5 Tips for Fighting the Knowledge Curse in Customer Service

When communicating, sometimes we unknowingly assume that others have the same experience and background to understand. This is the “curse” of knowledge.

In general, we think of all knowledge as power. But in customer service, the knowledge curse can have a negative impact on customer conversations. This cognitive bias makes it difficult to get on the customer’s level and see from their perspective. This can create issues within your company if not addressed.

Before we share our quick tips for fighting the knowledge curse, it’s important to understand how the curse harms your support team and company. It may even explain some issues you’ve noticed in the workplace.

How the curse of knowledge hurts customer service

The knowledge curse sabotages an agent’s ability to explain things in a way that makes sense to first-time or inexperienced users. Our explanations become a labyrinth of words that may push customers away over time.

Some symptoms of the knowledge curse include:

Coming off as indifferent or uncaring. When you hear the same complaints and questions every day, the solutions might start to seem too obvious to agents. As a result, agents under the knowledge curse may unconsciously respond in an unempathetic way. Sometimes, they may even cut the customer off from explaining their situation because they have already deduced what the problem is.

cartoon of brains linked by chat bubble

Making unfair assumptions about the customer’s capabilities. An agent may misjudge a customer’s ability to perform certain actions, say during a walkthrough or a troubleshoot, simply because they’re second nature to the agent or because past customers could do it.

Not being able to come up with innovative ideas. The knowledge curse can impact creative thinking by making it difficult to imagine the product in a new way, or come up with clever solutions.

How to fight off the knowledge curse

You can’t unlearn what you already know, but there are things you can do to make sure you and your customers stay on the same page.

Acknowledge your bias

The first step is to actually realize and accept that you have a bias. If you’re a senior member of your team, chances are you’re most affected. When you’ve been engrossed in the same topic for an extended period of time, explanations seem frivolous and unnecessary. You may assume that if the customer approached you, surely they know how the product works, or at least the basics.

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Accepting your bias shows that you have an open mind. It’ll be easier for you to take our advice on how to overcome the knowledge curse.

Explain things as simply as you can

Sometimes the curse of knowledge and the complexity bias go hand-in-hand. In sales, an agent may use jargon and difficult tech lingo to make your product sound more state-of-the-art. But it’s not necessary.

book cover

Speaking simply is the most effective way to get your message across. We’re not suggesting you take a literal “Explain Like I’m 5” approach because this could sound condescending. Instead, try conveying the information in a way that motivates and captivates others.

In “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath commend John F. Kennedy’s historic message in 1961 to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade” for being simplistic yet impactful. The term “less is more” applies to writing and speaking as well, so try it out in your customer interactions.

Ask customers for their knowledge level

People have trouble asking for help so keep problems from growing by addressing their needs upfront.

It’s all in how you phrase it:

“Would you say you have a good handle of the product or should I take things step-by-step?”

“Before we begin, on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being ‘expert’ and one being ‘beginner,’ what would you rate your knowledge of our product?”

These prompts will help you tailor your explanations so you’re not annoying the wrong people with oversimplified speech.

Add emotion or stories for clarity

When explaining a product or helping with an issue, sharing a personal story can show that you empathize with the customer. It refocuses your attention on the customer’s needs and delivers a message that sticks .

You don’t need to share uncomfortable childhood memories. Something like a personal anecdote will do:

“This is a trick I learned when I was also first becoming familiar with the product.”

“I understand that this function requires a lot of work and can be frustrating to configure just right, but it will make the whole process easier for you and your customers once it’s in place.”

These types of statements show that you’re compassionate and understanding of the struggles the customer might endure.

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Understand misunderstanding

Read what customers are saying about you

The best way to appeal to your customers is to know how they think. That’s why reading their comments on review sites can give you useful insight.

What do people commonly mention as a “problem” with your service? Which words do they use to talk about your products? Are they naming your features by name or using simpler terms?

Think of it as eavesdropping — but in an ethical way. As long as it’s not incorrect, try using some of the words and phrases other customers have used when talking about your product.

Overcoming the knowledge curse just takes practice

These tips and strategies can help you realize the pitfalls of unclear or overly complicated communication, which you can apply to your own customer service style. In no time, you’ll be able to break the curse of knowledge and use your power for good.