What Is The Most Important Type Of Question An Engineer Can Ask A Customer? Part I

Engineers, as a group, are typically rather direct and focused as individuals. This characteristic is reflected in the manner and type of questions which they ask. Because of the need to always be aware of the details of a design, engineers tend to be detailed oriented and ask questions in the same vein.  As a result they have query skills that are more useful for troubleshooting in a technical environment than discovering potential product ideas in a customer environment. This is typically where most entry level engineers start in terms of their interviewing skills.

Interviewing skills are important because one of the most important things an engineer, particularly novice engineers, can do is get into the field and learn about the customers needs. It provides them a chance to “walk in the shoes” of their customer by watching, observing, and asking questions.

There are entire academic fields devoted to the subject of asking questions to people. Although many retail based corporations typically have market research departments devoted strictly to finding out what customers think about their products or needs most medical device corporations tend to rely on their medical affairs personnel, sales representatives and product development engineers to gather it. The reason appears to be that each medical field is represented by a relatively small group of medical professionals with a specific set of needs.  Apparently they are considered too small to warrant the cost of more sophisticated research methods.  The result is that at some point the engineer will need to know how to obtain information from these professionals. But what type of questions should they ask?

Generally speaking there are two types of questions closed ended questions and open ended questions. Closed ended questions can generally be answered with a yes or no or a fact ( number, time of day, etc.) Closed ended questions require the engineer to either know what they want to ask or guess what might be important to the customer. They are useful if the engineer has identified a technical or customer issue and wants to verify it. They are the verbal equivalent of a microscope. They can miss the forest for the trees. Open ended questions can not be answered with a yes or a no. They don’t require the engineer to be particularly knowledgeable about the field although they will need to be familiar with medical vocabulary and concepts to get the most out of them. They are great for getting the lay of the land. They are the verbal equivalent of observing the customer at a distance while they perform their job.

So when do should an engineer use each? Stay tuned for the next post on this subject.

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