Friday, 12 August 2011

Stupid questions

When it’s your money at stake there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

I’ve made a career out of asking stupid questions and I’m proud of it. OK, perhaps they weren’t all utterly stupid but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been with a customer and I’ve started a conversation with something like “This might sound like a stupid question, but…” or “Forgive my ignorance, but why…”.

I confess that at times this was the polite version. What I really wanted to say was “What particular brand of barking insanity prompted you to do something that bizarre?” or “Which sharp-suited, over-paid, and under-brained consultant told you that this would be a good idea?

Or perhaps just “Had you been drinking or smoking something illegal when you decided that?

Last week we had a very angry email from a customer from a large motor dealership in Gaborone. She was upset that after she’d taken her brand new car in for it’s first service, she was presented with a bill for the work. But what about the motor plan, she asked, I thought that would cover all these things?

No, the dealer said, that vehicle doesn’t come with a motor plan. But, she said, nobody told me that. Then the argument went into one of those I said this, you said that arguments which nobody can ever win. Unfortunately for everyone this was made more difficult because the salesman who originally sold her the car has since moved on to another job and can’t be traced. However, the fact remains that the entry-level car she bought simply doesn’t come with a motor plan as standard. Instead it’s something she would (or should) have been told will cost an extra P13,000.

Regardless of whether you think this is the way things should be, it’s how things are. I’ve spoken to the MD of the dealership and he says that’s how this particular manufacturer likes to do things with the entry level models. It’s normal practice.

What he’s suggested is that she could come and see him, have a cup of tea, he’ll explain how it all works and I’m sure something will be sorted out to make her a little bit happier.

The lesson, of course, is that she should have asked that question before signing on the dotted line. It’s certainly one of the most important questions you should ask when buying a new, or even a fairly new second-hand car. “Tell me about the motor plan” or “Tell me about the warranty” or even “What will happen to me if the car breaks down?” Remember that no matter how stupid you might feel asking what you think might be a dumb question, it’s not as dumb as finding out a few months later that you’re screwed.

Another approach if you’re not an expert on cars is the old idea of taking a friend with you. We all know someone who knows more about a certain topic than we do. It might be cars, computers or cellphones, we all have a knowledgeable friend, neighbour or relative who could help out. Someone who can ask the right questions on your behalf. Someone who can translate any technical talk that you don’t understand. Someone who can stand next to you while the flashy salesman is talking techie talk and whisper in your ear “He’s lying”.

If, for some reason, you can’t find a helpful expert then please don’t be afraid to appear stupid. Be honest with the salesman and explain that you know nothing about cars (or computers or cellphones). However, rather than let him exploit your self-confessed ignorance, make a point of very obviously writing things down. Say things like “One moment, let me write that down” and then do exactly that. You can rest assured that what they say will be perfectly correct. Finish off by asking a question like “What else is there that I should know?” Then write it down when he says “Nothing”.

The challenge is that we all like to give the impression that we’re capable and know things. However it’s a sign of maturity to acknowledge that while you are a genuinely intelligent, aware and knowledgeable human being, you don’t know everything. The mature thing is actually to say to a salesman, or indeed anyone else, your boss, your staff, your bank manager or your lawyer, “I’m sorry, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

It takes a bit of courage the first few times you do it but eventually you’ll become adept at asking these questions, you’ll develop enough confidence to say to someone trying to blind you with their obscure knowledge that they should cut it out and talk in plain language.

Who knows, you might even then feel confident enough to say things like “Have you any evidence for that claim?” or if you feel like being brutal, “Prove that!

Of course the effect of these questions on the person trying to sell you something, or trying to confuse you, is that suddenly they’ll realise they’re dealing with a challenging customer, someone who isn’t that easy to confuse.

I suppose that in fact there’s only one genuinely stupid question you can ever ask. It’s the one you’ll ask yourself when things go wrong. It’ll be “Why didn’t I ask questions earlier?

No comments: