Communication, technical support, and the Pictionary problem

We all know those Pictionary players. The ones that draw some kind of weird squiggle. Upon seeing our befuddled faces, they draw the same thing again to try and explain further. After what feels like an age, they time out and declare what the squiggle was, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. (It wasn’t.)

Communication is far from easy. Explaining complex fixes, ideas or anything in an intricate niche can often end up like the above game of Pictionary. Sadly, to communicate effectively, you can’t just paint the same picture over and over. Everybody is different, with different knowledge, different learning styles, and different perspectives.

So, how can you convey understanding in technical support? Here are our top five communication tips to help you avoid the Pictionary problem and find new ways to explain.

The Pictionary problem in technical support

Imagine you had a technical support session, and the support agent told you to: “Reinstall the software.”

You don’t know how to ‘reinstall’ your complex software solution, or why it would help. So, you reply. “Reinstall?

Seeing you’re confused, they rephrase: “You need to uninstall the software, then install it again.”

This gives you no more meaning than the last instruction. They try again: “Reinstall the program.”

After a while, you give up.

When it comes to technical support and explaining fixes, the Pictionary problem sees support agents drawing the same explanation again and again, in the hope that a confused customer suddenly understands.

At best, this wastes time. In extreme cases, the inability to effectively elicit understanding can lead to upset customers, a frustrated technical support team, and a decimated customer experience.

Communication tip 1: don’t assume

Not everyone has basic tech knowledge. Similarly, not everyone is clueless when it comes to how software works. Making assumptions on what your customer knows, should know, or even assuming what they don’t know can make customers feel stupid or patronised.

So, make sure to determine and understand each customer’s existing tech knowledge. Identify the nearest point of common understanding — a part of the fix, program or problem that you both understand.

When struggling to communicate meaning, the ability to build on the customer’s current understanding is golden. Let’s take it back to the Pictionary game. You need an idea of your game partner’s knowledge to get that quick win, and you need to draw based on what they will be able to grasp. If the gamer is struggling to guess the word ‘diamond’ based on your doodle, can you clarify with an illustration of the atomic structure of carbon? Or do you need to simplify by adding the shape of a ring beneath the diamond?

It’s all about knowing what the other person understands. In a technical support context, this makes it easier for you to adjust your explanations and language use to support the customer’s current knowledge. By building from a point they already understand and drawing comparisons with something they know how to do or fix, you make your technical support easier for each customer to follow.

Communication tip 2: find the language balance

Speaking of language use, when it comes to technical support, customers are like Goldilocks. You need to find the ‘just right’ level of detail. It’s a fine balance between using plain language, rather than ‘too hard’ jargon, and avoiding language that’s too simple, rather than patronising customers.

In other words, you need to avoid coming across as though you’re talking to a toddler, while still avoiding unnecessary jargon and acronyms. Both ends of this language spectrum can leave customers feeling irritated.

For example, consider the age-old ‘turn it off and on again’. Everyone understands this instruction, but what if you said it in techie terms? It becomes something like ‘you need to do a hard reset’. That’s a lot less likely to garner anywhere near as much understanding as ‘turn it off and on again’. But, telling customers that they need to ‘push the big power button so the lights go out, and then press it again to put the lights back on’ is a bit too far.

Communication tip 3: consider different learning styles

Imagine how much easier Pictionary would become if we could speak aloud? Or write words down for the other players? Being stuck with a single format means that those on the other side of our illustrations often end up stumped.

The same is true of technical support. Only relying on one method of communication is reductive, and can lead to dead ends and frustration on both sides of the exchange. There are various learning styles – different ways that we understand things. By being able to adapt your technical support explanations, you create multiple ways to convey the same information, and multiple avenues for understanding. This means that you stand a great chance of avoiding the Pictionary problem.

For example, some people learn verbally – through words and explanations. Others learn visually. These people might benefit from having your technical support come with diagrams and images that show what you’re explaining. Other people learn and understand through fixing something themselves, so being able to offer guided walkthroughs might help them more than a text or voice-based chat. If it’s a common problem, consider creating an informative video walkthrough that demonstrates each step.

By supplying helpful information is a variety of different formats, you’re forced to find other ways to explain, and cater to different learning types.

Communication tip 4: make sure you understand

Before you try to explain anything, you need to be sure you understand the problem at hand. What is it exactly that the customer wants to gain from their technical support session?

Sometimes, a confused customer is less confused than you think. A customer that’s struggling to understand might only be tripping up on one or two words, or a specific description. They might understand what they need to do, but not how to do it or where to start.

So, try to understand where confusion and lost understanding is coming from. This can help you identify when you need to alter your explanation or revisit your support strategy.

Communication tip 5: don’t sweat the details

In a game of Pictionary, you wouldn’t waste time on intricate details. You’d try to convey your meaning as simply as possible, without wasting time on fluff and extravagant elaboration. A technical support interaction should be similarly succinct.

Details seem important to you, but they’re unlikely to matter to a customer. Why bother explaining what you mean by ‘GUI’ when you can just say ‘interface’? Getting caught up in the details is often a one-way ticket to losing the understanding of your customer.

It’s also worth remembering that you don’t always need to launch into hefty explanations at all. Some customers aren’t interested in learning how to fix their problem, or even what’s wrong – they just want you to fix it for them, so they can go back to their usual activities. Excessive explanations can lead to confusion where there wasn’t any to begin with.

Technical support: same thing, different ways

In Pictionary, you need to be able to draw something differently until the picture becomes clear. Re-drawing the same thing in the same way only leads to going around and around in circles.

You should remember this lesson in technical support. A confused customer will only gain the knowledge you’re trying to convey when you can explain it in a way they understand. So, before you simply repeat or slightly rephrase information, think instead about how you can recommunicate it more meaningfully.

Useful links

Tech assumptions make an ass of your users
Overengineered software and the Juicero problem
Tech buzzwords we love to hate
How to be a tech hero: seven technical support tips
Managing caSaaStrophe: communication during a crisis
Learning styles and the importance of versatility in customer service