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So I am a software engineer at a very small medical technology company where we work mostly on developing new products. We have no store-front and only sell online but occasionally a particularly eccentric person will walk up to our office and ask to buy one of our devices. We don't want to turn away a customer so we will invite them into the office to help them buy and set up the product. There are only 4 of us in the office and we share the menial tasks but it just so happens that its my job to deal with these people.

For the order to be processed correctly, the only way we have set up is to open up the website on my computer and tour them through the site. Unfortunately, in my experience it is most common that the people who physically seek out an office that does not normally take sales do so because they are technologically somewhat lacking, meaning I have to enter the details for them and it is almost always a very awkward interaction for them, and even more so for me.

Edit: Just to make this clear; If I am able to sit them down at the desk and enter their own details then there is no problem at all, I can guide them from behind and give space when needed. However, this is not always possible because thus far most of the people who have shown up (a general number would be 15 people out of 20) have been technologically lacking, an example might be someone in their early 70's, who only bought a phone so they could connect it to our device and has no idea how to use it. Suffering some awkwardness is less important than taking the order and getting back to work (taking orders is not why I was hired), and some people may take a very long time. To determine if they are in this category I usually ask: would you like to sit down and enter your details, to which they respond "No, you would be much faster than me; my eyesight is so bad I cannot see the keys." - or something else with the bottom line being I am the one who will enter their details. My question is about such cases

To make things worse, I am painfully aware that when in situations I am not comfortable with, it shows plainly on my face which makes the other person uncomfortable, which quickly becomes a slippery slope.

The aspects in these interactions that I would like advice on how to make less awkward are:

  • When they are chatting with my co-workers and I need to ask the next detail to enter. Currently I wait for a pause in the conversation or try to catch the customers attention but this is not very successful.
  • When I have to ask for the customer's bank details. Whether I ask for their card, or for them to read it aloud, it feels like I am crossing some line.
  • When I have to ask for a persons Age, Weight and Height. I know some people can find these questions personal and they are not easily understood to be connected to the device, although to sign up they must be entered.
  • When I mishear them and have to ask for them to repeat (especially the personal details) over and over.

I realise there may not be too much I can do to avoid some of the specific examples, (mishearing is a part of life) but I do believe that there are some Inter-Personal Skills that can be used to communicate with them in a way that will lessen how awkward this interaction is for us all.

To re-iterate my question more precisely, given that you are in a situation where you must enter someone else's details online, what can be done to help make some of the inevitable awkwardness that will follow more bearable; or even, what can be done to avoid some of these known pitfalls.

  • Functionally, there is no difference between them swiping the card themselves or them giving you the card. I mean, either way you're going to get all the information on the card. Either they trust you with that data or they don't, but giving it versus swiping it is the exact same functionally. – corsiKa Nov 24 '17 at 22:16
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    Is there any chance you could print out a paper form and have them fill that in with a pen or pencil? Or will that not work for some reason? – Kat Nov 25 '17 at 0:39
  • @Kat There was a comment about that earlier, it is a nice idea and I will probably try it. But the comments were removed as its more of a "hack" than an IPS answer. Also, answers should be made as answers not comments ;) but nice idea nonetheless. – Jesse Nov 25 '17 at 1:30
  • @corsiKa we are not a shop and there is no card swiping going on. They are not just trusting me they are trusting everyone within earshot. – Jesse Sep 3 '18 at 5:52
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  1. When they are chatting with my co-workers and I need to ask the next detail to enter. Currently I wait for a pause in the conversation or try to catch the customers attention but this is not very successful.

I'm assuming that either the customer or your coworker has line of sight to you.

If the customer does, make a gesture (raise your hand, look like you're in a hurry to ask a quick question). It works better if it looks spontaneous (immediately doing so when looking up, rather than standing and waiting for a while).

If your coworker has line of sight to you, then they should redirect the customer. When the coworker is speaking, they can stop speaking, and look at you, which will redirect the customer's attention. If the customer is speaking, let them finish. Your coworker should intentionally leave a gap of silence so that you can ask your question.


  1. When I have to ask for the customer's bank details. Whether I ask for their card, or for them to read it aloud, it feels like I am crossing some line.

I would suggest mentioning that the bank details are needed, rather than ask them for it. It's a minute difference, but stating that the details are needed absolves your role, it negates the inference of crossing a line (on a personal level).

Subsequently, I would offer them to enter it themselves (in private). If you prefer this option to doing it yourself, you could e.g. ask if it's okay if you get a drink while they do so, and ask if they want something.
If you're okay with entering their details, and they seem hesitant about doing it themselves, I'd simply change stance and offer the opposite.

The next step of the form requires your bank details. Would you like to enter those yourself?
[If customer quickly agrees] I'll give you some privacy. [If it's customary:] Can I get you anything to drink?
[If customer is hesitant] Or, if you want, I can enter them for you.

A lot of situations like this can be handled by quickly reading the customer's response, and if you notice hesitance, offering the best option that is opposite to your initial suggestion.
If you can quickly spot their hesitance and offer them a viable alternative before they even had to say anything, then they will generally feel relieved that they didn't need to "deny" your initial suggestion. That creates goodwill between them and you, which makes the rest of the conversation safer, in terms of the customer getting offended by something you say.

