Blog Post

Don't Overestimate the Tech Savvy of Your Clients

Stay on Top of Emerging Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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.

19 Responses to “Don't Overestimate the Tech Savvy of Your Clients”

  1. One Minor disagreement: Avoiding a yes or no question and asking what the client has done in the past with a specific piece of technology, makes the client feel as though they *should* know what that is and feels bad that they are so “behind the times”.

    Whereas a yes or no question gives the client a black and white chance to essentially say “could you explain to me what that is?”, rather than skirting the issue and trying to pretend they know what you’re talking about. This results in a potentially misinformed or incompletely informed client which could cause issues later on.

    Just my 2¢. :-)

    • Hi Tim.

      I agree! Maybe it was a little unclear, but I meant for “A, B and C” to be replaced with their business processes, like “lead follow-up” or “employee leave management” etc. Sorry if it wasn’t clear!

  2. Hi Vincent. 25% ??!! Wow. As for the rest, it’ll probably change with time. Maybe it’ll be the address bar that will go the way of the dinosaur! Ya never know. That’s part of what makes it all so exciting. :-)

  3. Hi James. You’re right, and like Laura said, sometimes we forget. It’s often pretty amusing to watch people on TV trying to explain Internet-related things like the Twitter phenomenon. There was a period earlier this year when it was a hot topic on all the French media, and some of them were really struggling to understand and explain it. And then there was the moderator on a serious political/social talk show who said the iPod nano was dangerous because it used nano technology…

  4. Hi Amber. The Mom strategy is a good one! My husband and his partners in a project do pitches to investors, and their operating principle is that the investor should be able to go home after the presentation and explain the concept to his/her spouse. Or Mom!

    And it’s true that when people have little understanding of a topic, they don’t even know where to begin asking questions. I’ve been in that position myself plenty of times. And then they may be too embarrassed or shy, as you said, to ask you to repeat or explain.

  5. Facebook accounts for 25% of all pages viewed in the US. For a lot of people, Facebook IS the Internet.

    Similarly, a lot of casual Internet users have NO idea that they can bookmark sites in their browser, call the bookmarks or type a URL in the address field. They just use Google (the web page, not the built-in field in Firefox or Safari). And yes, every time they want to access the NYT or Le Monde, they google it first. And when you show them there’s a quicker way, they thank you, and ignore it.

    Puts things in perspective…

  6. “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?””

    This is why I love WWD. That little suggestion just made all of my client interactions from here on out so much better.

    I’m constantly having to introduce people to technology that will make their days more productive — this is a much better way to do it than what I’ve been doing (yes or no questions)

  7. Great points to consider when dealing with “most people”.

    I’ve noticed this come up a lot among the internet famous people. Sure it seems like this internet world is huge, with brazillions of people on Facebook and Twitter following them or in the stat numbers. The social media gurufolk constantly talk of how times are changing, the gatekeepers of old are losing ground, old media is dead, etc.

    But every one of them, no matter how big they are is giddy to get on Oprah, be featured in Time Magazine or on CNN. Gary Vee doesn’t turn down a chance to go on the Today show, because he knows his traffic goes huge every time he does.

    Times are changing, make no mistake. The old way may very well be dying, but it is nowhere near dead. It is still leading the masses by a long stretch. This internet world right now is still an incredibly small slice of the world market and conscience.

  8. It’s easy to forget that there is a whole world out there that doesn’t log in to the Internet every morning.

    This post does a good job of reminding us of that world (which for many of us is where are our clients are).

    Thanks for sharing this.

  9. I’ve found that you can actually lose your client and business from being too technical. A lot of people are shy and instead of asking you what such-and-such means, will just leave. I try to explain everything technical as if I were talking to my mom – not that my mom is dumb, but she’s the proverbial non-techy who still doesn’t know what I do for a living :) (And thinks my Twitter use is “just playing around.”