It’s all in the question

These days I get quite a lot of emails from people asking general questions about Application Express, or have questions about a specific problem (ranging from installation issues through to some quite obscure, difficult to replicate situations).

Now, I do try and answer these questions as quickly as I can (which is a general rule I have with email, mainly because if I don’t respond as soon as I can then it tends to sink lower and lower into my inbox).

I have noticed over time that these questions tend to fall into two general categories –

  • The person takes the time to explain, in sufficient detail, exactly what the problem is and all the relevant pieces of information that might be related to the problem.
  • They don’t…they assume that somehow I magically know as much about their internal systems as they do.

In the first case, I’m often able to simply respond to their email with my thoughts and possible solution etc, in the second case it usually means lots of emails flying back and forth as I try and extract the extra information that I need.

However, just lately, I’ve noticed a new breed of question, the question without a question question.

As an example, I received this the other day:

We have installed apex and SSO and it isnt working

Seriously, that was it, that’s all the email said. So, is that a question? Is it just a statement? (Did they just want to let me know that it’s not working?). Is it APEX that isn’t working? Is it SSO (Single Sign On) that isn’t working? Do they both work independently but don’t co-operate together? Your guess is as good as mine.

Now I do of course make extra allowances when English is obviously not the persons first language, being English (and therefore genetically incapable of learning another language) I admire anyone who can speak/write another language, so this isn’t about whether they can phrase their question into good english, it’s about whether they even attempt to or not.

In the previous example, even though the sentence was extremely short, it was very good english and I was able to understand it (even though I didn’t understand what was being asked of me).

As a second example, I got an email from someone just a few weeks ago, who stated this:

Hello, we are looking at different technologies for our projects, including Application Express. Please advise on this.

Now what the heck am I being asked here? Am I being asked to advise on why they should use Application Express? (I know nothing about the project, so how can I reasonably say whether it’s a good idea or not?), or are they asking me to advise on whether I think it’s a good idea that they’re looking at different technologies? (Sure, it’s always a good idea to weigh up the options).

So, if I had to list the three things which make for a perfect ‘Help me’ type email for me, they would be –

  1. Problem – tell me in sufficient detail what you’re experiencing, how the problem manifests itself etc.
  2. Situation – give me enough information about your internal infrastructure, scenario, situation etc to be able to visualise the context in which the problem is occuring.
  3. And, most importantly –

  4. Resolution – be explicit about exactly what you want from me. Do you want me to solve a problem? Are you asking for my opinion on something? Do you want me to quote you a consultancy rate to do some work for you? What is it *exactly* you want from me?

Now, I’m in no way writing this blog entry to dissuade people from emailing me for help, because actually I do enjoy getting those emails since for one thing they’re a great way for *me* to learn new things too (I often find people using APEX features in ways that I don’t use them, or perhaps they’re using a feature that I thought I understood and I find out I didn’t really understand it, I just *thought* I did).

The point of this post, is to try and stress how important it is to be clear about what question you’re asking and what help you need, if you want a good example of exactly why that’s important, take a look at this:

dear miriam

As an addendum, I did actually email those two people and ask for their permission to show the emails here, but neither of them replied….perhaps I wasn’t clear about what I was asking for?

4 thoughts on “It’s all in the question

  1. Tim Hall

    Welcome to my world!

    I often think people come to me because they can’t be bother to fill out all the information in an SR on Metalink. Instead, they type a meaningless statement that requires you to have been in their office with them for the last 30 minutes to understand the context. Then, when you ask for more information they get shirty, or repeat the previous question with a few extra “Please” and “Urgent” exclamations for good measure.

    Cool wet grass, cool wet grass… 🙂




  2. Flavio

    John, your rant reminds me of one guy when i was a *really-big-italian-company* employee and this bloke was used to call a random number (in a set of 10-12) and say:

    I am Mr. X: the system sucks!

    So, imagine one at 8 in the morning who didn’t even know who the hell was Mr. X and where he was and what he might have been doing and received such calls. He didn’t even start the phrase with “Good morning”.
    But the amazing thing is that he was always saying the same sentence over and over, for years!!




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