The power of “Why?”

I’m going go steer away from the very technical “how-to” type things I’ve written in the past and instead give a little bit of job advice to anyone who finds themselves in a technical role for the first time.

Sooner or later, we all have to deal with technical support-type questions.

It’s very tempting in these cases to take everything you’re told at face value and ask simple yes/no questions for more detail. On the face of it, this makes some sense – they can be easy to understand, quick to answer and get you to the root cause very quickly.

I would argue that they’re terrible questions. Yes, sometimes you get useful answers, but as often as not you get:

  • Answers that are downright wrong. Maybe the customer misunderstood the question, maybe they didn’t understand it at all but were afraid to admit ignorance. 
  • Answers that aren’t wrong, but aren’t terribly helpful.  Example: “No, I haven’t seen any error messages” (but considering my computer hasn’t actually got as far as logging me in that shouldn’t be terribly surprising).
  • Drawn into an argument. Example: “I’ve already told you what the problem is, now are you going to fix it?!”
Instead, try “Why?”. “Why do you think you’ve got a virus?” “Why are you having trouble with the website?”. It forces your customer to elaborate and drastically reduces the risk of confrontation.


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James Cort

James Cort is Managing Director of Bediwin Information Services, providing IT management and integration services in the South West of England.