The Culture Book - Part 6

The Communicate to Be Understood Rule

Rule #6: Communicate to Be Understood

Be straightforward. Put yourself in another’s shoes.

People have often described me as a laid back guy that doesn’t speak too much. There may be some truth to that, but the reality is I just listen more. And as many of you may know, listening is a big part of communication. Being in professional services, communication is a big part of my job. To understand what our customers have to say, we listen, get context, and then speak what needs to be said in a clear and concise manner. That’s Communication 101.

But that’s not always easy, especially when you’re dealing with a platform like OutSystems that disrupts pretty much everything that IT folks do. The elevator pitch is that you can create mobile and web apps much faster with low-code visual development than with traditional tools. Say that to a CIO, and they may get excited. Say that to a developer—well, the conversation will likely take a different turn.

So, how do you pass on that message without scaring any developer that thinks the platform will steal their job? (Spoiler alert, it won’t.) That’s the challenge. It’s about minding what you say, how you say it, and to whom you say it.

Lessons From the Trenches: Mastering the “Talk” With Customers

Have you ever asked high-schoolers or your parents what they think of their smartphone’s user experience? It may be a wasted effort because they might not know what “user experience” means, but they do know how to use a smartphone. The point is, sometimes you need to change the way you say things to be understood. So for someone who does not know how to use a smartphone or an app on a smartphone, we would say something like: “tap this image (think icon), and all the photos will appear quickly.” Put that way, they’re more likely to understand because you didn’t use jargon. I know, pretty basic, but you get the point.

The same thing happens when you talk to customers. It’s all about talking at their level of understanding. Avoid making the assumption that they know what you’re talking about; because if you do, you’re only opening the window for misunderstanding.

Just a few weeks ago, we built a product for a transport company. When they started using it, they couldn’t access a very specific feature, even though we told them they could. This resulted in them thinking the feature was not delivered and a potential crisis in the making. The problem was, we assumed they knew how to go about doing this. Fortunately, we realized this almost immediately and averted an escalation. We stepped back and explained to them: “there are two ways to do this; there’s this way and that way.” See how the lack of communication almost led to a small crisis?

Throughout my career, I’ve always worked with global companies and dealt with people that don’t speak my language. And that doesn’t just mean they didn’t speak English. It’s broader than that. I’ve learned a thing or two that have helped me communicate better with customers. I can’t say I’m a master as there are situations I’ve yet to come across—it’s always a work in progress, but I can share what I’ve learned thus far.

Tips to Win Your Customers’ Heart

Tip #1: Understand Who You’re Talking With

There’s a thing about IT folks; we have our own Dothraki language and tend to talk in our own, jargonized way. But sometimes, we’re not dealing with IT folks, or if we are, we’re dealing with people with different technical backgrounds. You need to adjust your vocabulary and adapt the way you communicate with your audience, especially in a crowd. The chances of having people with different levels of understanding are high. Again, pretty basic, but you’ll be surprised by the number of people that forget this.   

Tip #2: Deliver in the Format of Headlines

You know how they say that the attention span of an adult is the same as a goldfish? That’s twelve seconds, or, as new studies show, eight seconds. Try to sell a low-code service in that time frame. I assure you, it’s not easy. You need to be clear and concise, so you don’t waste your and your customers’ time. That’s why there will be times when you need to deliver your pitch in the format of a headline: “this is what you’ll get.” Be direct, succinct, and to the point. Let it sink in and ask them what they understand, then build on that or adjust accordingly.

Tip #3: Talk With Them, Not at Them

Yes, there’s a difference. You don’t want to be condescending or put yourself above them; you want to initiate a dialogue in the same playing field. Talk with them at their level of understanding and don’t assume they know more than they do. If that means you have to simplify the conversation, then do it. You can also approach this by asking what their level of understanding is first, then queue up from there. 

Tip #4: Mind the Culture

If you’re in a global company like me, the cultural factor might be a tricky one. What’s true in one country might not be in another. When I was in Japan, I was in a meeting, and I noticed that during certain points of the conversation the Japanese would nod their heads and say “hai.” I learned later that it did not mean they agreed with what was said, but rather they were paying attention; that they heard what was said. That’s an example of both verbal and gestural (nonverbal) communication. Then, there is the language itself, where your choice of words may not be correct, or the words may not mean what you thought. These are the kinds of things you need to understand to eliminate or, at the very least, lessen miscommunication.

Tip #5: Listen. Really, Shut Up and Listen

Listen—it’s the golden rule of communication, so listen up. It is important that your customers feel they are being heard. You let them speak, you don’t talk over them, and you listen. That way, they feel there is open communication and that you’re not hiding anything or jumping to conclusions. Confirm what you heard and what you understood, then make that the basis of your conversation and respond accordingly in a concise manner. You don’t need to talk about 10 topics if they’re only interested in one. It’s not about impressing them with what you know; it’s about responding to what they said and their understanding of what you’re saying.

It’s More Than a Work Thing

I know I’m talking about how we communicate with our customers, but the truth is, this is not just a work thing. We all have relationships in our personal lives, and what binds us is the way we communicate and how it feels. It helps us grow as individuals, as well as create and maintain relationships.

Have you read the Small Book of a Few Big Rules? If not, I suggest you do. You’ll see that the book itself is a way to communicate and if I do say so myself, a great example of this particular rule. It gives us guidelines to hold ourselves to a higher standard, to be accountable, and to help elevate ourselves in our work and our personal lives.

These seven rules are our life lessons. I doubt that we’ll ever master them, but we can certainly strive for that and become better people along the way.