You’re reading hot dogs and eggs, a blog by Chris Gallo since 2014.

Circle of Competence

This post will take you about 3 minutes to read.

One of the main reasons why I enjoy working in customer support is it bring purpose to my work. It’s clear how you’re contributing to a business.

For example, when supporting customers that are using software built by your business, you’ll receive lots of questions. These questions have different flavors.

As someone that works in support, it’s your job to have these answers. It’s simple. You get a question and you answer it.

But what if you don’t know the answer?

When a bee finds nectar, it comes back and does a little dance that tells the rest of the hive, as a matter of genetic programming, which direction to go and how far. So about forty or fifty years ago, some clever scientist stuck the nectar straight up.

Well, the nectar’s never straight up in the ordinary life of a bee. The nectar’s out. So the bee finds the nectar and returns to the hive. But it doesn’t have the genetic programming to do a dance that says straight up. So what does it do?

Well, if it were like Jack Welch, it would just sit there. But what it actually does is to dance this incoherent dance that gums things up.

Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack

Organizations try to measure all sorts of things in support. This is tough because it involves lots of nuance. Support isn’t black and white. It’s colorful.

There are metrics like first response time and resolution time. Support teams strive to reply within minutes. They’re striving to reach inbox zero. And this is the wrong mentality.

A fast answer is great, but guess what’s even better.

A complete and competent answer.

When you don’t know the answer to something, and reply right away to a customer, it’s obvious you’re not confident to everyone except yourself.

This is a bad experience. For you, the customer, and your business.

You’re faking it.

Munger, continued his story about the bee:

And a lot of people are like that bee. They attempt to answer a question like that. And that is a huge mistake. Nobody expects you to know everything about everything. I try to get rid of people who always confidently answer questions about which they don’t have any real knowledge. To me, they’re like the bee dancing its incoherent dance. They’re just screwing up the hive.

Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack

I’ve been burned a lot trying to answer support questions outside of my circle of competence. I don’t know the answer, and I’m impatient, so I try a response on to see how it works out.

And it often doesn’t. It screws up the hive.

This is a hard lesson to learn, however, it’s an important one.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

You’re not supposed to know everything. And that’s normal.

Instead of rushing to reply, try reproducing errors or questions from customers. Use your own product, and attempt to put yourself in their shoes.

Ask questions.

Ask your team to explain things to you.

Ask the customer for information.

Ask yourself what are the possible answers or reasons why someone is having trouble.

Wait. Be patient. And establish your circle of competence.

Don’t screw up the hive.