How to Keep “Geek Speak” Out of Client Conversations

Authors: Derrick Wlodarz

As a fellow technician, I know how difficult it can be to have a simplified discussion with customers about highly technical matters. What is bandwidth? Why do I need an x64 processor instead of an x86? How does more RAM actually make a computer faster? These are just a sample of the questions that get tossed my way every week. While I know very well how to tell another technician about these items, bringing the discussion down to the level of the average Joe is another matter.

People skills are tough to teach and that’s a known fact. Many computer repair business owners that I’ve spoken to have outright admitted that they will gladly hire a great people-person that has limited technical skills over an individual with a skillset that is flipped the other way around. My previous years in working IT support for a public high school has taught me that tech people (in general – I’m not saying all) have a hard time in remembering their audience in the line of support they are providing. This, in turn, creates an unwarranted bias against those providing tech support and what they represent.

While not every technical topic can be easily translated into “normal person speak,” a technician needs to make this a top priority in dealing with customers. While some customers will gladly stop you and ask for clarification, many people will merely nod their heads and give you blind agreement over the material being discussed. This not only does a disservice to the person receiving support, but is more often than not seen as condescending to the customer. Saturday Night Live had some excellent skits back in the day called “Nick Burns – Your Company’s Computer Guy” that played off this very facet (in a humorous way, I might add – check one video out for yourself.)

One of the reasons my company FireLogic receives so much praise is because of the people-first approach we take to providing service. I’m not going to lie and say that I’m perfect in this regard myself, but I do make every effort possible to watch over my lingo when consulting customers. It’s easy to get lost in technical acronyms and related geek speak when you are knowledgeable about the realm of computer repair, but remember that your customers are counting on YOU to act as curator and translator of their technical problems. They hire you as an expert in your field and expect to be treated as equals and not as subjects in a college classroom.

Here are the key things to keep in mind when having technical discussions with your own customers.

Use simple comparisons for easy context in technical explanations

This has to be my top tip for dealing with sticky scenarios that involve highly technical concepts that your customer just won’t otherwise comprehend. It merely involves using the simple and known to explain the unknown to customers in a logical manner. I’ve got plenty of examples in my bag of tricks, but here are some common comparisons I make to otherwise difficult technology questions and terms:

Question: Why is more RAM better for my PC?
Answer: Think of RAM as the number of hands your computer has. The more hands it has available, the more work it can get done at once, which translates simply into better real-life performance for your everyday tasks.

Question: Why should I use OpenDNS instead of the DNS my ISP offers?
Answer: DNS is like the yellow pages that your computer refers to anytime you want to visit a website. There are many flavors of yellow pages out there, but OpenDNS is safer because it’s like getting a phone directory that is already cleaned up to remove many of the bad and fake entries that otherwise exist. The cleaner your phone directory is, the safer your online experience will be.

Good car mechanics are skilled at the very same types of translations for their customers. And it wouldn’t be a misguided guess to believe that those mechanics which can relate tough topics to their customers with ease are the ones which will likely see repeat business and foster better (and more) referrals.  I’ve been practicing these kinds of discussions with my customers for years and can usually even come up with comparisons out of thin air. For some techs, this will take a lot of practice, but it will come easier as time goes on. I’m consistently praised for my ability to level with customers in light of previous technicians that simply talked down to them.

Skip the acronyms – unless a customer already knows them

Some of my customers already have knowledge of what DNS, RAM, and CPU stand for. However, unless I know for a fact that someone has already made it known to me that they are aware of an acronym, I won’t bring it up in discussion. Avoid it like the plague. A CPU can just as easily be called a processor; RAM can be equated just fine as memory; and a PSU will always be a simple power supply in the end.

You don’t have to prove to yourself that you have the knowledge of various acronyms, or worse yet, believe that you should be showing off to customers by whipping out acronyms. You may think that you are coming off as experienced and knowledgeable, but you’re going to build a trust gap with your customers more often than not.

One of my colleagues at FireLogic is the funny butt end of an ongoing inside joke due to his past usage of the acronym “API” with a crowd of bewildered entry level computer users at a volunteer training event we held. While it’s a funny rub for us as techs, it’s a prime example that geek speak has its place. And that place is a technician’s lunch break, away from customers.

Use the “lowest common denominator” skill of technical conversation

This piece of advice should be the easiest way to keep geek speak to a minimum. If you’re prone to bringing out the Einstein when you talk to customers, perhaps it’s best to merely assume by default that each customer is unbeknownst to a technical topic unless you either have previous experience with them or they blatantly prove otherwise during discussion. There’s no way to otherwise go astray in your conversation if you treat each customer as a “newbie” and steer clear of the acronyms techs love to throw around.

This is personally how I keep myself in check. I put on the mental brakes that allow me to think twice before conversing about a particular topic that may be above their heads. It’s too easy to otherwise ramble on and get exposed to the inevitable “mental slip” that occurs when we get too technical and don’t even realize it. If you treat each customer under the assumption that they need an explanation, you can catch yourself before the geek speak hits. The worst that can happen is someone will merely cue you in as to their comfort level with the topic at hand, and you can then let your guard down.

Written communication is not exempt

It pains me when technicians that otherwise have excellent verbal communication skills with customers let themselves blabber in tech speak in their invoicing or emails. Your written word is in some cases more critical than the spoken tongue because first and foremost, you generally can’t take back documented record! Whether it be a mailed invoice or a sent email, the “undo” button generally doesn’t exist.

It’s easy to let tech speak fill an email without thinking twice because many people naturally don’t keep mental check of what they write. It’s almost an innate blindness towards realizing what was said as a sentence rolls onward. I get caught in this conundrum many times over when I write articles, and hence why I always proofread my writing for clarity before they get posted. The same guidance should apply to all written communication you have with a customer. Keep it concise; keep out the acronyms; and don’t think that just because you write it they will read it. Customers can have selective reading and exercise that skill quite well.

Poor customer communication can have as much damage on your growing business as inadequate technical work. It breeds mistrust and it tends to foster a growing perception gap between a client and a technician. Using the above guidelines that I practice and enforce at my company FireLogic can be good ways to improve the approach you take with your own customers. You don’t need to be an English major to follow some simple techniques that can ultimately make a great technician an even better communicator.

How do you approach working with customers when it comes to technical lingo? What has worked for you, and what hasn’t? Let us know in the comments section below!

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