Several weeks ago, Tim Berry wrote a very interesting blog about respecting the meaning of words, and how difficult it can be when the parties in a conversation use the same words differently.

Tim was writing specifically about terms used in accounting and business planning when he wrote:

This problem of definitions drives some people crazy, and it makes me very uncomfortable. It’s not just trying to make trouble on my part. I seem old-fashioned and inflexible when I fall back on the more established, standard definitions of the words and phrases some people want to give their own special meaning to.

I couldn’t help relating this to my experience in customer service, where this comes up quite often. The most frequent scenario is when a customer calls and tells us they’re having problems with the business plan pro download. After troubleshooting for a few minutes, often we determine that they’re actually not downloading at all, but installing using a CD.

photo by flickr user timparkinson

Now, to the customer, the difference between the two is just semantics. They don’t care what we call the process. They just want the program on their computer, and we can call it installing, downloading, or hocus pocusing as long as they can start writing their plan when it’s done. It’s perfectly understandable: they don’t want a vocabulary lesson when they call us, they just want their software up and running.

But to the customer service or technical support representative, it’s not semantics at all. We need to know what the customer is actually trying to do before we can help them, because the solutions to downloading problems are quite different than the solutions to CD installations.

When we’re not speaking the same language, support is difficult. Or rather, when we are speaking the same language, but using its words to mean completely different things it’s like there are two different dialects being used. We’re sharing words but not necessarily definitions. Both sides have to acknowledge this in order to actually communicate effectively.

We’re truly not trying to be difficult when we ask you, the customer, a lot of questions. Or when we say “Oh, you don’t need an activation number, you’ve just lost your serial number.” Our intention is not to correct you, it’s to determine exactly what needs to be done and to assist you as efficiently as we can.

Because after all — your success is our success.

Jay Snider
Palo Alto Software