Don’t take their word for it

A few weeks ago, we needed some hardware fast. After some back and forth with the vendor, they promised “expedited delivery”. That sounded like a good thing, but it meant nothing.

To us, expedited delivery meant overnight delivery. That’s what we had in our head. Our experiences elsewhere equated expedited as overnight, but expedited isn’t overnight – it just means faster, prioritized, enhanced, sooner. But it doesn’t mean overnight. Expedited is relative, not absolute. If standard shipping takes 7 days, expedited could mean 5.

Of course, as you’ve probably guessed, the stuff we thought would come overnight didn’t come overnight. A harsh call the next day to the vendor ultimately got us the hardware overnight the next day, but we lost a day in the exchange.

What we had in front of us was an illusion of agreement. We thought a word meant one thing, the other side thought it meant something else, and neither of us assumed mismatched alignment on the definition. Of course we agreed on what expedited meant, because it was so obvious to each of us. Obviously wrong.

This happens all the time in product development. Someone explains something, you think it means one thing, the other person thinks it means something else, but the disagreement isn’t caught – or even suspected – so all goes as planned. Until it goes wrong and both sides look at each other unable to understand how the other side didn’t get it. “But I thought you…” “Oh? I thought you…” “No I meant this…” “Oh, I thought you meant that…”. That’s an illusion of agreement. We covered the topic in the “There’s Nothing Functional about a Functional Spec” essay in Getting Real.

We knew better, but we didn’t do better.

Next time you’re discussing something with someone — inside or outside your organization — and you find the outcome contingent upon a relative term or phrase, be sure to clarify it.

If they say expedited, you say “we need it tomorrow morning, October 3. Will we have it tomorrow, October 3?”. That forces them into a clear answer too. “Yes, you’ll have it tomorrow, October 3” or “No, we can’t do that” or whatever, but at least you’re funneling towards clarity. If they say “Yes, we’ll expedite it” you repeat “Will we have it tomorrow, October 3?” Set them up to give you a definitive, unambiguous answer.

And remember, while we now know that “expedited” is relative, “overnight” can be too depending on where someone’s shipping something from, what time zone they’re in, their own internal cutoffs for overnight shipping, etc. Get concrete, get it in writing, and get complete clarity. Slam the door shut on interpretation. Get definitive.

7 thoughts on “Don’t take their word for it

  1. In customer support I used to ask customers what they’re objective was. It would save time and sometimes I could think of a less painful path they could take to get the help that they needed.

  2. In this paragraph: “Next time you’re discussing something with someone — inside or outside your organization — and you find the outcome contingent upon a relative term or phrase, be sure to clarify it.”, column 60 there is an invalid character that is not properly translated to XML in the RSS, or that seem unsupported on some feed readers. Please fix it so that we can keep on following you !

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