Getting technical people to offer insight and advice can range from simple to vexing. Following a recent purchase of an unusual type of spectrometer we found ourselves in need of advice regarding consumables and sample preparation. Going into this installation I believed, naively, that our set up to operate the new instrument would be eased by patient advice from the seller.  I was mistaken.

I could whine on about deficiencies in this or that, but instead I’ll get to my point. Consider the following exchange-

Q:  What sort of electrode should we use to run this mineral sample?

A:  Well, that depends.

Q:  It depends upon what?

A:  Well, it depends on the type of matrix you have and the concentration of the desired metals.

Q:  How do we decide on what kind of electrode to use?

A:  We do not have experience with that element or that matrix. And there are many kinds of graphite widgets, many for specific uses. The widget company did not return your email because they are small and would prefer to talk to their customers.

Q:  So, how do we get started?

A:  You’ll have to prepare bracketing calibration standards that match your matrix as closely as possible.

Q:  What can you tell us about buying or the preparation of calibration standards? Are there any special materials we can use as diluents or any preferred methods?

A:  There are no manufacturers of these solid calibration standards anymore. We bought out the inventory of the last one.

Q:  So we can compound our own standards at concentrations close to the spec of the inventory you hoarded bought out?

A:  Well, yes, I suppose. It depends on your capabilities ….

And on it went.  Eventually we extracted the information we needed and are moving forward.

Here is my point. Everything “depends”.  A little louder.  EVERYTHING DEPENDS. For crying out loud!  This is one of the fundamental theorems of life. We technical people have to get past this barrier when a questioner asks for help.

A few sentences of advice-

On the assumption that everything depends, offer a hint to the questioner in the form of a range of possibilities. Open with insightful examples or a recitation of common practices. Do not sit there, Sphinx-like, while the questioner sputters and struggles with finding the best questions. Offer some guidance by way of general performance boundaries.

The technical service folks we spoke with were very much in the quandary of Buridan’s Ass. In this fable, a donkey was in between two identically appealing piles of hay. In the end he starved to death because there was no good reason to pick one over the other.

In the case of the tech service folks, one pile of hay was to offer zero advice and make no errors. The other pile of hay was to offer frank advice and satisfy the customer. Having been in this position, I know that offering advice has it’s appeal, but it may be fraught with liability. Telling people how to run their equipment can have negative consequences- thus the reluctance to speak. But sellers are there to service their customers. They should use words and pictures to help their customers get started.