This post hasn't been updated in over 2 years.
Learning how to carry out a compelling conversation with your non-tech-savvy client is a crucial skill that all freelancers must possess, especially if you want to keep a steady cash flow.
This article will go through some strategies on how to talk jargon with your clients in such a way that you can maintain their attention and give an accurate picture of what they really need to understand.
Fish for an estimate of their expertise
So you know how much explanation is needed for certain terms, you must first try to determine the client’s starting knowledge. This can be done indirectly by using “fishing techniques”.
For example, you could bring up a generic question in one of your earlier conversations related to your industry. If you worked in the web design industry you could ask your client in passing “Hey, what is your preferred web browser?” or “What operating system do you use?”.
What you are trying to find out is whether or not they know the basic terms of your industry, if they have a knowledge of the industry, if they have any experience with it, how comfortable they are with technology and whether they can engage with the topic at hand.
Some more questions could be:
- If you worked in graphic design industry: “Do you use Adobe Photoshop or any other image editing software?
- If you worked in the programming industry: “Do you subscribe to any RSS feeds?”, “How familiar are you with the programming process?”
- If you worked in the writing industry: “What are some websites / authors you read regularly?”
- If you worked in the illustration industry: “Have you ever worked with an Illustrator before?”
Don’t Underestimate Their Knowledge
Let’s imagine that you are a blogger and you’ve just asked another blogger if they know what RSS feeds are. They would most probably laugh in your face or worse, get offended. That is what you’ve got to avoid. You can do this by not underestimating your client’s knowledge. Don’t patronise them.
As quoted in Freelance Switch’s 12 breeds of clients and how to work with them, make sure you balance the playing field by asking for their input in the areas they know about, i.e. their business. This will keep them happy and stop them feeling the need to weigh in on your area of expertise, which can waste everybody’s time.
If you’re unsure of their grasp on a particular subject, don’t assume they know nothing. Ask fishing questions and judge by their reactions whether or not you’ve explained enough. This is even easier if you are in a face to face interview.
Keep It Simple & Slow
Once you know their level of knowledge you’ll start to gather an understanding of how deeply you need to explain the job at hand. Explain in plain English, use examples, keep it simple, keep it slow and don’t overwhelm your client with technical jargon or over-the-top explanations. There is no reason to explain how you are going to do something, you should be telling the client why you’re doing it and what it will do for them.
When you visit a doctor and he uses unfamiliar medical terms, don’t you hate that? But when he slows down, provides a good explanation in plain English and shows you diagrams from a book, he accomplishes his task of communicating with you more effectively. This is what we need to do as freelancers: slow down, provide examples and talk in familiar terms.
Talk In Terms Of Results
As mentioned above, explain to the client why and what you are doing for them, not how you are doing it. Talk in terms of results — this will keep them listening and they will be more appreciative of the job you are
doing for them.
For example, when trying to describe the importance of standards-compliant XHTML, you could say: “Standards-compliant XHTML ensures that the website’s code is valid and supported by most modern web browsers. In the end, that means less maintenance and fewer customer support enquiries due to elements of the website not working on certain browsers.” It is still technical but it gives them the results of your efforts.
You could also go for a more simple approach and say “I will optimise the code so that you will get the best Google rankings possible and make your site viewable for as long as possible into the future, by the widest possible array of users.”
Photo by jurvetson.
Pause or Ask for Questions
If you leave pauses in between your explanations this will encourage your client to clarify or ask a question. Behave as if you’re always willing to answer any question, no matter how simple or stupid it may sound. If they ever seem confused or remain silent, ask them “Should I explain further?” or if you’re writing via email, tell them that you’re “happy to answer any question that you may have”. (I had a similar experience a couple of days ago where the shop attendant at a bike store treated me in the most condescending way imaginable for not knowing whether my bike took short valves or long valves. The only result of the exchange was that he lost a customer. Never make your clients feel stupid, even if their questions are! — Ed.)
Put Things In Writing & Share Resources
Non-Tech-Savvy people like things in writing as they can read and re-read it at their own pace and get familiar with the terminology and even research the topic themselves. This is a great time to share with your client any resources that may be relevant. For example, you could provide a link to the Wikipedia explanation of unfamiliar terms or even provide an eBook on the topic at hand.
Use Familiar References
A great way to relate information to clients is by using scenarios and situations that are pertinent to their background. Be creative, make analogies funny, and most of all, use them to relay complex concepts. To illustrate with a satirical example: if you were talking to a photography enthusiast, you could say “using tables instead of div’s for a page layout is as bad as a decision as using Photoshop filters on your photos!”
Being honest with your client is a no brainer so try to be honest, sincere and upfront with everything that you do. If they ask you a tricky question, don’t pretend you know everything. Your client will appreciate it if you tell them the truth and say that you will “get back to them later with a full solution.”
You may want to impress your client with the vast amount of knowledge that you have. However, if they do not understand it, then all of your effort is lost. Try to think of the doctor analogy I mentioned earlier… when explaining a concept, slow down, provide examples and talk in familiar terms.
Have you got any other tips on how you effectively communicate with not-so-tech clients?
Jacob Cass is a 20 year old passionate graphic designer from Sydney, Australia. He runs a popular design blog by the name of Just Creative Design which provides graphic design tips, articles and resources.