Talking tech with non tech people

Main illustration: Meera Lee Patel

Explaining complex software to customers who may not have a technical background certainly has its challenges. Frustration for both parties is just one misinterpreted comment away. That’s why it’s really important to get it right every time.

We have developers at our company and we have customers, and as a senior lead on our customer support team, I sit right in between them. An analogy I sometimes use is that I’m like an API between our developers and our customers.

But for a lot of people out there it’s necessary to explain what an API is. I have a very technical background, but how do I go about explaining what an API is to someone who might not? How are you supposed to talk tech with non tech people?

There’s a big difference between knowing something and being able to explain it to someone else. Since I’ve been doing the explaining part every day for the past few years, I’ve come up with four tips that are important when talking technical with someone who may not have the same technical background and skill set.

Don’t assume anything

Bad assumptions lead to worse results

Bad assumptions lead to you sleeping outside in the mountains. When you’re talking to your customers, you can’t assume they know everything and are as smart as Einstein. Equally, you can’t assume they only know as much as Nick Lachey.

When you get a customer query in, you know nothing about that customer. It helps to use software that gives you a bunch of customer data along with the query. Knowing her job title, how long she’s used your product, and how much she pays you, will help you know how you should communicate with her. Being able to look at past conversations is also valuable, as you have to assume less about your customer. Luckily Intercom provides all of that for you, which is one of the many reasons we use Intercom to provide support for Intercom.

Language is important

Don't scare users with the wrong language

If this was the first image in this post, most of you would have assumed it wasn’t for you. You can scare people away with the wrong language. If you send a customer a response using the wrong language, the entire response gets lost on them – no matter how useful the information it contains. It’s important to strike the right balance between clarity and brevity when responding to a customer. If you’re talking to a customer about a problem with their database, you can bring up their Mongo perf or you can talk about how quickly their site loads. You can see that even though you’re referring to the same thing, they look and sound very different to a customer.

Be able to explain things in multiple ways

We’ve all played Pictionary with someone who draws…

You don’t know what it is so you guess “bird?”. Then they draw…

You hesitantly guess “upside-down bird?”. So they once again draw…

You just stare at them like an idiot until they rip off the top sheet of paper and start with a completely blank slate, only to draw…

Then you quit the game, because they are the worst at Pictionary.

You definitely don’t want to make your customers feel like that. When you’re talking to them, it’s important to be able to explain something in more than one way.

It's important to be able to explain things in different ways

You should be able to offer up answers in a bunch of different formats and places; like a numbered list, emails with images and gifs, a phone call, or directing them to your help documentation. Different things resonate with different people.

Think like the customer

When a customer asks you a question like “Where do I go to set up a new email to my customers?”, you have to appreciate that question actually lives inside a workflow of questions. It’s going to be followed by questions like “Can I use my own theme or templates?”, “Can I change the from address?”, “How will I see my results?”, and many other questions. So when you answer the customer’s initial question, don’t just answer the question they asked. You should also include answers to some of the follow up questions you know they are inevitably going to have.

Work hard to drop assumptions, understand what your customer is asking, give answers that will be understood and you’ll be better equipped to set customers up for success with your product.

Want to learn more about providing amazing support? Download your copy of our latest book, Intercom on Customer Support.