Speaking Your Customer’s Language.

Back when I was a wee lad serving in the US Air Force as a meteorologist, a common part of my job was delivering Flight Weather Briefings to pilots – letting them know what to expect weather-wise on their planned flight path. It was easy enough: look at the flight path, use weather tools and models to predict the weather, and deliver the forecast to the pilot. 

One specific forecast experience early-on clued me in to something important. A pilot called looking for a flight briefing, which I was happy to oblige. I dug in to the material, putting together a flawless forecast. Getting back on the phone with the pilot, I began my regular spiel – something like this : “Sir, the convective condensation level hovers around 850 millibars, while an occluded front moves quickly ahead of a low-pressure baroclinic leaf. Meanwhile, density altitude fluctuates in the middle latitudes…”

He cut me off. “Stop, stop, stop.” The pilot basically said this: “I appreciate that you dug up all this information, but I don’t understand any of that. Please just tell me what I need to know.”

I was slightly flustered before it clicked: Ah. Of course. I was hitting the pilot with a huge amount of jargon that provided no value. I was talking to the pilot as if I was speaking to a co-worker; but he was my customer, and most meteorological terms meant nothing to him. I gave him a simple weather explanation that I knew he’d understand: “Storming here, high winds there, freezing level here. Any questions?” He understood and went on his merry way.

Talking like that had been pretty normal for me up to that point in the job. How many other pilots had I confused with my weather nonsense before that pilot spoke up? Probably far too many.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: Talk to your customers in their own language. When skilled technicians communicate with their customers, they need speak in terms that convey something useful and meaningful – and not in technical jargon.

I had to relearn that lesson recently, now as a Desktop Support analyst. As I did some work at a client site, a user asked me to set up his desktop computer with a nearby network printer. As I looked into it, I ran into some trouble – the printer didn’t seem like it wanted to connect. I eventually determined that the printer would only be usable from the PC when the user logged into a specific remote desktop server. The user wasn’t around at the time, so I waited until he returned.

He found me later as I worked on a second issue, asking me for an update. Being a little preoccupied, I answered without fully thinking – something like this: “Well, the printer won’t connect to your PC because of infrastructure changes to the network. But I can put a remote desktop connection on your machine that will log you in to the remote server and allow permissions to access….”

As I spoke, it started to dawn on me that I was absentmindedly babbling in jargon. I could see the befuddled look on the user’s face, further indicating that I was no longer speaking his language. I took a breath, turned to face him directly, and said something like this: “I can make the printer work. I just need to put something on your computer, which I’ll show you in a moment.”

He nodded with a smile. Much better. This was an answer he understood. We handled the issue within minutes and he was able to go about his business.

As a skilled technician, it can be tempting to bust out complicated terms to explain issues. For starters, it makes you feel like a genius. But also, it makes sense to you. The complicated explanation theoretically explains more. Why not use it?

You don’t use the complicated explanation for the same reason your doctor doesn’t explain every little physiological detail just to tell you that you have a cold. When you speak with a customer, remember that it’s about them– not you. You need to communicate in way that is meaningful and productive for their purposes.

This is a common problem among technicians. Don’t be just another unintelligible techie to your customers. Be the techie they can count on to give them information they can use. Make good communication an integral part of your service experience and place yourself ahead of the curve!

Categories: The IT Philosopher

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