Why does the customer answer to a wrong question?

I got a fantastic question: What to do when in meetings the client seems to answer a totally different question than the one I actually asked. This developer feels himself misunderstood and frustrated for a reason. So why might the customer’s answer ignore the question?

On purpose or due to stupidity?

In practice there’s two options why the customer does not answer the right question: either on purpose or due to stupidity. And by stupidity I actually mean that they might be ignorant, inept or unwise. Only a handful – or maybe half – of people have the guts to admit in a business meeting that they simply didn’t understand the question. The rest will just answer something to avoid being embarrassed.

The ones who answer aside the question on purpose most likely have an agenda. The customer is either worried or scared about something and therefore doesn’t want to give a straight answer. Or they might try to save their money but are not willing or capable to say that straight up. Anyway they’re driving their self-serving goals one way or another.

Assume first that this is about ignorance

It is safer to start with the assumption that the customer simply fell off the wagon and is too proud to admit it happened. Rephrase the question but first take a three second pause to think. During the pause go quickly through in your head, how you may make the question simpler. “Use language a seven-year-old would understand” is a classic advice.

Another way is to chop the question into smaller chunks and start approaching the original question a little further back. Start from something familiar and move closer to the more difficult topic step by step. And after every step ask a quick question to make sure the customer is still following you. When you find the spot where the customer’s expertise ends, slow down, use concrete examples and be patient.

If you follow both of these examples and the customer still will not give you a straight answer then you have a good reason to assume they do it on purpose.

And then what?

First try to dig a little what the reason might be. If customer is worried, what are they worried about? If you can deal with their worries first you’re more likely to get the answer you need. Or if you find the goal they’re aiming at, could you present an option that would be at least a little in line with that goal?

And if it still is impossible to get the answer you need, send someone else to try. Sometimes it helps if the question comes from another person. So tell the situation to the PO, the project manager, the key account manager or your colleague and ask them to ask the customer the question you need the answer to.

TL;DR: What to do if the customer does not answer your question?

  • Does he or she answer aside your question on purpose or due to ignorance?
  • If due to ignorance:
    • Ask again, but use simpler language.
    • Start further back from familiar things and move slowly closer to the difficult things.
    • After every step check that the customer is still on board.
  • If on purpose:
    • Try to figure out what might be their reason to not to give you a straight answer.
    • Try to rephrase the question so that it is in line with the customer’s goals.
    • If nothing else helps, ask someone else to ask the question for you.

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