The power of “Why?”

I’m going go steer away from the very technical “how-to” type things I’ve written in the past and instead give a little bit of job advice to anyone who finds themselves in a technical role for the first time.

Sooner or later, we all have to deal with technical support-type questions.

It’s very tempting in these cases to take everything you’re told at face value and ask simple yes/no questions for more detail. On the face of it, this makes some sense – they can be easy to understand, quick to answer and get you to the root cause very quickly.

I would argue that they’re terrible questions. Yes, sometimes you get useful answers, but as often as not you get:

  • Answers that are downright wrong. Maybe the customer misunderstood the question, maybe they didn’t understand it at all but were afraid to admit ignorance.¬†
  • Answers that aren’t wrong, but aren’t terribly helpful. ¬†Example: “No, I haven’t seen any error messages” (but considering my computer hasn’t actually got as far as logging me in that shouldn’t be terribly surprising).
  • Drawn into an argument. Example: “I’ve already told you what the problem is, now are you going to fix it?!”
Instead, try “Why?”. “Why do you think you’ve got a virus?” “Why are you having trouble with the website?”. It forces your customer to elaborate and drastically reduces the risk of confrontation.


James Cort

James Cort is Managing Director of Bediwin Information Services, providing IT management and integration services in the South West of England.