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Ask the right questions

When a project fails because you didn't understand the user's needs, whose fault is it? "Unfortunately, many network managers believe it's the customer's. They exclaim, `It's not my problem!'" said Karten, a Randolph, Mass.-based consultant who helps organizations manage customer expectations (http://www.nkarten.com). "But, it will become your problem when your customer dislikes the results."

Barbara Henke, training and organization development consultant with Human Resources Investments in Tulsa, Okla., concurs, "If network professionals move toward their own assumptions rather than discovering the needs and expectations of their clients, they risk delivering the wrong solutions."

Customers don't always know what they want, and even if they do, they sometimes don't communicate it clearly. Therefore, asking the right questions is a key consulting skill every network manager needs to master:

1. Probing questions: help you learn more about the problem by asking the customer to tell you more: the history of the problem, difficulties with the existing process, the results of other attempts to solve the problem, and criteria for success. Example: What were you doing when you first experienced this problem?

2. Clarifying questions: help you double check your understanding. Example: When you say `it takes too long,' what do you mean?

3. Process questions: help make sure the customer is comfortable with the way you're conducting the project. Example: Would you like some time to think it over?

4. Meta-questions: help jog the customer's memory and reveal information you might not think to ask for. Example: What have I forgotten to ask that you'd like to tell me?
This was last published in September 2000

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