Speak Your Customer’s Language

Great customer experience is great communication

At its heart, every great customer experience is a form of communication.

Many of us make the mistake of speaking in our language, not our customer’s language.  I don’t mean we speak in French when the customer speaks Spanish, or Klingon when the customer only speaks Bocce.  I mean that we speak in the specialized vocabulary unique to our profession, and sometimes we forget that our life isn’t the customer’s life.

This is especially true in technical fields like my own; we programmers just love technical jargon.  We can throw acronyms around so quickly that it’s amazing someone’s eye doesn’t get put out. We make words up: “That system is totally borked.”  We slip in sly science fiction references or use phrases from our own culture that nobody else in the world knows or cares about. Every industry has its own language, but that language isn’t necessarily the customer’s language.

Failing to communicate in the customer’s language confuses and abuses the customer.  It can make the customer feel powerless, stupid, or embarrassed.  Humiliating your customer is a bad move; at best it might generate an angry, defensive response, and at worst it makes the customer slip away, never to return.  After all, who chooses to be humiliated a second time?

Speaking the customer’s language is challenging, but vitally important.  You must go to extra lengths to understand how your customer communicates, and then adapt your organization’s concepts and jargon to the customer’s needs.  This is true during all of your interactions with a customer, but becomes extra urgent when things go south.

Speak your customer’s language in a crisis

In every challenging situation, I recommend you do these four things for your customer:

  • Explain what happened in the customer’s language.  Rather than saying “Your SSD ran out of rewriteable blocks and started losing bits,” explain: “This type of hard drive wears out over time.”
  • Explain the consequences of the event in the customer’s terms. “As the hard drive started to fail it took down some of the files that make up Windows with it, so that’s why your computer won’t boot.  However, we think we can recover most of your data.  If you have a backup, we can recover data from that as well.”
  • Explain what the customer can do about the situation.  “A replacement for your drive will cost $150; if you want to go ahead with that we can replace it right away.  If you aren’t making regular backups, we can help you get those set up too, so that you don’t lose any data if something like this happens again.”
  • Confirm the customer’s understanding of the situation.  People don’t like to appear stupid, so sometimes it takes a little gentle coaxing to confirm that they understand what’s going on.  “Did I explain that clearly? Do you have any questions for me?”  Close attention to body language will help you determine whether they truly understand, or whether they’re just being polite and trying to mask their confusion.

Adapting your communication style to that of your customer is work, and sometimes it’s hard work.  In the end, however, it’s essential.  Without great communication, there can be no great customer experience.


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