I build products for a living. Often when I visit a Stratus customer, I’m asked a question of the form “Do you support left-handed widgets?” When I was a young, inexperienced engineer, I’d think for a moment, and then tell the customer yes or no (generally, “no”, since most customers get pretty good at figuring out what features are available in a product). Sometimes the customer would engage me in a discussion of why we didn’t have it, or when we’d make it available, but often, the conversation would end rather unsatisfactorily for both of us. I’d feel bad that I could not help our customer, and they were disappointed that we lacked some important piece of technology. Somtimes, my inability to say “yes” would cost us future business.

Often, weeks later, I’d learn from our account team that the customer was still struggling to solve their problem. The account team would describe the overall problem their customer was trying to solve.  To my surprise, there would be no obvious correlation between the initial question (“Do you support left-handed widgets”) and the statement of the actual problem (“We are recycling the wooden box the left-handed widgets come in to hold the battery for our frambulator, and we lost our supplier of left-handed widgets”).  But now that I understood the whole problem my customer was trying to solve, I could usually design using existing technology.  (“We also build wooden boxes, and we’ll be happy to sell you empty ones so you don’t have to throw away the widgets.”)

Today, as a somewhat more senior engineer (my hair is in the process of turning gray, so I think I can safely say that I’m at least senior in age), if you ask me a question that begins “Do you support…”, I’ll tackle it by turning the question around and engaging my customer in a conversation about the problem that he or she is facing. Once I understand the nature of the problem, I can use my knowledge of our products, of our industry, and of the industry trends, to craft a much better answer.

The next time you are asked a highly-specific question about the capabilities of your products or organization, try turning the question around and opening up a conversation about the nature of the problem your client is facing. You may also find that you can already solve their problem, whether or not you support left-handed widgets. You can make your customer happier, and your employer happier, if you understand the reason they are asking the question, rather than simply answer it and move on.