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A few years ago, I met with a customer who was an older gentleman in the roadbase and paving industry. I was asking him my standard questions before coming up with a proposal for a new website. I started asked things like “Do you have any social media accounts? Do you do any offline advertising? Who’s your target customer?” and he cut me off in the middle of my questioning. He kindly told me the following, which I’ll never forget:

“Ron, I only have a seventh grade education. I dropped out and got a full-time job before I even made it to high school. I’ve been in the paving business for more than 30 years, and I’m good at laying asphalt. But I don’t understand these questions you’re asking me and I don’t own a computer. Do you see my phone? It only has ten buttons on it. I’m relying on you to tell me what I need.”

I found this interesting, not because of what he said, but because of what he meant. People have occasionally told me to slow down before when I was explaining cloud computing or using Facebook to grow your customer base, but nobody had put it in such blunt terms before. Here are the things I think he meant by what he was saying:

  • I’m good at what I do, but technology makes me feel uncomfortable.
  • When you young kids talk about complicated things like “web servers,” even though you’re not saying I’m dumb, I feel dumb. I don’t like that.
  • I’m not sure what I need—that’s why I’m hiring you. I need to you tell me what I should and shouldn’t be paying attention to.
  • Please speak slowly. Don’t talk down to me, but speak slowly.
  • Don’t assume I know what you mean. Explain what a “content management system” is.

I think about this all the time when working with clients. And I really appreciate the guy’s honesty. It’s a delicate balance, trying to assure a customer that you respect him and appreciate where he is in his career, but still taking the time to explain everything properly.

Oftentimes, if you assume people know what you’re talking about, you can ramble on and on and they’ll never stop you and say “hold on—I don’t know what a ‘bounce rate’ is—can you explain that?“. They’ll just smile and nod without getting any of it. So you’ve gotta walk that fine line, going slow enough to make sure they understand you, but not so fast you barrage them with too much info.

If you can actually pull it off, you often win the job. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s worth trying.