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Communication 101: Translating Your Client’s Tech Support Call

I recently had a phone call where the customer’s opening line was, “My system is broken; nothing is working.” So I followed up with, “What do you mean nothing is working?”

We spend so much time discussing all of the ways that we should use to communicate with our customers—simplifying and demystifying technology, conveying complex ideas in the simplest manner, taking their big jumbled ball of thoughts and ideas and translating that into a semblance of magic—that I think sometimes we might be better served by offering a remedial communication course so that they know how to talk to us.

Now I’m not talking about things like manners or showing respect—though, lord knows some of our customers could benefit from the extended four-day workshop in that—but more in ways to help them relate information to us so we can better decipher what it is they are asking us for. This would be especially beneficial when trying to help them troubleshot something.

Image: Thinkstock 

I recently had a phone call where the customer’s opening line was, “My system is broken; nothing is working.”

Now, to you and me, nothing is working would be a pretty catastrophic event and would likely be something that could be traced back to the entire rack losing power, maybe a battery back-up or surge protector having gone off line, or maybe a circuit being tripped. Or it could be the kind of “nothing working” thing where systems came on but nothing was being controlled, say if the automation controller had fallen off line or the network had taken a dive.

So I followed up with, “What do you mean nothing is working?”

“My system. It’s broken. Nothing is working.”

“Nothing is working?”

“My TV won’t come on.”

Here we get to the next lesson in customer education: the difference between something not coming ON and something not SHOWING A PICTURE.

To you and me, “not on” means, you know, not being on. Standby light is red, standby light is blinking, standby light is totally off. You know, as the Latin would say, “Machinam nullam habere virtutem. Mortua est, Jim.” (Device does not have power. She’s dead, Jim.) But to nearly every customer I’ve ever spoken to on the phone, “My TV won’t come on” is the default fallback position for not getting a picture. Knowing client-speak as I do, I followed up with, “You mean the TV won’t physically turn ON, or you mean that the TV is on but doesn’t have a picture?”


(D’oh!) “So, which is it? The TV won’t turn on, or it IS on, but you aren’t getting a picture?”

Now, usually at this point, it turns out that the cable box was just not on. (Join me in dreaming of a future where cable boxes will have both discreet power commands AND a splash screen when they are powered off that says something like, “Press ENTER to watch TV.” I think I could campaign for the CEDIA board of directors on that platform alone. Until that future becomes a reality, we’ve started programming the green button found on most universal remotes to be a cable box power toggle.) However, this was one of those rare times when the cable box wasn’t at fault. (Though, to be fair, the cable box could have been acting up, but she just wasn’t trying to use it at that moment.)

“I can’t get my Netflix to work.”

So, in a few moments, we had progressed from A) total system catastrophe of nothing working to B) my TV won’t turn on to C) everything is on and working, I just can’t see Netflix. Why she couldn’t have led off with, “I’m trying to watch something on Netflix and it says (insert appropriate error message),” I don’t know.

Another thing that customers seem to have difficulty with is the concept of time. You know in the movie Interstellar where they go to that one planet where for every hour they spend it is actually seven years back on earth? I think this is the kind of elastic time our customers live in when it comes to things like when they purchased something.

Last week a customer brought in a remote control that just visually I could tell was like many years old. It was at the point where the printed logos on the buttons had been worn away by millions of presses and the plastic was becoming that weird-kind of shiny at the corners. I also knew that it was a model that had been discontinued like four-plus years ago.

The customer insisted he had purchased it “like maybe two years ago at most” and—of course—it should be covered under warranty. After looking up his receipt and—surprise!—he had purchased it over five years ago, his response was, “Hmmm. Think they’ll cover it under warranty?”

Nowhere is this elasticity of time more prevalent than when it comes to battery changing. For some unknown reason, many customers equate changing batteries to some problem happening on the other side of the world, like say a hole in the ozone layer over Australia. Sure, they understand tangentially that it needs to be done, and that they probably have batteries that could go out some day, but it’s really the kind of thing that happens to other people.

And for some bizarre reason, asking them if they’ve changed the batteries recently is nearly akin to questioning their masculinity, often eliciting a defensive, borderline hostile response where they almost always quickly snap they just done it. Of course, if your customers are anything like mine, “just done it” usually means that the original batteries are still festering inside of the remote. Probably leaking sweet-sweet battery juices everywhere. Asking them to humor you and just change them again – you know, just for laughs – is often met with the same level of enthusiasm I imagine someone has after taking a big ol’ swig of buttermilk for the first time.

I’m not saying this has to be a long class, maybe like a 30-minute seminar or something. Throw in a few PowerPoint slides with cool transitions and whoosh! sounds if you like. Successful communication is a two-way street, and if we can find a way to get our clients to use correct terminology, it will certainly make for better relationships. Or at least less frustrating ones.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.