IT Management

IT Service Success: Asking the Right Question So You Don’t Solve the Wrong Problem

Published by in IT Management

IT Service Success

It’s easy to hunker down in your work and get lost. Especially with IT.

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No more tickets, guys.

While being head-down has its place in providing IT customer service, it’s equally critical to look up, to reflect and to consider alternative strategies. As much as your official IT job description might be to answer questions, sometimes the quickest and more thorough way to solve a problem is by asking the right questions yourself.

Consider this example.

Customer: I need help in increasing the free space on my hard disk

Engineer: Sure!

So the engineer runs disk clean up and removes files. The disk has more space now. The customer is happy.

Except the disk was full because the server would regularly crash and crash dump logs onto the C:\ frequently enough that the logs had filled the drive. Disk fills up again. Customer is unhappy.

But what if the engineer had asked these questions:

  1. Why do you need more space?
  2. What caused the low disk space?

If the engineer had asked the above questions, she might have known that in this case just cleaning up the drive was a band-aid. Fixing the server crashes is the long-term solution.

IT success comes from asking the right questions

In a recent Freakonomics Podcast episode, a couple was fighting about what to do with a diamond the husband won in a silent auction. The wife wanted to wear it. The husband wanted to sell it. If they sold it, she’d resent him. If she kept it, he’d resent her.

Throughout the episode, experts weighed in to discuss the true value of a diamond, and the pros and cons of each approach.

Then, a breakthrough. The wife asked herself a question: “What am I so angry about with this?” Nothing they could do with the diamond would solve the problem. Because the diamond wasn’t the problem. The problem was that each partner felt like the other cared more about this diamond than about the other partner.

“I wanted to just hear him say, ‘If this is what…if you really want this, then you can have it. You know, what I want, I will put that aside – my instant thoughts of how am I going to turn this into cash or whatnot.’”

He said it. She said it. They’re still married.

If people were as good at you at diagnosing problems, you’d be out of a job

When someone comes to you with a technical issue, your first thoughts should be skeptical. Don’t assume that because it’s what they’re complaining about, that it’s their real problem. Ultimately, you need to know what the customer is trying to accomplish. Then work backwards to examine every impediment to that goal.

Revealing questions include:

  • What changed?
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • When is it happening?

A funny thing happened to me several years ago that illustrates the point.

When I used to work for an ISP, a customer called in and sounded scared. She told me that her computer was possessed. Instead of saying what I was thinking, which was something along the lines of, “How in the world could you say that?” I  asked her more seriously why she would say that.

She then explained. Every night she plays on her favorite games website, Pogo, then closes the game and goes to sleep. But every day after she comes home from the office her computer is on and her favorite game is running.

More questions revealed that there was a power failure happening every day. I apologized to her and bought some time to discuss with my peers. Finally we solved the mystery. Our ISP had an auto dialer which had an inbuilt browser and this customer had the Pogo webpage as her default site. So every time the power came back on, her computer would restart and the auto dialer would to connect to the internet and open her default page.

The simple solution to her possessed computer? Disable the auto dialer.

Today we have knowledge base articles or search engines. When a customer reports an issue, we search and just follow the article then send off the customer. But sometimes the solution isn’t out there in a forum, it’s within the customer.

Team up

Mindlessly completing tasks feels good and makes time go by quickly. But we have to allow ourselves time to just think. Sometimes it helps to think aloud with a friend. Not every issue can be fixed immediately. It’s helpful to have a buddy in your help desk team who you feel comfortable sharing thoughts, discussing issues, and just bouncing ideas off each other.

Once I was working on a disaster recovery issue I was not able to fix. I had exhausted all of the troubleshooting and was about to contact the bug fix team to have them review the code to see if it was a probable bug.

However, before I could send the request, my friend talked me into taking a coffee break. I hesitantly left the email as it was and went with him.

While we were sitting in the break out area, he asked why I was looking so worried. I acted tough, saying it was just an issue I was working on. I then went and told him everything that happened. While I was retelling the story, he asked a question.

Did we try installing the RIS driver for the network card?

I was like what’s that? He then explained that some of the network card vendors have provided RIS drivers that can be installed during the recovery to get the network recognized. And to my delight that was it. I was trying to install the full blown drivers and it was not working but when we installed the RIS driver the network was recognized and the backup server was found, hence the recovery was done successfully.

He did the same thing for me I’d done for my customers. He’d asked the right question to get to the root of the problem. This kind of collaboration can even happen with remote teams.


When you work with customers, it’s tempting to hurry into solving the problem they present to you. But that’s not always the problem that really needs to be solved. Ask the questions that lead to insights. Analyze the problem beyond the error message. Take time to think. If you’re stuck to to your peers.
What are your go-to questions to get to the heart of a problem? Let us know in the comments!

Header by Abby Kahler

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About the Author

Ravi Verma

Ravi Verma

Ravi Verma is an experienced support delivery manager with more than 10 years of experience providing thorough and skillful consumer support to enterprise-level internal and external users.



Comment by Laura Ballam on

Great article! You’ve hit on some great points – not surprisingly I especially like the “team up” idea (we’re a collaborative customer support software that emphasizes collaboration). It’s so true that we get caught up trying to just solve what the customer says is the issue, rather than taking an extra minute to get to the root of the problem. It’s the same as when I take my car to the mechanic – if he listened to my version of the issues (“it sounds like there’s a metal stick in the brakes”) my issues would never get fixed!

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