What to do when you don't have the answer

We've all been there: that very uncomfortable spot when you don't know the answer to a student's question. Marsha Glick has these strategies—both ahead-of-time tips and fast-on-your-feet tricks—for solving this training dilemma.

As trainers, we have all, at one time or another, been faced with the dilemma of someone asking a question that we don't know how to answer. We either can’t remember how to do what we are asked or we simply don’t know the solution. This is disconcerting, but there are several solutions that can turn an embarrassing moment into a triumphant one. Let’s look at a few.

In the classroom
These ideas will help when you’re put on the spot in a room full of students.
  • If you are using a projector attached to your computer, you can surreptitiously turn off the lamp of the projector so your students can’t see what you are doing on your computer. Then, while continuing to chat about the question, you can discreetly go to the Help section of the program, quickly type in the word in your Help index, and get the answer. Then, close Help, turn the lamp back on, and show them the answer to the question by demonstrating it on the computer. This solution requires a little finesse and should be practiced with your peers before trying it in the classroom.
  • Invite the class members to try to find the solution. Part of good training is teaching trainees how to help themselves. If the class members either can’t find the answer or don't want to try, you can show them how to find the answer by using Help or whatever is available on the particular program they are using.
  • Tell your students that there are so many functions in most software programs that no one person could remember them all. Then emphasize that the goal is not to know all the answers but to know how to find them. Finally, show them how to find answers by going to Help or searching the documentation or the Internet for answers.
  • Make an announcement at the beginning of your training class that because there is a limited amount of time to train them on the material, students should refrain from asking any questions about other material and hold any other unrelated comments until class is over. You also can encourage the students to contact you with questions at another time so that valuable training time is not wasted.
  • One of the best suggestions I have heard was from Robert Hagerty, an IT trainer with Clorox. Hagerty said that he tells trainees that all questions must be e-mailed to him before the training session and that he has the option of answering the questions during the session or not.

In a home or small office setting
These techniques work best in one-on-one or small group sessions.
  • Ask the customer to prepare a list of questions ahead of time and to e-mail or snail mail the list to you before the meeting. This gives you prep time to go over the questions and have the answers ready.
  • If you’re faced with a tough question during the meeting, tell the customer that she has asked a good question and that you should take a look together at what the Help section has to say. This sets up a great lesson in how to find help and how to print out the answer.
  • Show the student how to look up help on the Internet and find an answer there. This gives you an opportunity to teach both problem-solving skills and Internet skills.
  • Be honest and say that you don’t know but that you will find an answer and get the solution back to them within a few days, and then follow through.

Knowing all the answers is not a prerequisite for being a good trainer. The ability to find and present solutions and to train in an easy-to-follow manner is. Following these steps should help you to be a better-prepared trainer.

Marsha Glick is the owner of Cybergators, a computer business that includes everything from training to Web design to networking and computer repair. She has worked in both home and institutional training settings, as well as with special needs computer equipment for the hearing impaired, visually impaired, and physically handicapped.

How do you cope when you’re faced with a tough question or when the section of your brain that has the answer is out to lunch momentarily? Write to Marsha with your favorite story of dodging the tough question bullet.

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