Cindy Alvarez

Why Asking for Stories Beats Asking Questions

Most entrepreneurs and product managers I know are familiar with Toyota's 5 Whys, but few have actually asked "Why?" of anyone 5 times in a row. (My 5-year-old, on the other hand...)

Why? Because one 'why' sounds inquisitive, and more than that sounds like accusatory.

Why? Because in the context where 'why?' is invoked, the human involved is likely already stressed and on the defensive.

Why? Because humans are irrational, emotion-driven creatures. NOW STOP ASKING WHY.

This is why I recommend starting off your customer development interviews with a non-question: "Tell me about how you _____..."

That's not a question, so it's less likely to put someone on the defensive. Instead, they go into storytelling mode. As they speak out loud, they often recognize that the last sentence doesn't make sense without context, so they prompt themselves to give that context, to give the explanations behind the action they took or the decisions they made.

Nuance is what is lost when we ask only direct questions. It's tempting to be satisfied with the first reasonable-sounding answer and stop probing. This can lead you in the wrong direction.

Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, I was running a couple of workshops, and a product manager said that a specific customer had stopped using a service for cost reasons.

Which seemed plausible -- the service had a lower-priced competitor, after all.

Except that two days earlier, I'd watched as one of my workshop participants interviewed that exact customer. And the customer did mention that he'd switched away from the service and that this service had been more expensive than what he'd switched to.

But then he admitted that cost wasn't a major part of his decision-making process.

Lack of reliability was the reason he switched away. He'd tried to compensate for reliability issues by 'over-subscribing', which drove up his costs. But the costs weren't what lost him as a customer.

In fact, he said, he would gladly pay a premium for what he did care about: reliability.

So why did the first guy think that the customer cared about cost? Well, likely someone asked him a direct 'why?' question but didn't ask it 4 more times.

And certainly, no one had engaged him to tell a story before.