“I hope you don’t think I’m stupid.”

When a client says that, there’s only one right answer – of course not!

But it helps when you mean it. I meant it. I was on the phone with a highly skilled professional who I knew was very, very good at her job. Plus, she was a nice person and I liked her.

Stupid customers

She was apologizing (unnecessarily) for asking me to spend an hour with her on the phone to review a series of emails I had sent. After a recent presentation of research results, I came away with a list of additional analysis requests from the client. The emails were the result of those additional requests – chock full of graphs and tables, with lengthy explanations of what I did and what it meant.

I was happy to talk her through the slides I’d prepared, but I found I was really just repeating what I’d already written in my emails. She seemed aware of that too, which is why she apologized. I assured her I didn’t mind, but she felt compelled to explain.

She said that she had always struggled with written text. She could read, and didn’t have dyslexia or any other “official” diagnosis. She just didn’t have strong reading comprehension. She struggled greatly in school, and in particular with standardized testing, and didn’t understand why. She caught flak from parents who thought she wasn’t applying herself. Her aha-moment came in high school when a teacher pulled her aside after class and said, “I don’t get it. If I ask a question in class, your hand is the first one that goes up, and you always know the answer. If I put the same question on a test, you get it wrong. What’s up?”

She didn’t know what’s up. Still doesn’t. But at least now she knows how she processes information.

This rang true to me.  I can remember my own experiences in school, where some subjects just came to me more easily than others (regardless of interest level) depending on how the instructor taught. It makes me that much more conscious of how my three children are approaching school, from a 13-year-old wrestling with math concepts to a 4-year-old learning which animals live in the ocean.

As a child, of course, you don’t have a lot of control over how your teacher chooses to present a topic.  Sometimes things click, sometimes they don’t. If you’re lucky, you’ll have someone who can help you recognize your weak spots and figure out how to address them. For many kids, that’s probably the difference between succeeding or failing.

As an adult, we have more control. Nothing about us has changed – our brains still work the same way they always did.  Just our situations have changed. We can seek out the information we need in a format that makes the most sense.

But there’s one other thing that hasn’t changed. If we can’t get the information we need in a way that we understand it… we still feel stupid.

How to Keep Customers from Feeling Stupid

So, how do you keep your customers from feeling stupid?

  • Have different ways for customers to find answers. This is obviously step #1. Don’t force all your customers to a wall-of-text FAQ page on your website or a bland “contact us” web form just because it’s cheaper. The more channels you can offer, the better (without breaking the bank, of course). Even a social media presence that points to a website, but adds an element of interactivity, can be a huge help.
  • Have different ways for customers to ask questions. Phone, email, chat, site search, etc., etc.. If customers can’t find what they need, you need to give them a way to reach you that they are comfortable with.
  • Don’t just tolerate questions, welcome them. Got someone on the phone asking a question that your website answers? Don’t impatiently refer them to your site. Answer their question thoroughly and cheerfully. Be happy they cared enough to ask and took the trouble to reach out.

Do these things, and your customers will view you as a helpful resource. Don’t do these things, and your customers just might start thinking they are stupid.

And if you’re making your customers feel dumb… well, who’s the stupid one?

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