If you haven’t picked up on it by now, I’m a firm believer in the theory of the five “Whys” — that is, whenever you’re engaged in a conversation about your product with a customer, and you start to dig down into the details about a new feature request or just trying to understand how they’re using their product, you’re not done with your side of the conversation until you’ve asked that person “Why?” at least five times. The reason for this is that what you’re always really trying to understand is not what they’re directly telling you — it’s not the surface need that they’re expressing to you — rather, you’re interested in what they’re not telling you, in the underlying motivations and the unspoken needs that they have. These are the things that you can innovate on; these are the things your competitors are not taking the time to hear; these are the opportunities to separate yourself from the pack and wow your customers with your insight and ability to deliver not what they want but what they need — even if they don’t know it.
That is the power of “Why”…and here are five reasons why it’s the most powerful question in the world…
“Why” Demonstrates Honest Curiosity
There’s no single question in the world that better represents curiosity than “Why?” When a toddler learns to ask the question, the world opens up to them. “Why” represents the wonder of the unknown, the interest in finding it out, and an openness to new ideas. “Why” doesn’t have an agenda; “Why” doesn’t pretend to know more than it does; “Why” has no pretense, no ego, and no endgame. “Why simply is; and what it is most of all, is a representation of your honest curiosity about your customer, their goals, and how they do their jobs on a daily basis.
When you ask your customer “Why” they’re doing something, you’re opening yourself to their ideas, their goals, and their needs. When you relay back what you’ve heard from them (see my post on Active Listening techniques), and ask them another “why” you’re showing that you heard them but that you want to know more. You’re not only expressing your own curiosity about their goals, but hopefully you’re feeding their own — many people don’t think deeply about what they do on a day-in, day-out basis, so pushing them deeper engages not only your curiosity but in the best cases, theirs as well.
“Why” Shows Humility and Respect
Nothing is more humble than asking someone a simple “why” question. The “why” removes all pretense, all trappings of expertise, all expectation that you have the answers, and places all of that power into the hands of the person who is being asked the question. It’s a deferential question, one that imbues the answerer with the authority and the power to provide their knowledge to the person asking the question. It’s a power-shifting question that demonstrates to the customer that their experiences are valid and valuable, and that your reason for working with them is not merely to further your product and your agenda, but to honestly value their input and their guidance.
Engaging with your customers or prospects with “Why” removes your status as a subject matter expert; it removes your status as a representative of a product with an agenda; it removes all of the trappings of authority that you may have, and reverses the roles to put the customer or prospect in the driver’s seat. You’re empowering them to take you on a journey through their thought process, through their daily lives, through their needs and their goals. And you’re sitting back to enjoy the ride, and to learn from them. No question builds trust and respect more than a simple “Why?”
“Why” Gives Them a Chance to Tell Their Story
All too often, when Product Managers engage with customers, they take the advantage of the opportunity in the wrong way — they try to tell their story, to validate their marketing and positioning and feature prioritization. Most customers are tone deaf to these goals — they’ve been through enough sales pitches at your trade shows; they’re contacted every quarter by your sales team; they get bombarded by marketing emails and snail mail collateral. When you’re alone with a customer, you have a unique opportunity, and it’s not to validate what you already know (and if you’re a good PM with your ears to the ground of your market, your positioning is fine, your prioritization is probably good enough, and your marketing is another person’s problem). Rather, it’s to find out what you don’t know. We don’t get to sit with our actual customers every day, so use this time to the greatest benefit possible — let your customer tell their own story.
“Why” passes the agenda to the customer; it puts the direction of the conversation and the details of the discussion in their hands. It not only empowers them; it not only shows your humility; it also gives them control of the narrative. Hearing your customers tell you what they want you to hear, in their own words, is an invaluable resource that does not present itself every day. Let them talk, let them lead the story where they want it to go — I can practically guarantee that if you’re listening and taking good notes, all the other goals that you had will be met simply by letting the customer tell you their story.
“Why” Doesn’t Lead the Witness
A corollary to letting the customer tell their own story in their own words is that you’re not poisoning the well such that you don’t actually learn anything. Surveys, online questionnaires, and even forums tend to become echo chambers whereby customers aren’t actually engaged with what’s being asked, and what’s being asked is so inartfully presented that the answer you’re looking for is glaringly obvious. And the vast majority of the time, you’ll get that answer — or you’ll find the vocal 1% who hate everything that you do. Neither of which is particularly useful, unless you’re a fan of drinking your own Kool-Aid (see Don’t Believe Your Own Hype), and neither of which is going to move the needle on your efforts.
“Why” is the least leading questions you can ask – it has no underlying agenda. It is what it is — a simple and clear request for someone to give you information that you don’t have. It’s not ranked on a scale of 1 to 10; it’s not an indicator of your NPS values; it doesn’t have the answer within the question. It engages with your customers in a way that surveys and questionnaires never will, and pulls insights that forum discussions never really will. It engages your customers and prospects in a conversation wherein you can discover what really drives them on a daily basis.
“Why” is the Key to Unlocking Unspoken Needs
Most importantly, “Why” is the key to unlocking the things that your customers aren’t telling you in other venues. By building trust and respect, by establishing a strong level of interest and humility, by giving your user or prospect a chance to tell their story in their own words, and by not leading them in any particular direction that you may have unspoken thoughts of your own on, you will uncover the things that they’re not telling you elsewhere. You have to listen, you have to repeat what you’re hearing back, and you need to actively engage in the conversation, but the myriad paths that open up when you use the five “Whys” simply aren’t available to you any other time, with any other audience, or in any other way. There’s simply no substitute for in-person, deep and meaningful conversations about what’s actually important to your customers…and I can guarantee that you don’t really know what those things are until you start asking them “Why?”