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

Customer visits by a product development engineer are relatively rare events and as such need to be carefully planned.  To get the most out of them the engineer needs to understand some basic in the dynamics of interviewing for information.

As discussed in Part I few engineers know how to gather actionable information from customers effectively.   Nothing in their education and rarely in their corporate training addresses this area specifically or in depth.  Quickly becoming aware of my own deficiencies in this area I found that none of the engineers in the R&D Department had any training in how to interview a customer.   I championed the idea and obtained the first training ever offered in product research for the R&D Department at Abbott Laboratories Hospital Products Division.  That training created a new appreciation in me about the intricacies of getting actionable information from a medical professional.  What appears to be a straightforward process in fact has a number of potential pitfalls which an engineer may or may not learn as they attempt to collect customer needs information.

Obtaining needs information from a customer is an art a product development engineer must cultivate.  It requires developing the awareness that as they communicate with the customer each question they ask sets the stage for the next and ultimately where each discussion leads.  Professional demeanor is very important.  This is particularly true when speaking with an M.D.  If the engineer is listening carefully they quickly see that doctors have a different perspective towards the process and medical products than the nurses or the administrators.  Each perspective is important to the success of a product.  The differences in perspective must be taken into account as questions are asked.

Probably the most common mistake an untrained engineer makes is the timing of the type of  question they ask.   A novice at the process will typically start by asking specific questions about the product area or product that they are assigned to address the first chance they get.

“Is [Specific Product Name] easy to use?”

“What do you like about [Specific Product Name]?”

“Have you had any issues with [Specific Product Name]?”

These types of closed ended questions get answers that meet the interests of the engineer as it pertains to the company’s product.  They should be asked but at the appropriate time.  By getting down to specifics quickly they influence the customer’s thinking about the purpose of the visit to that of a particular product family or individual product.  This can lead to a dynamic where the technical aspects get discussed instead of the wider context as it pertains to the use of the product.  Without that wider context information that can lead to the improvement of the product or creation of a new product can easily get lost.

As an example wider context and environment information can and should be obtained by starting with open ended questions.  Open ended questions such as;

“What influences your decisions about choosing a piece of medical equipment?

“What are the issues that you have on a day to day basis with the medical equipment you use?”

These questions provide the opportunity for the medical professional to talk about what they think is important.  They should be asked even if the engineer thinks they know the issues since context and environment can change and are different at each medical location.  This line of questioning will typically bring up one or two new insights that can then be followed up with more specific open ended questions such as;

“Tell me more about the issues you are having with [ Specific Product ]?”

“How does this [Specific Product] compare to others you have used?”

At this point the engineer may find that a competitors product performs better than their own.  The goal is to find out why.  Never talk negatively about a competitors or defend your company’s product.  If your product is being criticized find out why.  Defending your company’s product is a natural response but may make the medical professional uncomfortable about talking candidly and that defeats the purpose of the visit.

Having obtained the context of the equipment or even regulatory issues that are confronting the medical professional and having identified the technology that is deficient more closed end questions can be asked to get to the details.  At this point the use of open ended questions has given the engineer an appreciation for what the medical professional thinks is important, and the context of how the equipment is used.  With this information they can get a better overall understanding about why the product is failing or succeeding in the view of the medical professional they are interviewing.

So it turns out that the most important type of question an engineer can ask depends on the situation.  Open ended questions  to understand the breadth of customer needs, or the context and environment a product is being used.   Detailed or closed ended questions once they believe they have identified an issue that they can address technically.  Knowing when to use each develops with experience as the customer visit progresses.

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