Never depend on the customer’s diagnosis

By Sam Brown, Master Samurai Tech/

The very first step in troubleshooting a broken appliance happens long before the tech sets foot in the customer’s home.

In fact, it can happen even before the tech knows about the service call. We’re talking about formulating a problem statement, and what I mean by that is very specific. A valid problem statement answers these two questions: “What is the appliance not doing that it should be doing?” and “What is the appliance doing that it shouldn’t be doing?” It doesn’t go beyond that — no speculations about underlying causes or parts to be replaced. Just a simple statement of what’s wrong with the appliance.

Why am I being so persnickety about this problem statement business? Because clear and precise troubleshooting starts with a clear and precise premise. Your problem statement is the foundation that all your subsequent troubleshooting is built upon. But the trick is getting this problem statement from a customer problem description, and as anyone who has worked as a customer service rep (CSR) knows, customer descriptions can be anything but clear and precise. 

There’s a skill to refining a customer’s description of the problem to a real problem statement, and it’s important for both techs and CSRs. In fact, the mark of a good CSR is the ability to guide a customer into giving the necessary details over the phone and to sort out what’s important from what’s not.

Let’s walk through some examples of what refining a customer’s description into a problem statement looks like. First up, a refrigerator:

The customer says, “The dispenser is dispensing too much water. The refrigerator is supposed to let you choose how much water to dispense. I’ve tried pushing the buttons on the interface that are supposed to adjust the water fill, but nothing changes.” The customer goes on to say that he’s an engineer and did this diagnosis himself. He knows that it must be the main control board and wants you to replace it.

Alright, that’s a bit to sort through. But remember our definition of a problem statement: “What is the appliance not doing that it should be doing?” and “What is the appliance doing that it shouldn’t be doing?” Let’s boil down this description to that.

First, discard any customer diagnoses. It doesn’t matter who the customer is or what their credentials are. They’re hiring your company to do this repair, so you’re going to use your own technical expertise to determine what repair needs to be done. So in the example above, we can just ignore the second half of the customer’s description.

As for the first half, while the customer is very focused on the water dispenser, that system seems to be doing its job. The thing that really seems to be amiss is the dispenser user interface (UI) since it’s not allowing the customer to change settings. So a good problem statement here would be: “Dispenser UI unresponsive.” Simple as that.

Let’s try one more. This time, it’s a double wall oven:

The customer says, “I tried baking some cookies in the upper oven, but they were still just dough when my timer went off. I tried again and the same thing happened. I had to bake them in the lower oven, which works fine, but I don’t like using it as much as the top one.”

The customer’s husband (a famous brain surgeon) says that this problem started after running convection speed cook. He says that the convection fan runs fine, but there must be a short in it that’s causing the problem. He also says that you shouldn’t come out unless you bring a new convection fan motor with you.

Boy, this brain surgeon sure sounds serious. Should we start studying the convection fan’s circuit and put a fan motor on order?

Of course not. Just like the first example, we’re ignoring any diagnoses we get from the customers. Moreover, it’s far too early in our troubleshooting process to identify specific parts that need to be replaced. We’ll get to that a few steps down the road, but right now, we’re just concerned about what’s wrong with the appliance. And based on that bit about the cookies, it seems pretty clear that our problem statement here is “No heat in the upper oven.” No need to speculate further.

Now that you know how to boil down a customer’s description to a real problem statement, you’ve learned the first step of troubleshooting any appliance problem. There are, in fact, nine more steps as part of what we call the “Troubleshooting Ten-Step Tango,” which we teach in our appliance repair courses at Master Samurai Tech. Click here to check out the Core Appliance Repair Training course and become a troubleshooting master. And be sure to use your BrandSource discount coupon, available in the Backroom, for 15% off your enrollment!

Sam Brown is “Professor of Appliance Repair Mastery” at BrandSource partner, an online training academy for appliance repair personnel, and is the administrator of its sister tech support site, For more information, email Sam at or call (603) 290-5516.

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