Common barriers to communication

Barbara Jackson

8 min read Last Updated Jun 12, 2020

Common barriers to communication

Many of us know that customer communication is key. Yet, few of us know exactly where we are falling short. With so many of our customer interactions moving online, it is crucial to work even harder to understand our customers. Learn about the common barriers to communication to create a deeper connection with your customers and deliver a great customer experience.

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world…”

-Anthony Robbins

Barrier 1: Assumed knowledge base 

One common barrier to communication is assuming that your customer has the same knowledge base that you do. The most common example of this is the use of industry jargon. This can create unnecessary confusion and can alienate the customer. If they don’t understand the technical terms you are using, it can lead them to believe that the business is not right for them.  

Do not assume what your customer already knows. Instead, identify the information that any customer needs to know about your product or service. Then, deliver this information in a straightforward, conversational manner. 

Barrier 2: Ineffective listening skills

Ineffective listening skills are common barriers to communication. With all that is happening in our busy world, we don’t always take the time to listen closely. It is important to be an effective listener, especially with your customers. Here are some mistakes that impede effective listening: 

  • Trying to listen to more than one conversation at a time. We all want to believe that we are good multitaskers, but the truth is that humans understand things best when they are focused on one task at a time. If you are on a call with a customer, avoid hopping between multiple conversations at once. If you are chatting with a customer online, do your best to resolve issues one conversation at a time. When switching between conversations, it is easy for information to get lost, and you risk seeming inattentive. Instead, kindly ask the customer to wait while you resolve another issue. Then, return to the conversation when you can give it your full attention.  
  • Distractions are taking you out of the conversation. Whether it be your phone, email notifications on your laptop or a list of tasks you need to complete that day running through the back of your mind, it’s easy to get distracted when listening to others. Do your best to put your phone away and focus on the customer speaking to you. 
  • You are interrupting instead of listening. This usually happens when you assume that you know what the customer is going to say. Do not interrupt and do not finish someone else’s sentence for them. Wait until they’ve finished their point, then ask clarifying questions if necessary. 

Barrier 3: Assumption of understanding

It is dangerous to assume that you understand a customer when you don’t have all of the necessary information. Chris Argyris, an American business theorist and former Professor at Harvard Business School, developed something called The Ladder of Inference to help people understand how we communicate with one another.  

Image source: The Systems Thinker

When someone jumps steps on the ladder, incorrect assumptions can be made. Understanding The Ladder of Inference step by step helps identify where communication is breaking down. Here is the model explained:

Pool of observable data

You take in all of the observable data that surrounds you, like people’s tone of voice, the words they are saying, and body language. 

Example: A customer sends you a live chat while you are in the middle of resolving another issue. You send the message: “Please wait one moment while I resolve another issue. I will be back to handle your request as soon as possible.” Thirty seconds pass, then the customer responds, “That’s fine.”

Select data

Humans can’t pay attention to all available data when interacting with others, so we select (usually subconsciously) what data to pay attention to and what data to ignore. 

Example: You notice that there was a delay in response before the customer responded with, “That’s fine.”

Find meaning in the data

The data we have selected goes through our own unspoken paraphrasing to help us understand the meaning of the person’s actions. 

Example: You think to yourself, “The customer took a while to write only two words. They are unhappy.”

Name what’s happening

Once you’ve paraphrased the data, you interpret it further by giving it a name. 

Example: You interpret the customer’s response as, “The customer is unhappy with me and will likely be upset when I return to the chat.”

Explain/evaluate what’s happening

Now you explore the why behind the action that you have characterized. 

Example: You evaluate that “The customer is upset with me because they had to wait while I finished another task.”

Decide what to do

Now that you have evaluated the situation, you decide what to do based on this information. 

Example: You decide to try and finish both conversations simultaneously to avoid any delay in customer response. 

Using the Ladder of Inference

Chances are we all make a wrong assumption along The Ladder of Inference from time to time. While sometimes these assumptions are harmless, in the examples above, the assumptions have led to a breakdown in communication between the customer and employee. 

This can lead to a negative customer interaction and impact the employee’s career if they continue juggling multiple conversations at once. Perhaps the customer was not upset at all, and really meant that they were fine with waiting. This is why it is imperative to identify barriers to communication through using tools like The Ladder of Inference. 

Barrier 4: Lack of clear communication process

Especially in a large company, customers may not know how to reach out to the business if they have a question about a product or service. They could be going to the wrong departments, or be sending their inquiries to the wrong email addresses. 

When customers are unsure of how to reach a business, communication breaks down. Give your customers the option to send their questions to specific teams or departments, and answer customer questions quickly with the right people. Make sure that your customers understand the various communication channels available when they need information. 

Barrier 5: Physical distance

While some conversations happen face to face with your customers, many interactions are moving online. Physical distance can be a bigger barrier to communication than one might think. Though online customer communications is crucial for business success, it is also important to note how communication shifts when it is moved online. Here are some barriers that can arise: 

Lack of nonverbal cues

When you cannot see the person you are speaking with, you are likely missing nonverbal cues. Body language, gestures, and facial expressions can help us understand customers much more clearly. Even though tools like video calls can help, nothing can fully replace the ease of communication we have when interacting with a customer in person. 

Misreading the tone

Everyone has a different style of writing, and this means that everyone’s style of online communication is different. Let’s say that a customer uses a period after every sentence. While this is grammatically correct, it does not always feel conversational. This can cause you to read a message with a negative tone, whereas if you were communicating with the customer over the phone or face to face, they would have said it with a very positive tone. 

Making incorrect assumptions

Sometimes our online communication can be too vague. While perhaps the same conversation could have been easy to understand in person, online communications need more specificity. If a customer sends an unclear message, don’t make an assumption to fill the gaps. Ask questions and check in to make sure that you’re understanding the customer fully. 

  • Customer: I couldn’t get the product I wanted. Can you help?
  • Employee: Hi there! What is the product you’re looking for? Were you unable to get it because it is out of stock, or is there another reason? Once I have this information I can move forward in assisting you!

When there is physical distance, do not be afraid to ask more questions than you would in person. It is important to get as much clarity as possible and take extra steps to ensure that both parties understand each other. 

Barrier 6: Cultural barriers

You are likely to have customers from different parts of the country, continent, and world. It is important to understand that various cultures communicate in different ways. If you feel that there may be a culture clash between you and a customer that is leading to a misunderstanding, work together to find common ground so that the two of you can communicate effectively. Keep an open mind and assume the best in your customers. This will help you avoid misunderstandings that stem from jumping to conclusions. 

Establish clear communication

Understanding common barriers to communication will help you establish better skills to converse effectively with your customers. The more you work to create seamless communication, the better customer experience you will have.