Answer the Question: Three Keys for Giving Effective Answers

Anyone who supervises staff or provides service to others experiences this problem

Let’s say you are the Church Plan Administrator for a 403(b)(9) or a 401(k) plan or you are in charge of staff at a church. An employee stands at your office door and asks a question. How do you chose to answer the question? How do you handle the potential staff training issue being raised?  Fortunately, or not, you have a series of options for how you answer the question and then a decision to make. What do you do and how do you do it? 

Or maybe you provide customer service to people, either in person or over the phone. A question is asked.  It could be a question that is asked repeatably by the same person, or by separate people with similar needs.   Is there an approach, a systematic approach, that works the best in answering these questions? The employee issue and the customer service issue are similar. Let's explore "best practices" when it comes to answering these kinds of questions. The new approach will save you time, and increase the value of your answers. 


Here Are Three Keys for Giving Effective Answers

1. Your systems 

2. Your answers

3. What you teach by your answers

Understand That Regardless of  How you Answer, You Are Using a System 

We know that Systems prompt action, and those actions result in producing a specific outcome, or behavior.  In other words: Systems = Outcomes.  (How we answer questions is a system)

So what is a system?

A system is a set of interacting or interrelated actions, or elements, that when understood as a whole lead to a specific action or result. ( The subsequent behavior of the person whose question is being answered)

Systems are useful. The way God created the world was certainly systematic; take for example, the human body. Our bodies are a complex set of interrelated systems. Within each of those systems, like the circulatory system, are subsets of systems, like the heart. The way systems are put together, determines the outcome for those interrelated systems. Interestingly, our behavior is governed by the systems modeled for us.,  taught to us, we learn by ourselves, or even the ones we learn to avoid.

But what if the systems we use do not produce intended, or even expected, results. Or more importantly, they produce the wrong results?

 For example, the story of the young married woman, preparing a meal that included a pot roast. As part of her preparation she “lopped” off the end of the roast, and put it in the oven. Her husband asked, “Why did you ‘lop’ off the end of the roast?”

She replied, “I don’t know, that is the way my mom always did it.”

So they went in the living room and asked her mom. Same answer, “I don’t know that is just how my mom taught me.”

They were now curious and called grandma. Her answer was the same.

Now a couple of weeks later they were visiting great grandma in ‘the home’ and they asked her. In a moment of mental clarity she answered emphatically, “Silly, it was because the pan was too small!”

The systems we are taught influence our behavior. They ultimately determine our outcomes, the actions taken as a result of the  question being asked.  In the case of the young woman and her roast, what if her pan was big enough for the roast? With her current recipe (system) the pan size didn’t matter. Her behavior (cutting off the end of the roast) was in response to a recipe she had been taught and not a logical conclusion to the given situation. Her system was broken. Or at least not functional.

The good news is that systems can be evaluated and  changed. What we are taught can be modified.  We can implement systems that produce a consistent better and more desirable outcome. Out systems lead to outcomes. Good systems lead to good outcomes. Poor or inefficient systems lead to less than desirable results. 

Are you being asked the same question over and over by your church staff? Does your ministry or organization come across the same roadblocks at every turn? It might be time to evaluate your system, the systenatuc way you deal with questions.

An excellent resource for organizational leaders is Systems: Liberating Your Organization by Andy Stanley.  Andy flushes these topics out even more and  his message is worthwhile sharing with your leadership team. 

Direct Answers Only Produce an Immediate Fix

Direct answers often prompt more questions, not less.

Recently I was at a seminar where one of the speakers was expounding on the unique characteristics of the millennial generation. One of their characteristics, he explained, is that they want to understand and verify everything. So, the streams of questions are never ending. If you are over 40, or 50 for sure, and guaranteed if you are over 60, this will drive you nuts. The older generations will interpret the incessant questioning as impertinent and bordering on the disrespectful. In other words, a direct answer should suffice and continued questioning only raises the frustration level.

Fortunately, a wise friend of mine shared that “they just want to know more, so be cool”.

I’m not exactly sure what “be cool” means but I guess it means I need to extend my patience level to new limits.

The purpose of understanding this key is: A direct answer to a question usually has the opposite result from what we intend. We intend to answer the question and stop the questioning. Usually it doesn’t work. It might work for the moment, but it really serves as an invitation to bring more questions to your door or phone. A direct answer is only a short term fix.

If direct answers do not work, what’s the other option?

Teaching Rather Than Telling Impacts Long Term Behavior

Let’s start with the old adage, “Giving a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime”. 

There is a firm, read Envoy, that had a service team of 10 people answering questions from retirement plan participants regarding their 403b, 403b9 church plan or401(k) retirement plans. There was an average of 150 incoming phone calls per day regarding investments, and retirement plan details that pertained to them. So, the firm had created a system and trained people to use it.

What was the system?

When you have a question, call and we will answer it.

When company leadership began a systems review, the number of incoming services calls being received popped out as being a never ending dark hole of questions and direct answers, followed by more questions. . It created the perception in the market place that retirement plans were complicated, confusing and the processes were unclear. This all happened because of the system, put in place by the firm. A system that promoted calls and promised answers. Rather than a system  that "helped" the caller solve their problem. Those two perspectives are quite different.

So, what was the answer?  Could there be another system that would reverse the trend, provide better service, and be more cost effective? One that actually solved the callers problem now, and for the future. 

Here is what Envoy did:

  1. Analyzed the calls to identify what questions were being asked over and over again.
  2. Determined that the caller generally only wanted to be able to get an answer quickly and on their time schedule. This was, most of the time, more important that speaking with a “live” person.
  3. Realized that the participant web portal was a great place to make information available if it was organized in a simple, easy to access manner.
  4. Developed clear answers to the top 50 questions retirement plan participant were asking, and organized them clearly and logically on the web portal.
  5. Trained the service staff to be “teachers” about “how to find answers” rather than “the person who just answers questions”.

What was the result? Pretty amazing.

  1. Our service team began getting rave reviews on the service surveys.
  2. The number of calls reduced over 6 months from that 150 per day to closer to 15-20.
  3. The service team was reduced significantly with the cost savings allocated to additional important systems and services
  4. The referrals for new business increased.

So what is the bottom line to this third key?

It is the application of the Christian principal of serving your neighbor. The legacy of “help” and "doing it well" is being carried out. In Envoy’s case, helping retirement plan participants who are working on the Future-Funded Ministry plan, as opposed to a retirement plan. Helping them by being an enabler instead of a “answerer" and an" encourager" rather than barrier to personal and financial growth.

There are hundreds of examples of this principal. Love to have you share one of yours. It will be an encouragement to others to remember and apply the principal: You help most by enabling others to be self-sufficient, by teaching them “How to fish”.

May all your systems be productive ones.

The results of the Faith-Based Retirement Plan Survey can serve as a guide for your retirement plan systems. It will answer your questions about what others are doing with their retirement plan and will equip you to guide your staff and employees toward their Future-Funded Ministry.