The Customer Experience in a Culture of Assumption

By Alan J. Porter | STC Senior Member

A man walks into an English Pub wanting to order lunch…

It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but on a recent trip to the United Kingdom it proved to be a good lesson in delivering customer experience. Let me explain. In an online exchange a while back, a friend of mine used the expression “a culture of assumption” when describing her frustrations at dealing with various levels of bureaucracy after relocating to another country. People just assumed that she knew which forms to fill in, or which agencies to contact. I can totally sympathize with that having gone through similar experiences when we relocated from the United Kingdom to the United States a couple of decades ago.

When we recently flew back to the United Kingdom for a family wedding, I noticed several examples of that “culture of assumption” on display—the unwritten, and probably unacknowledged, concept that your customers just know how things are meant to work when dealing with your processes. From hotels, to paying for parking, to buying gas, to airline check-in procedures, there was an unstated expectation that we would just know where elevators were, where pay & display machines were located and how they worked, how to pay for gas at a pump that didn’t have a credit card reader, or which check-in line to stand in and where to drop off our bags.

Back to the pub…

At various times during the trip we, went out for a pub lunch with various family members, all at different pubs. In each one we wanted drinks and a meal. After walking into the pub, we then had to figure out what to do next— and in each pub it was different.

Pub #1: Find a table, note the table number, order drinks and food at the bar, open a tab on your credit card. Food is brought to the table. Return to the bar at the end of the meal to pay.

Pub #2: Order drinks and food at the bar. Pre-pay. Get a number. Find a table. When the food is ready, it’s taken to the bar. You pick it up when your number is called.

Pub #3: Order drinks at the bar. Let them know you are eating. Get escorted to a table in the “dining room.” A waitress takes your order and delivers the food. Return to the bar to pay at the end of your meal.

Three pubs, three different processes, three different experiences. All of them were good meals, and I wouldn’t want the pub experience to become a homogeneous standard, as it’s the differences that make the pub experience richer than the chain restaurant (especially in the United Kingdom), but none of the three pubs had anything posted to let you know how their individual lunch process worked. All it would take is a sign on or near the bar with a few steps explained.

The inconsistency in ordering pub meals doesn’t seem like a big thing, but it got me thinking.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve noticed that assumptions run through any organization and impact the way we interact with customers. You would think that, being professional communicators, we are better than most at keeping the customer in mind and explaining how things work. On the whole we are, but unfortunately, as I’ve seen in various recent examples, technical communication isn’t immune to the “culture of assumption.” I had a recent discussion with a fellow technical communicator about why something that was primarily intended for a technical audience might end up in a senior executive’s hand, and thus should include simple, one-line explanations of XML and DITA and how they applied to the problem under discussion. Ever read a manual for a piece of equipment you’re using for the first time and wondered “what do they mean by that?”

Why We Make Assumptions When Communicating

We all make assumptions when we communicate. It’s natural, and it’s a hard habit to break, but the more we are aware of it, the more we can control it and the impact it has on our customers. In my experience, there are four main reasons that we make assumptions.

We bring them with us. We are informed by our life experiences, the work we’ve done, the TV and movies we watch, the books we read, the schools we attended, and the conversations we have with friends and colleagues. Throughout all of that, we develop verbal shorthand and common frames of reference that those who shared a portion of our experiences will also understand. We don’t want our customers to be like Captain America, declaring in a surprised voice, “I understood that reference.”

It depends where in the organization we work. I’m sure we’ve all worked at organizations that have their own internal language (some so extensive that they develop internal glossaries). This is often subdivided into other specific terminology that relates to a function of the company or a profession. A marketer speaks a different language than a lawyer or an accountant. Often companies will have different definitions for common industry terms. For instance, I worked at an aerospace company and a construction equipment manufacturer, each of whom had very different ideas of what a “parts list” was and what information it should contain.

It depends what technology we use. We live in a technology-driven world, but that doesn’t mean that we all have the same level of experience, comfort, or expertise with technology. I remember back in the late 1990s being shocked that when I started to deliver a training class for a content management system (CMS), I had to teach several class participants how to use a mouse.

