Is your expertise getting in the way of customer engagement?

Head of Strategy

They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. Whether you claim that title or not what is undeniable is that after 10,000 hours on any subject you will be familiar with it to a depth that the majority aren’t. Unfortunately, that familiarity, with the nuance and detail of the subject doesn’t always translate to being able to communicate with those with less experience. In fact, it often seems the greater the familiarity, the harder it is to for the ‘expert’ to communicate with the unfamiliar. This starts well below the 10,000-hour mark of course. Anyone whose work brings them into near-constant contact with products, systems or processes often struggles to engage with those that don’t. Customers for example.


To take an example that most people are familiar with, car mechanics. They have a dreadful reputation, but rather than assume some malign intent we can look at a simpler explanation; their knowledge of cars is much deeper than that of their customers and the majority make no effort to provide context or explanation. Customers who bring a vehicle in for what they think is a minor niggle are told it’s a major problem. This makes perfect sense to the mechanic, but to the customer, there’s no link between that funny little noise and the fact major mechanical surgery is required. With no confidence in how the diagnosis was reached they have two options, trust, or cynicism.


A good mechanic explains what’s wrong and how it happened, providing context for the work and in so doing nudges the customer toward trust. Inevitably the bill is still painful, but it’s not incomprehensible, and next time they’ll come back to the ‘good’ mechanic. Of course, this applies across industries, though ‘customer’ tolerance for their own ignorance, and how they respond to experts is highly variable. Most will take the diagnosis of a doctor without complaint but are more than willing to challenge a plumber in their assessment of a problem.


Tech provides its own challenges. More often than not customers will be less familiar with a product or service than those working for the company, but everyone is a tech user and many hold a strong belief that they should understand the solution. It’s in this context that the challenges of familiarity serve to amplify communication problems. It feeds assumptions, for example around what customers know, and what they are expected to have tried already. It’s worth remembering that common knowledge within a business may be expert knowledge to the customer community.


The most common place we see this across communication channels is in terminology, TLA’s (three letter acronyms) are everywhere in tech. It‘s a big challenge in customer engagement, and it’s true in both business to business and business to consumer environments. It impacts everything from advertising to customer support. It’s a common assumption that audiences are familiar with the category and that therefore technical terminology supports claims of expertise, relevance, and clarity. But there are several additional assumptions nested in there including; whether terms are used consistently by both parties, the current information gathering mode of the customer and how they evaluate credibility.


Everyone knows assumptions are dangerous. You may be using terminology to establish your company as an expert, but the audience may equally assume that you are a charlatan, seeking to obscure some frailty in your business behind credible sounding language. Buzzwords exist in all industries and it’s unusual for true influencers and experts to be the ones deploying them, Elon Musk is famously intolerant on the unnecessary use of acronyms. Good communication starts with establishing that there is a shared understanding of the subject, whether that’s ensuring simple descriptions are used in broadcast communications or taking time to confirm understanding in direct customer communications.


As individuals, we trust those who make themselves understood and who seek to understand. Show your audience you understand them, prove that you understand the challenges they face, it’s that understanding that makes you credible and it’s only then they will begin to trust that you can really help.


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