Did you ever have to call support because your laptop suddenly wouldn’t boot? How did you like it when the support guy at the other end of the phone line asked you if had it switched on? Would you have felt better if the phone support had asked you when you did the last kernel update?
In Technical Support our job is too find out why a product doesn’t work in our customer’s hands. And we have to carefully balance along the fine line between question which may be too basic or too sophisticated. We need to find out how knowledgeable our customer really is while not challenging openly his initial statement that he has x years of experience (preferably more than 10 or lifelong) and there is no way that he made a mistake.
Don’t get me wrong, I have deep respect for my company’s customers, who are scientists. I failed in science which is a tough field to work in. I never was half as knowledgeable in the scientific discussions as most of my customers are. They are experts in genetics and cell biology, they know more about the group of proteins they work on than I ever did on „my“ proteins. Still, I am an expert in how to you use the products my company produces and sells. I know which are the most common mistakes customers make – not because they are stupid but because they have a different field of expertise. I know what can be done with our products and how to do it but I also know that my colleagues in Research & Development have not tested all possible other applications our customers may come up with. Also they have not tested all possible shortcuts our customers may try to use.
Thus very often I will try to bring a customer back to track. It is not to kill creativity and speed but simply to make sure that the experiment will produce valid results. If you use a lot of shortcuts you may end up at the wrong destination. While exploring the shortcuts my customer used I ask basic questions and may explain basic principles. And sometimes we may provide some additional analysis just to save the customer some time. The challenge is to do it without the customer feeling patronised. Recently a member of my team did an analysis the customer could have done herself (which she knew) just to save the customer some time. While many customers may have appreciated the extra step this customer started screaming at her.
I must admit that I have no „this will never fail“ advise on how to avoid scenes like this. I normally use some phrases like „To save you time I prepared the analysis for you and attached it to this mail.“ or „If you wish me to do it for you to save some time please let me know.“. With these phrases I show customers who don’t know how to do it a way to save their face. And those who did know don’t feel offended as I didn’t challenge their knowledge. No guarantee given, though.