Ask questions, build credibility

Early in my career, I’d spend a substantial percentage of time performing on-site troubleshooting. To this day, it’s one of the more rewarding aspects of the job—an engineer’s crossword puzzle, if you wish. As a young buck, I was always worried the client was concerned about my ability to identify the problem, so I read anything and everything about my field I could get ...


Early in my career, I’d spend a substantial percentage of time performing on-site troubleshooting. To this day, it’s one of the more rewarding aspects of the job—an engineer’s crossword puzzle, if you wish.

As a young buck, I was always worried the client was concerned about my ability to identify the problem, so I read anything and everything about my field I could get my hands on. Once on site, I’d “prove” to my client I was the definitive authority on the subject by literally spewing everything I’d read the night before as I went through the sick system. My technical competency was assured… or so I thought.

One day, my boss received a phone call. It was from a client I’d seen the day before. “I don’t want Chuck back here,” he growled.

“Why?” asked my baffled boss.

“He’s an arrogant know-it-all! He wouldn’t shut up long enough for me to tell him what’s really happening with the system!” he yelled.

Upon receiving this news, I was in shock. Here I thought I was performing a valued service (and building my credibility in the process), yet I’d done the exact opposite.

Client counseling 101

Clients call us in to fix problems they feel would take too much of their time or are too complex for them. They’ve already decided we’re the experts. That’s why they called. Our job is to confirm their choice by giving them the opportunity to articulate the problem. One of the best ways to do this is by asking questions.

The question-and-answer (Q&A) approach is literally a client-counseling session. Although you may think you know what’s wrong, the client knows the system far better than you do and is intimately familiar with the impact a sick system has on the facility, up to and including plant shutdown.

Using a Q&A approach allows the client to verbalize hopes and fears: the fear you might change a line of code that results in shutdown, for example, or the hope that you’ll help satisfy one particular manager. Although you may have heard something a hundred times before, you’ve got to give the client the opportunity to say it out loud, simply so that he will feel better about the project—and you.

Three times as many

A good rule of thumb with Q&A sessions is to ask three times as many questions as you think necessary to solve the problem. The solution may present itself in the first 10 questions. Still, take the time to ask another 20. If you cut the Q&A session short, the client may feel that you don’t value what he has to say—or, worse yet, that the problem is simple to fix. If the client gets the impression he’s called in an expert to perform the functional equivalent of plugging the TV back in, he’ll feel stupid. You don’t ever want a client to feel stupid; he quickly will become someone else’s client out of embarrassment.

Watch for the valuable information hidden in those last 20 questions. We see the job differently than the client; more often than not, an important point will surface late in the Q&A process. Uncovering that scrap of information can be critical.

One time, we’d spent literally hundreds of hours troubleshooting a process cooling application, only to find the problem came from an improper installation of a pump weir. This had nothing to do with the controls managing the process, but we’d missed it because we didn’t ask enough questions.

One final benefit of the Q&A process: Not only will the client feel you value them, you might also find you have much in common. Many fast friendships have resulted from taking the time to ask questions.

Author Information

Chuck Sherman is managing director and division vice president of the Detroit office of The Benham Companies LLC. Benham provides hardware/software development and integration to the industrial, manufacturing, commercial, and municipal sectors worldwide through its Process Controls, Factory Automation, and Advanced Communications divisions. Chuck has more than 20 years of industry-related experience and is particularly passionate about all things automotive. Contact him at .

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