Use Silence as a Powerful Tool to Get Feedback
Subtle things can influence the quality and quantity of the responses customers offer during information-gathering sessions. For example, the specific words you use in posing questions can make a difference.
If your wording sounds like you’re blaming the customer for issues that have occurred, the customer might feel defensive and clam up. So instead of asking, “What problems have you had with the current method?” it might be better to ask, “What kinds of problems have occurred with the current method?” Or even better, “Tell me about what’s worked and what hasn’t with the current method.” This wording focuses on the problem rather than the person experiencing the problem.
There’s a place, though, for questions that focus on the person. Questions such as “Do these interruptions make it tough for you to do your job?” and “What’s the most distressing part of this problem for you?” can lead customers to reveal heaps of pertinent information.
It can also be useful occasionally to express general observations. For example, you might comment, “This seems like a particularly difficult time for this department.” This type of comment is an invitation to vent, and people who vent often reveal useful information in the process.
Interestingly, silence can also be an information-gathering technique. A friend of mine, Jan, described her experience in using silence with each of several customers to gauge their take on a new project they were about to be involved in.
Jan asked the first customer she met with, “What’s your reaction to this project?” His response, as she described it, was one of grudging support. She then paused to see if the customer wanted to add anything. After a longer than usual period of silence, the customer added, “But I have some concerns.” Though he sounded hesitant about what he was about to say, he described some issues that could hobble the project and explained the steps he thought could prevent them.
Jan’s experience with some of the other customers she met with was similar. Most of them at first sounded like they supported the project, but in the pause that Jan allowed to linger after the customer’s initial response, several of these customers described potential pitfalls and concerns. Unprompted, these customers offered information that, if addressed, might spare the project avoidable turmoil.
Remaining silent as Jan did isn’t easy to do; after all, the purpose of gathering information is to ask questions. But silence can clearly be a powerful communication tool and is a technique worth trying.