Today’s question comes from a UX designer who wishes to remain anonymous:

Q: Are there any typical questions you ask a client to identify their customers’ pain points, or is it impossible to standardise?

A: From a Customer Experience perspective, where there’s a failing or underperforming product or service causing the pain, there are definitely some standard, tried and true questions. I’ve asked these questions on almost every engagement I’ve ever had across two decades, so they hold true to any kind of organization. The key to identifying pain points isn’t necessarily asking stakeholders what they are. It’s more a matter of asking the right questions – some of which will seem indirect – whose answers will paint a picture for you of what’s happening. And that process of Q&A will also help your client clarify what’s happening in their own minds as well.

From startups to Fortune 100 organizations to Government, the “strategy” phase of any engagement I’ve taken on includes the following approach:

FIRST: Identify every stakeholder, even the less obvious parties, and make sure they have a seat at the table. Or that you speak with them individually.

In addition to wanting to know how what’s happening affects the business, you also need to know how it’s affecting each of those people – and their departments if it’s a large organization – individually. Who has decision-making authority, and who doesn’t? Who has the most to gain or lose? What happens to each person’s world if the project succeeds? If it fails?

Remember, success for one stakeholder may not be the same as success for another. And should those goals be diametrically opposed, you may find yourself caught in the middle of a political battle. And when that happens, you want to be absolutely sure you have the lay of the land so you know how lightly to tread, or, in some cases, whether you are fighting a losing battle that will only end in tragedy for all involved. I’ve been involved with a few of those. They last forever, and the mental and emotional stress lasts even longer.

NEXT: Ask the right questions.

The questions you ask, obviously, should be specific to the client’s business model, market, product, industry, etc. But there are more than a handful of questions that you should ask of every business stakeholder, every time. Here are the most important of those:

1. Who are your customers or users?

You want to get to know the people that use this product or service right now. What do they do with the product? What do they expect from it? Is their customer experience great or terrible? Are they complaining about it? You want to know if the organization can draw a straight line from any of those complaints to lost revenue, or to customers choosing a competitor over them.

2. What should the is product/service accomplish for the business?

How does each person in the room define success, and how will each person measure that success? The measurement part matters, because any goal that can’t be measured is probably also one that can’t be achieved. And even if it can, no one will know when that’s happened!

3. What’s the larger, big-picture business strategy?

No man is an island, and inside a business, no product or service is either. Among all the things the organization does, there will be multiple pieces that will impact what you’re doing. You need to know what those things are so that they don’t sneak up and derail you later. In heavily regulated industries, for example, changes to the law can have a profound effect on how data is collected, accessed, manipulated and stored. Whatever customer experience improvements you’re proposing have to be in line with those external constraints.

4. What technology or service delivery decisions are set in stone?

The existing parameters around technology have a profound impact in what you recommend or design or ultimately build. So you make sure IT is present and accounted for, and you ask this question up front. Every time. You want to know explicitly what can be changed and what will never be changed, for any reason. Otherwise you may be in for a big surprise in 3 months, part of which includes a very angry client who was looking to you to figure all this techie stuff out.

5. Why do customer choose you/use your product or service?

An obvious question, to be sure. But believe it or not, in the mad rush of day-to-day pressures, tasks and activities inside a corporation, it’s not often that people to step back to consider, well why do customers care about this? When you ask the question, it often prompts people to re-examine their preconceptions. I’ve been in rooms where after 40 minutes of what sounded like a solid list of reasons, the conversation devolves into twelve people thinking WOW…we thought we knew, but, er…ah…maybe we don’t know.

I also want you to notice how open-ended that question is. That’s purposeful. You’re purposely leaving a very large gap that the ensuing conversation will fill in. And in most cases, some incredibly important things will come to light.

These questions are where you start. Obviously you also want to ask about competitors who may be stealing their thunder, but that’s a deep well in and of itself. I can assure you that the things I’ve described above simply do not change. They’re universally relevant and appropriate.

Remember that as long as you’re asking questions, you’re on the right track. Keep things open-ended and let them paint he picture for you. Listen more than you speak. Don’t concern yourself with solutions; spend time making sure you understand the depth and breadth of the problem first.

I hope that’s helpful!

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