the vague “they” as the complaint’s source.  What should you do?  First, pause for a few seconds.  Second, thank the individual for the information.  Third and perhaps most importantly, use the “Who is they?” technique.  Ask the person complaining “Who are they?” If the customer or employee does not know ask them to find out.   Without knowing a complaint’s source, it is very difficult to address it.   Also, the complaint’s source may be a rumor with no basis at all.   I learned this technique from Bill Matson (Human Resources Vice President at Analog, Inc.) when he was a Human Resources Vice President at IBM.

Why do you stay/do business here?  One or more employees or customers begin to make negative comments about your business or its products.  You cannot readily change the business to address these comments.  What do you do?  First, listen to the comments.  Be sure that you understand what is being said and that the discussion participants know that you understand.  Second, if your discussion is with employees ask “Why do you stay here?”    If your discussion is with customers ask “Why do you do business with us?”  Experience has shown that people will then go into a rather lengthy discussion of all of the good things about your company.  They will leave the discussion with an overall positive feeling, knowing that you listened to them.  They will also remember all of the positive statements they made about the business.  You can turn possible resistance into cooperation by first aiming to understand, and second to be understood.  Later, think through what changes, if any, are possible.  Thanks to Lynn Minella (Group Human Resources Director for BAE Systems in London, UK) for sharing this technique when she was a Human Resources Director at IBM.

What would the opposition say? You need to make a critical business decision.  A very opinionated employee tells you there is only one reasonable outcome.  They provide you with numerous reasons to decide their way and why the alternative is inappropriate.   What do you do?  Thank them for their recommendation. Ask them what someone supporting the opposite decision would say.  If they are not prepared answer, ask them to report back with the information.  Write both the data supporting the employee’s position and data supporting the opposing position side by side.  This exercise should help the employee to better understand and accept your decision.  It may also provide you with some insight to guide your decision making.

This exercise may also be useful if an employee complains about another employee.  After listening to the employee and showing that you understand all of their points ask them what the other employee would say about them.   Once both you and the employee have the complete picture ask the employee what they would recommend that you and they do.  Develop action items as appropriate.

Remember, asking the right questions may be a very effective management technique for you.  Addressing what you observe or are asked about with the right questions will help you derive an agreeable solution and options for all parties.

1 I would like to thank Industrial Consultant Dr. Margarita Posada for helpful comments.

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