Saturday, September 28, 2013

The "Four Candles" guide to customer dialogue

When I was talking this week with another tester about how comedy can be an aid in learning, I immediately thought to the sketch below.  It was voted one of the funniest sketches of all time in a British poll, but I don't believe it's travelled well outside the country.

So I bring to you, The Two Ronnies in Four Candles ...

It's a great piece of comedy, but what has this got to do with building software?  A lot more than you would believe.

At it's heart, Four Candles is a comedy about miscommunication.  There are two perspectives to this sketch, either it's about a customer who comes into a hardware shop with a list of things that he clearly want, and finds himself increasingly bemused by a somewhat surely and agitated shopkeeper.  Or it's about a shopkeeper who finds himself frustrated by a customer who seems to be trying to be deliberately difficult, and evading any attempt to be specific.

Both points of view have some justification.

Of course within the world of software, this is where we have some empathy to this scenario.  How often have we either been supplying software to a customer, or else sending work outside of our organisation.  There is always a spectre of "how much information to supply", and no matter how much information you give or get, there is a potential for misinterpretation.  Which means software delivered which doesn't match someone's expectations of it.

This was one reason (in the early 2000s) I was pretty sure that outsourced work and distributed teams just could not work.  When everyone was located in a single office block (as my projects at the time were) when requirements were delivered in phone book sized monuments - even then I'd seen the potential for communication to fail, and what was being delivered to be less than ideal.

In our software delivery groups, we probably have more empathy with the shopkeeper than with the customer in the scenario above.  He's doing his best to deal with his customer, but he feels the customer isn't really helping him.

After being caught out over the "four candles" really being a request for "fork handles", the shopkeeper realises he'll need to ask for more information.  So when asked about "plugs", he asks for more information "what kind?", and is told "rubber, bathroom".  So he finds his box of sink plugs and asks for a size to be told he needs to supply a "13 amp" one ... that is an electrical one.

It goes on this way (hilariously), and the shopkeeper tries various tactics to try and get more information out of his customer, and thus evade a lot of needless effort (such as going up a stepladder to get a box for the wrong thing).

In the end, the shopkeeper tries to break the cycle, by asking for the list, because as it is, this is just not working, and he's becoming increasingly frustrated.  Reading through the list, he sees something, and decides at this point that it's time to walk away, and gets someone else to deal with his customer.  It turns out the item that caused the shopkeeper to decide to break the cycle was a request for "bill hooks" (bollocks - a UK swearword).

Getting out of customers what they really want is a tricky business.  But it's important though, you want happy customers, because generally happy customers equals successful business.  But also you want to save yourself wasted time when you can.  We've all been the shopkeeper who feels frustrated going back to get the box of letters from the top shelf for the "Ps".  And the customer trying to give clarification by just "repeating their ambiguous original request" doesn't help.

Like the shopkeeper we should try different tactics (clarification, getting the list from the customer etc) to try and break through the frustration.  But if we can't break through and make progress, as frustrating as it is, we have to be prepared to walk away and let someone else try.


  1. Great simile TestSheep! I see our POs asking developers for "fork handles" and vice versa every day, in the way that ones use the language of the business and the others a technical obscure one. We have done a lot of work to try to explain each others language better and we also have tried to use a common ubiquitous language. Everything works, as long as each team member has the courage of asking, w00t?
    I like how the customer and the shopkeeper in the video mitigate the issue with fast feedback, in fact when the shopkeeper shows the customer the "fork handles/four candles" the customer is able to explain it's not what he wants. Imagine if the shopkeeper showed all the items to the customer in one go at the end in a waterfall style! Panic... :-)

    One similar example that happened to me in work was when a product owner told me we needed to implement "dead heat reduction" to golf tournaments results. I was kind of puzzled and initially imagined he wanted a fan for the golfers playing in hot and humid conditions, then I simply looked her in the eye and said "w00t?". She explained it to me and I was glad I didn't start building a cooling system for golfers :-)

    Excellent post and great read, thank you

    1. Interesting - I too thought about the nature of the "iterative feedback" and how in Waterfall, the customer would only fine out at the end that they'd been given,
      * 4 candles
      * bath sink plug
      * ointment
      * a hoe
      * the letter P
      * pneumatic pump

      When they expected,
      * a fork handle
      * 13 amp plug
      * saw tips
      * letter O
      * tin of peas
      * brown pumps size 9

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. At the store I used to work at, we had a reward card that would we would put into a machine to be rewritten with the customer's updated reward balance.
    One day a customer came up, pointed at the card and said, 'what does this mean?'
    I started to explain the general reward system, how the points accumulated and how many points were needed to...
    He interrupted me. 'No, what do these numbers mean?'
    Having received this clarification, I told him that this was his reward balance, and that he would need a certain number more points to receive...
    He interrupted me again and said impatiently, 'am I going to have to talk to someone else?'
    'Yes,' I said, and turned back to whatever I was doing. And he turned to another staff member and told a long story about how he'd acquired enough points to receive a reward, then bought another thing without using the reward, but for some reason the reward was no longer showing on his card. Something I couldn't possibly have understood from the information he gave me.
    I sometimes wonder if he ever realised it was his own lack of clarity that was responsible for my apparent lack of usefulness, or if he genuinely thought the other staff member was more useful than me.
    In the Ronnies sketch, the second salesperson seems more useful than the first, but only because the first lost his patience.

  3. Thanks for the reminder of this story - I have to remember to use it when I am explaining the idea of clarification.