The hidden barrier – Communication between experts and laymen


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Working as a freelancer in support, I receive a lot of customer requests each day. Recently, one of the more common enquiries popped up in my helpdesk inbox. It had been sent by a client who had just bought a new domain, now wanted to set up a website. For that question, we have a canned reply which gives an in-depth answer on how to activate your own web presence using a custom domain name. I selected the reply, added a personal sentence and sent the email. Case closed. 

At least, that’s what I thought.

A couple of minutes later, a reply arrived. “Thank you so much for the information”, the customer wrote, “but it’s all gobbledygook to me. I’m not even sure what I have just bought. Can I get a refund?” 

Obviously, that case wasn’t closed at all. I had sent out the very same information countless times before and customers were happy with it. So what happened? There’s one barrier which I didn’t take into account. If misjudged, it prevents successful communication between client and support staff: the level of knowledge.

Newbs and Pros and everything else

Every single customer is different. It’s part of what makes support exciting, right? Unfortunately, this diversity also has its downsides. Especially if you’re not talking face to face, but are using chats or email, you lose information. There’s no body language, for example a frown that could show you something hasn’t been understood. In asynchronous conversations, interposed questions are impossible. On top of that, there’s almost no way to tell in advance if a person has knowledge in a certain field or not. 

The hidden barrier

That’s the obstacle between company and customer. As a support team member, you usually know the goods or services which the business sells by heart. You’re aware of all the rules, the bugs and the special vocabulary of the commercial sector. None of that necessarily applies to the person contacting you. Of course, there’s a chance that they know their way around just like you because they have been a customer for years. But they may as well be brand new and don’t have the slightest idea of how your business works, what you’re selling, what you’re talking about.

Tear down this wall

If we’re talking about a “level of knowledge”, that’s actually a pretty nice picture. Usually, the support person will have a very high level, they are standing on top of the figurative mountain of know-how.  The customer, on the other hand, will either be way down, where the summit can barely be seen. Or they will be standing somewhere on the steep way that leads up. In any case, do them a favor: adjust your communication so you can meet them at their level. It will not always work, but there are a couple of tips that will help.

Watch out for keywords

Earlier, I mentioned the special vocabulary which every business sector has. A strong indicator for keeping technical terms to a minimum is how the customer uses them. For example, I’m supporting a domain registrar. If a client tells me that their Internet is broken, but they are actually referring to their domain, I’ll do my best to keep my information as simple as possible. Whereas, if I receive a message, asking me to split the DKIM key because it exceeds the 255-character limit, this customer isn’t working with a domain for the first time. If you’re not sure about the level of knowledge that your conversational partner has: better choose the simple answer. The worst that could happen is that they will let you know they are not beginners. It’s still better than overstraining somebody with little experience. 

Check the history

Over time, you get to know your clients. You learn about the things they like, what makes them angry and what is needed to give them a good customer experience. If you have the chance, always check previous conversations. It will tell you a lot about the level of knowledge that this customer has. Have they sent the same question previously? Then maybe the information provided did not do the trick. What were earlier cases about? Did they handle basic issues that could easily be looked up in the FAQ or did the client ask questions about rare edge cases? There’s a lot of information which can be found between the lines. If you use it, you can easily go the extra mile to meet the client at their level of knowledge. 

Make them stronger

The services which I provide support for mostly are complicated at first sight. In IT, there’s an awful amount of buzzwords, new technologies and on top of it all the fuzzy idea that you can do everything in the Internet. That leads at least some customers to strange expectations. Let’s be honest: do you REALLY know how your mobile works? Or do  you only have a vague assumption? In most cases, this very assumption will be enough because you don’t NEED to know. The phone will function just fine without you figuring out how it does it. Yet, there are cases in which you have to make sure your customers are on the same page with you. Help them by providing the information needed, in an easily accessible way. Set up some kind of online vocabulary that explains the technical terms. Use FAQ which provide knowledge on a basic level. Create manuals and user guides. It will enable your clients to extend their know-how and also is a great way to reduce support requests.

Meet me halfway

If we go back to the “gobbledygook” example which I gave you earlier, it turned into a very nice conversation in the end. I apologized for the inconvenience and actually sent another canned reply which I created especially for clients with little experience. That did the trick. The customer was able to follow the instructions and even set up things on his own. In turn, he let me know that he was, in fact, pretty proud to have done the “technical Internet stuff” on his own. Once you write your next support message, make sure to meet your recipient halfway. It’s nice there!

Stefanie Winkelmann
I have a background in web development and have studied communication and media studies. I'm a support professional and content writer helping startups and small businesses to do outstanding customer support.


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