|Don't ask to ask, just ask|
I have to learn more about this Dogen fellow. *smile*
Seriously, I think there is something very wise here. I'm not entirely certain I'll agree with the prevarication suggested, but I will wholeheartedly endorse the tact angle.
I've mentioned previously that I spent some time in phone support, 13 months. During that time, I held the various records: number of calls handled, lowest average time, longest call time (yes, contradictory), longest hours spent on the queue, and so on.
I quickly gained a reputation for providing terse, but technically accurate answers. I didn't quite understand this, because I had done my level best to develop the right answers to the most common questions and to document those in easy to deliver formats. Thus, I had faxes, emails, and other canned solutions ready to go. This was one reason why I was able to process so many calls so quickly.
Our callers would periodically tell management what they felt of our service, which led to a another "record" I held: most customer complaints. I didn't understand this. I was being reasonably polite. I was solving their problems and answering their questions using the most efficient means possible.
Fortunately, I had a patient manager who finally managed to get me to understand that a) I needed to take some time to myself (thereby reducing the personal frustration over those that didn't "get it."), and b) understand the call from the caller's point of view. Each call, he told me, was unique to the caller. Even if the subject was one I'd dealt with ad nauseam, it was important to treat each contact as a fresh start...because it was (generally) the first time the caller encountered the problem. If we had a solution, it was certainly the first time the caller encountered it. Each caller needed help over some portion of the learning curve and it was our job guide them for a few steps.
It took some time before I realized that what was efficient for (and crystal clear to) me was not entirely effective for the callers. Once I started to listen and to help callers take another step along that curve, my complaints went down. So did my other numbers, but the callers were happier. As far as my manager was concerned, that was far more important than hitting the quotas.
While others will argue it's enough to provide the barest information possible, I'm now of the opinion that it's equally important to take the time to consider the context of a question (a node, if you will) and the context of the poster/petitioner. You need both to provide the best answer for the post in question.
To illustrate, I participate in a certain set of newsgroups devoted to another programming environment and someone recently posted a pretty standard, though non-trivial question, one that couldn't be simply answered with a single paragraph response. Unfortunately, the proper answer depended on the details of the current implementation, which resulted in several exchanges involving requests for additional details. It was very frustrating for me because I kept asking very clear questions about what I needed, but kept getting inconclusive and incomplete responses. The poster finally emailed the details to me privately. Once I had that, it was trivial to write up and post the proper answer. to make it available to the broadest audience, I posted it publicly. Shortly after I did so, I had gained three replies (two via email) thanking me for the clarity of the post...from the lurkers.
Experienced netizens know that the newsgroups have a wider audience than the active posters. These folks read everything that goes on, attempting to learn as much as possible. They rarely post, however. We're writing (or rather should be writing) answers to an audience larger than one.
Also, online messages live on in time. Until recently, it was possible to find stuff I posted to certain newsgroups more than ten years ago. (Amazingly, that information is still relevant to some people.) Actually, some of the older work can be found in other places. That's a bit scary when you think about it.
The local point should be pretty obvious. Each reply responds to a specific question, yes, but it might also apply to future ones as well. If, by taking a moment to be nice to someone or to provide additional links for more details, we can help another reader along their Path (even unknowingly), does it not make sense to do so?
We cannot predict who will see our words in the future. Would it not be wise to ensure the record shows that we're not only knowledgeable, but helpful, understanding, and compassionate?
In practice, I sometimes provide the quick answer and sometimes I'll dig to get the correct answer. While this has meant that I've frequently written the same responses over and over (with the associated frustration), it's helped sharpen my responses, increase my understanding of the material in question, and refine my understanding of the way people respond to on-screen text.
Mantra for the month: "Neither courtesy nor sense are common; cultivate both."
Update: I wasn't entirely happy with the way this originally came out, so I've sharpened it a bit to more accurately reflect the points I wanted to make.