The Value of “What’s Unique about” Questions in Information Gathering
Lots of things can make or break a customer interview, but nothing beats open-ended, tell-me-more questions when you’re seeking to understand a customer’s needs. Open-ended questions allow customers to be expansive and to offer information about matters you might not have thought to ask about.
A question I’ve found highly effective in drawing useful information from customers is the “What’s unique about…?” question. For example: What’s unique about this problem? What’s unique about your current process? What’s unique about your particular responsibilities? What’s unique about the way management makes decisions here? What’s unique about your company relative to your competitors?
The reason such questions work so well is that people often see their situations as more unusual, exceptional, or noteworthy than everyone else’s. And they see their problems as bigger, more troublesome, and more idiosyncratic.
Of course, what customers see as unique may be something you’ve seen dozens of times. But if that’s how the customer experiences it, that makes the perception valid for that customer. And customers who perceive their situation as unique—or tough or demanding or complicated—often want more than anything else for others to understand, acknowledge, and appreciate the unusual nature of what they’re coping with.
The result is that when asked a “what’s unique about” question, customers often respond at length, revealing pertinent particulars they may not have thought to mention otherwise and you didn’t know to ask about. For example, in responding to just such a question, a client told me more about her organization’s decision-making process, politics, project problems, and sources of frustration—from her perspective, of course—than I’d have learned if I had limited the interview to more narrowly focused questions.
You can vary the wording of your questions in numerous ways to broaden the “what’s unique about” angle, such as by asking:
- What’s unusual about the process you use?
- What’s most troublesome about this situation?
- What’s especially challenging about the way people interact here?
- What’s the most difficult aspect of managing this team?
- What’s the biggest dilemma you face?
By posing these questions to people in different groups and at different levels, you’re likely to get a wide variety of responses and a deeper understanding of the situation at hand.
Furthermore, you don’t have to limit these questions to customers. For example, you can use them to expand your understanding of your newest project (“What aspects of this project are unique and therefore warrant special attention?”). You can use them when you’re conducting job interviews (“What’s unique about the challenges you’ve faced in your most recent position?”) and when you’re the one being interviewed (“What’s unique about the culture of this organization?”).
What’s not unique is how differently people view what makes their situations unique.