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Communicating with Customers Who Don’t Understand You

iStock_000011840676XSmallIndustry-specific terms come as second-nature to people who use them all the time, but to outsiders – including our customers, they can seem like a totally foreign language.

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is a 1970’s comedy show called “Fawlty Towers”.

Starring John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, the show is all about a hotel run by Basil Fawlty (Cleese) and his wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales). One of the long-running gags in the show (if anything can be called long-running when only 12 episodes were made) is the communication difficulties between Mr. Fawlty and their Spanish waiter, Manuel (brilliantly played by Andrew Sachs).

What is most striking, even though the situations and conversations were fictional, is how the biggest misunderstandings came when Mr. Fawlty tried to simplify his instructions to the language-challenged waiter and, in fact, succeeded only in making his requests harder to understand.

Watching the video above, I see their conversation mirroring that of a conversation between a professional and their client. Be it a car mechanic, I.T. support person, doctor or even (for the uninitiated like me) a barista, understanding and interpreting what sounds like a foreign language because of all the technical terms can be a nightmare for the rest of us, and it’s rarely helped by them trying to ‘simplify’ what they’re saying.

I am very fortunate to have both a doctor and a dentist who are very good at explaining what is wrong with me, what their recommended treatment is and how it will work. Both are happy to draw diagrams or use models to show me clearly what they are talking about – but many such professionals are not as able to clearly explain.

How to Talk to Your Customers

My experience both as a layman and, at times, an IT support specialist has shown me that there are two ways to satisfactorily communicate with people who don’t have the same expertise you have:

  1. Be vague to the point of not even actually talking about the issue
  2. Use a real-world analogy or a visual prop to help the listener understand.

Being vague can be very annoying to the customer, so you have to measure their response and their apparent level of understanding, but particularly when working in the web hosting industry, I cherished the moments when I would fix an issue for someone and they’d be happy with the explanation, “It just got its knickers in a twist”. I didn’t have to use (and then explain) any technical terms and the customer, while none-the-wiser about what actually happened, had an explanation they could grasp.

My answer was vague but people very often found it satisfactory – and that’s all that mattered.

If that wasn’t enough though, I tried to use analogies like the one I used in my book, Web Hosting For Dummies, where I likened a website to a store in a shopping mall. Many people think they can’t understand internet technologies like FTP, but when I liken FTP to a delivery truck pulling up to a loading dock, everyone can understand that, and it helps them to get an easy grasp on something that otherwise can seem confusingly technical.

Educate them to Understand

The single biggest tool you can use to help your customers understand you, though, is education.

Expecting your customers to know everything you know is foolish – and besides, if they knew everything that you know, they wouldn’t need you!

Instead, it’s your responsibility to teach them what they need to know, in a way they can understand, so that you can effectively communicate with them. If you don’t, someone else will – and then your customers will become THEIR customers!

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Written By: PeterP
On: September 5th, 2013
See More In: Technology
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One Response to Communicating with Customers Who Don’t Understand You

  1. Pingback: Why Clear Communication is Key |

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