Don't Overestimate the Tech Savvy of Your Clients

techsavvyMost of us don’t just work on the web, we kind of live on it too. And our virtual neighbors are people who speak our language. But you must not forget that people like us are still the minority, even in places that have universal Internet access like the U.S. and Europe.

We’re often called on to be more than service providers. Sometimes we also have to educate our clients, and even be ambassadors of the worlds of technology and the Internet.

There Are More of Them Than There Are of Us

First example: I launched and manage a social network. On the signup form, one of the required fields is “Tags.” As it turns out, this field is so daunting to some people that they abandon registration at that point. And the question that comes in to customer support the most often — by far — is “What are tags?” (I’ll be making that field optional!)

Second example: I recently met an author who wanted to use a chunk of text from a blog post that someone had emailed him, without including the source. He tried to find the source online so he could cite it, but couldn’t. He didn’t know about putting quotes around text when using a search engine.

Final example, just to point out that it’s not necessarily a generational thing: There is a couple in my building, aspiring fashion photographers in their late 20s. I said something to one of them about Twitter, and he said “What’s Twitter?” These two could really use an online portfolio to show off their work, and they might contact you some day.

The moral of the story is that your clients may have close to zero understanding of things you and I take for granted. So we have to walk a fine line. Here are just a few things to keep in mind:

  • Watch your language. You undoubtedly want to dazzle your client with your mastery of your field, but my advice is keep it simple. Avoid the temptation to toss around buzzwords and acronyms. I mean, who would have thought that the word “tag” could be so scary? A lot of people are still using the web for email and Amazon, and that’s about it. People like this, who could end up being your clients, will run screaming from the word “algorithm.”
  • Avoid “yes or no” questions. If you ask “Do you know what a CMS is?” and your client has to say “No,” she’ll feel embarrassed. Formulate your questions in such a way that you will, at the same time, give the client some good info and confidence in your expertise, get some useful information from the client as well as a sense of her level of understanding, and avoid making her feel uninformed. For example: “I think a content management system would make sense for your project. It would make it easier for you to do A, B and C. Can you tell me how you’ve handled A, B and C in the past?”
  • Tell them only what they need to know. I’m not suggesting that you keep your clients in the dark. Just that you should not bombard them with information at the start. Address the big picture in a general way, and provide more specific info only for the issues at hand over the course of the project.
  • Be respectful. People who are technophobic, who live in fear that the Internet will steal their bank account info or their very soul, or who have lifestyles that just don’t include computers are people too! This is where it’s most important to put on your ambassador hat.

An Interesting Side Note

My husband attended an intercultural management seminar a few years ago in which the instructor talked about the differences in American and French approaches to explaining things. Americans tend to operate on the assumption that their listener has no knowledge of a subject, and begin at square one. The French, however, start off explaining things at a more complex level, and they do so out of respect; they don’t want their listener to think that they think he’s ignorant. The point is that if you’re working with clients of another culture, keep in mind that things could be different.

If you have tips for educating clients, please share them in the comments.