You Just Don’t Get Me!
The plan appeared to be flawless. In support of my bank’s computer conversion, the IT team had prepared detailed reference manuals, trained all of us customer-contact staff, and stood ready to provide expert phone support. What could go wrong?
Turned out, plenty, and quickly. Branch bankers struggled with data entry errors while anxious customers frowned and shifted nervously from one foot to the other. Long lines got longer. The bankers bypassed the complex manuals with pages numbered 220.127.116.11.E and grabbed phones to reach support staff. Within full view and earshot of the frazzled customers, most conversations were along the lines of:
“How do I get this deposit/withdrawal/loan/mortgage payment through?!”
“What’s your error message?”
“Which one? I tried it like ten times, ten different ways!”
Possible sigh. At least that’s what the branch people claimed.
“The one you got when you entered it correctly!”
Screams of frustrated branch bankers.
Soon, according to the rumors, IT people were hanging up on those “crazy, ignorant people!”
Someone smarter than the rest of us quickly assessed the situation and formed a team. Four people who could translate between the warring parties. Who could revise the manuals to be more user-friendly. Who could learn enough about the technical details and what it took to resolve problems to serve as effective translators. Who could help facilitate effective communication between the left-brained, technically-expert IT staff and the right-brained, good-customer-communications branch bankers.
I quickly volunteered for what would turn out to be my best learning experience. I learned so much from the IT people, and I know I helped them to be better able to help people who didn’t think or communicate like them.
Expert knowledge is only as good as your ability to communicate it to the end users, whether they be clients, colleagues or customers. Or as I like to say, it only matters when failure to communicate is not an option.
Effective communication occurs when information gets accurately delivered and correctly understood. Unfortunately, the process is not straightforward. The exchange of information gets distorted by many factors, based on the participants’ perspective and frame of reference. In the bank’s situation, the IT support team provided in-depth training that covered all appropriate transaction procedures. They designed a reference manual that included procedures, error codes and problem resolution. The manual layout was consistent with other materials with which they were familiar. The customers they were servicing were their colleagues in the branches, who provided a layer of inoculation from the external customers.
But in the branch environment, the bankers were face-to-face with external customers. Busy branches with long lines and the pressure to get ‘em in, get ‘em out. Unexpected needs. The verbal and non-verbal clues that customer contact people are very sensitive to because quality customer service is their number one priority. The training had introduced the bankers to the new procedures, but training alone without coaching and practice doesn’t achieve fluency. To the branch staff, the manuals were highly technical and hard to use and time-consuming.
The people chosen for the translation team were all good communicators with direct customer contact experience. To be effective mediators, they also needed to become reasonably technically competent. They came to understand both perspectives and made appropriate adjustments. It was a great success and resulted in a successful conversion.
With that experience, I found my calling. In one way or another, for more than 25 years, I’ve taught geeks how to communicate with non-geeks.
The problem is not limited to IT types. Communication breakdowns can occur anytime experts try to communicate with non-experts. We all have our own Geek Speak. Lawyers seem to deliberately obfuscate and use forty words where four will do. Doctors maintain the proper distance with the medically uneducated by their liberal use of Latin to describe simple things. I still recall my initial shock when our pediatrician told me our son had a severe case of otitis media. My first thought was- he’s speaking Latin, it must be serious and expensive. When he saw the look on my face he hastened to reassure me. “You know. An ear infection.” Silly me. I should have brushed up on my dead languages before our appointment.
Insurance companies, financial institutions, Wi-Fi providers- every industry has its esoteric language. Me, I’m a communications geek. And no matter how detailed my super-handyman husband’s instructions are for buying a simple thingie (my term for all things hardware) at Home Depot, there’s always one more trick question. “With or without the flange?”
As George Bernard Shaw said, “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Effective communication only occurs when we can get from “you don’t understand me!” to “you get me”.
What’s your Geek Speak?