Recently a client called into our SaaS support line. The conversation started like this:
Client: How do I use your API to pull rent payment statuses and amounts for all residents of a particular property at the beginning of each month into an Excel spreadsheet?
So, the client really just wanted to send out rent reminder emails, a core feature of our software. Rather than building an Excel macro which calls our API, our support rep showed the client how to configure the monthly emails. This scenario is called the XY Problem. Here’s how it goes: User wants to do X. User doesn’t know how to do X, but thinks they can fumble their way to a solution if they can just manage to do Y. User doesn’t know how to do Y either. User asks for help with Y. Others try to help user with Y, but are confused because Y seems like a strange problem to want to solve. The XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem.
This has been described in marketing as the “drill-hole” problem. If you work at a hardware store, and a customer comes in looking for a drill bit, maybe they aren’t actually trying to buy a drill bit. Maybe they’re trying to buy a hole in their wall. Why would they want a hole in their wall? To put a screw or nail into it. Why would they want a nail or screw in their wall? To hang a picture. What they really might want are picture-hanging solutions, some of which don’t require drilling into the wall.
There’s an inverse phenomenon in which the question-asker has legitimately found the appropriate solution to their problem, but people are unwilling to help because they insist on knowing the full context, erroneously believing the situation to be an instance of the XY problem. You’ve experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever called your ISP tech support:
Me: My Internet isn’t working. Is there an outage in my area? If so, when will it be resolved?
Tech Support: Have you tried turning your computer off and on again?
Me: No, but this is problem on your side, not mine.
Tech Support: Let’s go ahead and reboot and see if it fixes the issue.
Me: Ok, ok, hang on. (pretending to reboot) Didn’t help
Tech Support: Okay, have you power cycled your router?
Me: (lying) Let me do that now.
Tech Support: Thank you. I just pulled up the network map, there is an outage going on in your neighborhood. Technicians estimate service will be restored in 30 minutes
Another example of the inverse XY problem is buying electronics.
Me: Hi, I’d like to buy a White 13″ Macbook with a 500gb HD and 16GB of RAM. Could you please get one for me?
Apple sales person: What are you using it for? Do you browse the internet? look at photos? do a lot of word processing?
Me: Please stop. I will trade you a swipe of this credit card for a White 13″ Macbook with a 500gb HD and 8GB of RAM. Do you agree to this transaction?
Sometimes (obnoxious) people (like me) really do want to do X. How do you distinguish between the two cases? Here are 5 secrets I’ve used with support teams to bust the XY Problem:
- Answer the question as asked, and then propose better solutions to possibly related problems.
- Use the “5 Whys” to get to the bottom of their problem.
- Use this line of questioning: “Can we stop for a minute and find out what your final goal here is? What do you want in the end of this process?”
- Flag customers who are superusers so support can (safely?) assume it’s (probably) not an XY problem.
- Allow superuser customers to bypass tier one support.
What are some other tips or tricks you have when dealing with these kinds of situations? Let me know in the comments below.
Original post found on Ryan Byrd Tech Ramblings