Don’t Forget to Hear Out the Customer

Have you ever met a person who does not know how to stop talking?

I recall being in a meeting with someone like that. It felt like the waves of words just kept coming and you couldn’t catch a breath. After a few attempts to be heard, everyone else tuned out. As we left the meeting, a few of us gathered around the corner. First, some bonding over the painful experience: “He sure likes the sound of his own voice”. Then we did the postmortem on the problem.  It turned into a real discussion that should have happened in the room.

I’m sure you can recognize the type. They talk a lot and don’t hesitate to talk over others. They are often loud and dominant, and it’s hard to get a word in. When they speak, they look happy, animated and in their own element. Often, they are completely oblivious to the body language around them and the temperature in the room.

How other people behave in their presence depends on their personality and level of influence. Some roll their eyes, some check out and stop paying attention, and some slam the door and leave. Unless there is another strong personality in the room that can stop the barrage of words and facilitate the conversation, the discussion does not really happen.

When we speak of business analysis competencies, we want to see the business analyst as the wise and seasoned facilitator who will manage the loudspeakers in the room and will ensure everyone is heard and has a chance to speak.

But what happens when it is the business analyst who loves the sound of their own voice?

When they constantly speak over other people? When they talk over the customer, and on behalf of the customer, never having listened to the customer in the first place?

A few things might happen. One is for sure: real analysis will not happen.

Subject matter experts might get frustrated and resort to passive resistance. They may stop sharing information, decline meetings or try to get out of the project.

An inexperienced project team member may be too timid to object or will assume that the business analyst knows everything, and their input is not required. They might let the business analyst single-handedly make a judgement on business needs and requirements without much dispute.

An experienced person who has worked with other business analysts before and recognizes this as unprofessional behaviour might request to replace the business analyst with someone who knows how to listen. This may work if the requestor has enough influence.

Otherwise, if the rest of the team really cares about the project, they will discuss and design the solution while shutting out the analyst incapable of listening.

In the worst-case scenario, the customers will sign off without an argument, and the development team will work to implement exactly what the business analyst has captured. Which may be completely useless, since it was a solution defined without discussion and without analysis. The blame will go around in circles.

Dear Business Analyst:

Your first task is to learn about business, its problems and needs. You don’t learn by talking, you learn by asking questions and listening.

The pre-requisite to business analysis is gathering information. You gather information from the sources by asking questions and listening.

Your next task is analyzing the information, comparing the inputs received from multiple sources, and reconciling the contradictions, to understand the underlying problems that need to be solved. You do that by asking questions, listening, hearing what is being said, and analyzing it.

Then, you must review the conclusions and validate the findings from business analysis. You do that through a discussion with those that provided you with the information and that experience the business problem or its consequences. It will require more asking questions and listening.

Talking, explaining and educating others have their time and place – make sure you do it when it is called for.

Discussing, brainstorming and disputing are part of the normal analysis process – when done in a collaborative way and leaving room for respectful disagreement.

Making proclamations and telling others what they are supposed to think should be reserved for theatre and political rallies.

If you really like the sound of your own voice, practice in front of the mirror how to make your sentences shorter, and how to ask smart open-ended questions.

By the way, “That’s right, isn’t it?” is not an open-ended question.

Hearing out the customer, learning about their business and understanding their problems are integral components of business analysis. Read more on nurturing your business analyst mindset in my book Business Analyst: a Profession and a Mindset.  

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