It depends where we live. Perhaps the biggest influence on the underlying assumptions we make is cultural influences, just like the ones that I described at the beginning of this article. Everyday life exerts a massive influence on the way we communicate. For those of us living and working in North America, it’s natural that we take a U.S.-centric view of the world—one that we consider to be digitally connected. But if you are communicating with customers, or potential customers, across the globe, this is a misconception that can result in barriers to doing business. In any business, we need to know who our customers are, and not just what they want from a business perspective, but what culture they experience. Certain images, colors, symbols, and words convey very different meanings in different cultures.

But what about the old writer’s guideline of “write for the audience.” That contains a certain amount of assumption, yes? Yes, it does, up to a point. As I mentioned above, not everyone in your audience has the same level of experience. You need to find the “lowest common denominator” within your audience. Explain things that may seem obvious to you, those who need the guidance will thank you, and the experts can skip over it.

A few years ago, I was involved in the development of a proof of concept for an augmented reality (AR) application for maintaining a piece of equipment. As part of the project, we ported over the existing technical documentation for that particular piece of equipment and discovered that due to the assumptions made in the document, such as where particular maintenance panels were located, there were a lot of gaps that needed to be filled to deliver a continuous, step-by-step AR experience. It may seem unnecessary to most people, but I’ve worked on equipment manuals where we had to include instructions about how to use a screwdriver, because we knew that some of the audience would be entry-level folks who had never touched a tool box before.

Also consider that in today’s digital and connected environment, you can’t control the customer journey. We can no longer control how, when, and in what sequence our customers might encounter and interact with our content. It’s a good rule of thumb that every page is page one. We can’t guarantee that someone is going to start at the beginning of our nicely worded manual or help topic and read all of the introductory information and definitions before they get to the piece they need. Chances are, they came to your material from a search query, not a table of contents. The order of engagement that you carefully planned is no longer valid.

The Customer Doesn’t Care Where Your Content Comes From

Your customers shouldn’t need to know which business unit produces a particular product to be able to get information about it. They shouldn’t need to care about which department is the correct contact to complete a form or to pay a bill. They shouldn’t need to know the intricacies of how account numbers are put together or have to guess at the password-formatting restrictions your IT department has put in place.

Customers just want answers or help to complete a task. It amazes me how many companies make it difficult for me to give them money, because they have designed the customer experience around how their internal processes operate and make the assumption that I would somehow know that.

Research by the Search Engine Journal in early 2018 revealed that the top seven content types that customers look for are:

  1. Answers to the 5Ws (what, why, when, where, who)
  2. How-to or instructional material
  3. Definitions (especially of complex terms)
  4. Comparisons
  5. Price or cost breakdown information
  6. “Best” lists
  7. Updated content
The Experience Customers Expect

We are all someone’s customer. Think about the customer experiences that you like; the ones that make it easy to do business, complete a task, or get the answer to a question, because the company doesn’t make any assumptions about what you know. We all like things to just work and help us with a minimum of fuss, and we don’t want to spend time figuring out how things work before we use them. We also don’t want to have to understand someone else’s process to do be able to do something. We should bring our own experiences and expectations to the way we communicate to others.

Test for Underlying Assumptions

If we want to make a real effort to remove the culture of assumption from the way we communicate, we should test out our work and communication with the “let Bob read it first” test. Have someone who has no interaction with the subject or process you are covering in your content to read it or try to perform the action you’re describing (ensure you are not breaking any company confidentiality rules, of course). If you can’t test with subjects outside of your organization, then get someone from another department or functional area to do a review. If you are a global organization and are developing something for another part of the world, have someone who is living in that culture check it out. Find your “Bob,” and let them uncover your assumptions.

The best advice I can offer is to be aware that the culture of assumption exists and that we are all guilty of it. Try to be aware of it, look for examples of it in the way you interact with other organizations and in everyday life, then think about how those experiences can help make the way you communicate better. Try asking yourself these three questions:

  • How easy is it for your customers to interact with your company or brand?
  • Do they have to know the way you work to achieve what they want, or do you make it easier with a guided customer experience?
  • Do you assume that just because you know how to do something, that your customers (or even other employees) will?

And let the answers guide you to improving your content by making explicit your underlying assumptions.

ALAN PORTER (ajp@4jsgroup.com) is an industry leading Content Strategist and Customer Experience Evangelist specializing in helping companies and organizations recognize and leverage their largest hidden asset: their content. He is the author of The Content Pool (XML press) and can be found online at TheContentPool.com or on Twitter at @TheContentPool.

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