When training new help desk analysts, I teach techniques for identifying the user’s problem and logging the appropriate information in our call-tracking system. One technique I find particularly effective is outlined by Randal S. Pearson is his book Effective Information Gathering Techniques. Pearson’s technique is the “The 5Ws and an H,” and it consists of:

  1. Who: Person/Department
  2. What: What is wrong?
  3. When: When did it happen?
  4. Where: Location
  5. Why: Why did it happen?
  6. How: How did it happen?

The 5Ws and an H technique builds upon questioning skills learned in grade school. Its simplicity helps ensure the right questions are asked and the right information is recorded. The 5Ws and an H technique provides several benefits:

  • It’s simple and easy to learn.
  • It develops questioning skills that avoid yes or no answers.
  • Its use as a model for call logging ensures complete information.
  • It keeps users from forgetting key pieces of information.

Application of the 5Ws and an H is more than just asking the basic questions above. This technique needs to flow with the conversation of the call. Here are several tips and examples for asking the right questions in each category.

Obviously you need the person’s name and contact information. However, I remind my consultants to look out for other “who” issues:

  • Is the caller the person actually experiencing the problem?
    Quite often people call in on behalf of others. Sometimes, this can make it difficult to follow up with the person experiencing the problem. If multiple people are involved, choose the person experiencing the problem as the primary contact, and list appropriate details of others involved in your call notes.
  • Is the person’s information in the system up to date?
    You cannot assume you have the correct information. Always ask, “At what number can I reach you?” and other confirming questions.

Normally, a call flows from identifying the caller to talking about what the problem is. Here are a few “what” tricks for identifying the problem.

  • What error message did you receive? What does the screen say now?
    Some error messages are too cryptic to be useful, but others are critical to solving the problem. Avoid asking, “Does the screen say…?”, and ask them “what” the screen says instead.
  • What program were you using? Version? Operating system?
    Don’t overlook the obvious. Software versions change rapidly, and this information can be significant.
  • What were you trying to accomplish?
    This is my favorite question. The client may be asking a question or describing a problem that doesn’t really represent their desired goal. Back away from the problem and ask what they wanted to happen. Perhaps there is another way to accomplish the task, or it could be that what they tried to do wouldn’t have achieved the desired goal anyway.

Establish pattern. One random error may not be a problem. An error every time you run a program is another story.

  • When did the problem first occur? When did it last work correctly?
    The problem that started two weeks ago might trace back to a system change or mean that it has compounded itself. Knowing whether it ever worked correctly is also useful in pinpointing the problem.
  • How often does the problem occur?
    Pattern and repetition are key in that they can point out exactly where in the process the problem occurred.

If you do on-site support, the “where” question is vital.

  • Where is the computer that is the problem?
    Is this their office machine, or a machine in a lab or other public area? This question also establishes if they are calling about their own computer or calling on someone else’s behalf.
  • Why
    Why questions are often the hardest to answer, and they are not always questions that should be asked of the caller. Many times, support consultants must ask the “why” question of themselves.

  • Why is this problem happening?
    While it is the responsibility of the help desk to determine why and solve the problem, it can be beneficial to ask callers, “Why do you think this happened?” Sometimes they will reveal information they may have left out.
    For the support consultant, “why” often leads to the next step in the problem-solving process, which is identifying potential causes and possible solutions.
  • How
    “How” questions commonly overlap “why” questions, but certain “how” questions need to be asked to ensure good customer service.

    • How soon does the problem need to be resolved?
      Part of defining the problem is determining priority. Be sure to obtain mutual agreement on this issue.
    • How did the problem happen? (This question is also known as “What were you doing when the problem occurred?”)
      While you are more likely to phrase this as a “what” question, it does clarify how the problem occurred and is a vital piece of information.
    • How can we work around the problem?
      If the solution is not apparent, is there a work-around available? The impact of the problem on the caller’s ability to do his or her job is critical in determining the problem’s severity level.
    • How else can I be of service?
      In this instance, “how” becomes a reminder of the basic courtesy necessary in good customer service.

    Let the call flow naturally
    When training the 5Ws and an H, emphasize that the call should not rigidly follow any order but evolve naturally in a conversational flow. After teaching each of the tips, consultants should practice the technique with typical call scenarios. It’s also a good idea to randomly review calls to make sure logging includes answers to the 5Ws and an H.

    The last step in the process of identifying the problem is to paraphrase the problem to make sure that the caller agrees with your assessment. The 5Ws and an H can be a terrific checklist for this part of the process. While there are other models for information gathering, this method has proven to be quick, reliable, and effective.

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