Volume 8, Issue 6 - November/December 2006

Customer Service

Ask Both “What” and “Why”
by Carl Tompkins

We’re currently hearing a lot on the news about the trouble facing U.S. car manufacturers. Company A is going to close 10 plants, lay off 30,000 workers, offer employment contract buy-outs to 75,000 workers—all in an effort to correct financial devastation. 

Is this type of move going to solve the problem? The answer is an absolute no. 

The cause of this scenario is that management, at best, only really understands “what” the problem is and, as a result, offers this conclusion: We are not making budget (in some form or another) so cuts have to be made. This type of statement defines what is wrong and is an accurate judgment but, 90 percent of the time, fails to conclude with a proper remedy. 

For an effective remedy to any business problem, management must concentrate on the root cause of the symptom. That will always be discovered by answering “why.”

So, our auto manufacturers’ aren’t making a profit. I would love to hear their CEOs explain why. What do you think they would say? Consider these possible responses:

  • We cannot compete with import competition;
  • Our union contracts are too expensive;
  • The economy is bad;
  • Our new line is full of “gas guzzlers,” etc.

The only way anyone should be allowed to walk away with these types of potential responses, tossing their hands up in the air and cutting costs, is if the game is over and everyone involved is satisfied with the final outcome—we lose.

Note that every listed potential response is a “what” and not a “why.” The road to remedy requires that all such “what” statements be converted to “why” questions and only then can effective solutions be discovered. Examples of this conversion would be: Why can’t automobile manufacturers’ compete with imports? Why are union contracts too expensive? 

Now the reason I stated the 90 percent failure rate earlier is that 10 percent of the time the game is over and closing up shop is best. Only then is the “what” enough. Our domestic automobile manufacturers still fall well within the 90 percent because competitors are making money and lots of it. This fact proves that somebody is doing it right, so someone had better learn how, and now.

Bringing It Home
How about us in the glass industry? How well versed are we in being truthful in the discovery of “why” versus simply residing in the realm of “what”? “We’re not getting paid enough by the insurance industry.” “Networks are killing our business.” “NAGS is ruining our pricing model.” “Our glass associations aren’t doing enough.” Sound familiar? These statements fit the same scenario as the automobile manufacturers’ by simply stating what and not asking why. It’s time our industry members start working on the why.

Be reminded that good problem solvers stick to the truth of “why” so that their time and effort pays off with targeted results. If the business sickness persists after the remedy has been applied, this doesn’t equate to a wrong remedy but, often, that the real cause of the problem has yet to be discovered or even recognized.
Here are five points to protect the issue of time well spent:

  1. There is always a reason for each business scenario to exist, regardless of whether you think it is a good or bad situation, or a good or bad reason. It is what it is.
  2. The analysis of the “why” along with the “what” causes the situation to be considered from all points of view. Seeing things from the other side of the desk creates a well-rounded education on the subject that leads to effective solutions.
  3. There are always two approaches to react to the “why” of any business scenario. One is to try to ride out the storm through cost cutting, hoping that some other outside force corrects the situation to your satisfaction. This very seldom works and, when good things happen, they often don’t last since the problem is bound to repeat itself. The second approach is to employ an aggressive corrective-action plan. Be reminded that this requires a clear understanding and commitment of time, effort and resources to get the job done. All parties involved must agree to it.
  4. Be reminded that most people are reasonable and that multiple parties are always involved in problem resolution. For example, the auto industry struggles with unions and we often struggle with the insurance industry. Rest assured that trust is the key component for people to work together and that good communication is the medium to develop trust. In these examples, both parties must be able to lay their cards on the table knowing that everyone involved needs to win or else everyone involved loses. It is only when this environment is created that the best solutions can be attained. 
  5. The bigger your company, the higher the risk of never discovering or reacting to the why part of the equation. History has proven it is all too easy for huge companies to cut entire divisions while trying to save themselves into prosperity. This is a result of top decision makers being too far removed from the markets they attempt to serve, not knowing enough to develop a saving-business strategy. If you fit this scenario, start trusting your field employees whom you pay a lot of money to know the answers. These employees don’t mind top management defining what is wrong as long as those same employees are asked how to fix the problem. 

I’m sure that we, as well as the auto industry, can learn much about solving business problems, using the “what” and “why” approach, through the example that Lee Iacocca provided in the resurrection of Chrysler a few years back. Why wasn’t Chrysler succeeding? Chrysler wasn’t paying attention to its customers and was too slow and old-fashioned to deliver timely and effective results that customers were willing to buy. Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy and everyone knew it. You may recall that Iacocca secured a loan from the federal government for $6 billion and then went to work. 

Lee Iacocca clearly understood the “why” and reacted to each answer in a manner that his customers heard and reacted to in a favorable manner resulting in a win-win solution for everyone involved. His communications were swift, powerful and truthful. America believed in Lee Iacocca and supported his cause which resulted in quite a phenomenal success story.

Carl Tompkins is the Western states area manager for Sika Corp., Madison Heights, Mich. He is based in Spokane, Wash.

© Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.