Edit
You mention that your question is limited to people who are generally not tech-savvy enough to enter the details themselves. But I would suggest that you suggest them filling in the details themselves anyway.
The goal is not to get them to do it, but rather to have them agree that they rather have you do it. If they agree to that, they can't get offended that you're asking their details.


  1. When I have to ask for a persons Age, Weight and Height. I know some people can find these questions personal and they are not easily understood to be connected to the device, although to sign up they must be entered.

If there's no intuitive reason for asking these details, lead with mentioning that.

If the explanation is simple, follow up with a short explanation.

This may be a seem unexpected, but I need to enter your age, weight and height. This is because [simple reason].

If the explanation is not simple, explicitly say that you're cutting a long story short, and explain how entering the wrong details could negatively affect them. I'm inventing an explanation for the sake of example.

This may be a seem unexpected, but I need to enter your age, weight and height. To cut a long story short, these details help with tailoring the device to you. Otherwise it might feel uncomfortable when you wear it around your chest.

If you had skipped over the explanation, the customer could've inferred that you think they wouldn't understand it. But by cutting a long story short, you imply that you're saving them some time, rather than not wasting your effort in explaining it to them.

For the same reason, it's good that you explain the negative consequences of entering the wrong information. This implies that you're trying to prevent problems, which is a good thing. As opposed to being nosy :)

Note that neither option explicitly asks for the details, it only explains why it's necessary. The customer will either agree with you (and provide the details), or he will disagree with you (and in such a case, you avoided having directly asked something that offends them).

It also helps to clarify (non-verbally) that you're following the script. If you look like you're following the form field by field (or, on the telephone, you sound like you're reading a premade sentence), then the other person is likely to infer that you're not personally offending them, and that you're only asking because it's necessary for the form.


  1. When I mishear them and have to ask for them to repeat (especially the personal details) over and over.

I struggle with this daily. My hearing isn't bad, but I do have issues parsing the sounds I hear. I often have to ask people to repeat themselves.

There isn't really a one-size-fits-all solution here. Some customers are liable to get annoyed quickly, others will be understanding. Having worked on a call centre helpdesk, I can give you a few tips to make it the least awkward:

1. Repeat everything you understood, to show that you were listening.

Customer Does the device have a poeizpfnpfzneu?
You I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that. What feature do you want on the device?

There's a double whammy here. Firstly, it telegraphs that you are making an effort in understanding them, and that you were paying attention.
Secondly, because you already repeated part of their words back to them, they are likely to respond with only the word that you didn't understand, instead of repeating their entire sentence again. This makes it easier for you to understand that one word.

2. Put the blame on yourself, but only the second time it happens.

The first time it happens, simply ask for clarification. Anything can happen once.

The second time, apologize for having to ask again. If there's a mitigating circumstance (loud environment, speaking a second language, auditory problems, ...), mention them.

If it happens again, revert to asking for clarification. No one likes to hear the same excuse over and over, it starts coming across as disingenuous.

3. If you can get away with it, ask them to spell it.

Generally, you're more likely to get away with it if it has multiple syllables (which you can generally make out even when you didn't catch the word).
It's not impossible that you end up asking to spell the most trivial of names, but that's a risk you take by playing it this way.

4. (Sneaky) Ambiguous questions can elicit extra information.

This is a relatively well known trick, e.g. if you forget someone's first name.

You I'm sorry, what was your name?
Customer [slightly offended] ... Paul.
You Sorry, I mean your last name.
Customer [no longer offended] Oh. Whitby.

It's sneaky, but it works. They give you the name, and simultaneously get mildly offended that you asked them that. So in response, you redirect the question to a disambiguated version, and pretend like you already knew the first answer.

Not everyone can pull this off, but it's relatively easy to do if you can play it cool and not stammer your way through it.

  • has line of sight to you My coworkers typically come and stand around behind my desk with the customer and enthusiastically explain the details of our product. So we all have line of site to each other, except I often turn my back to fill in details – Jesse Nov 24 '17 at 11:46
  • @Jesse: It's a bit hard to explain if I don't know the setup, I hope I made the general idea clear: someone will see you turn towards them; and it's up to that person to identify that you have a quick question. If it's your coworker, you can discuss that in advance; if it's the customer, you need to find a way to make that clear (non-verbally). – Flater Nov 24 '17 at 11:58
  • Your IPS solution for when they are talking to the customer still works well, don't worry. I often find myself getting trapped waiting because I did not make an obvious enough gesture and that is best to do right at the start as you said. I just thought it would be helpful to know the exact context – Jesse Nov 24 '17 at 12:00
  • "It's not impossible that you end up asking to spell the most trivial of names, but that's a risk you take by playing it this way." I used this trick while taking orders, and once it turned out the name was "Smith". It was pretty awkward, but I blamed it on the phone connection. – Kat Nov 25 '17 at 0:38
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I would suggest to change the frame from "you are behind your desk asking questions" to "we are filling this order form together."

Turn your screen 90° so that both you and the customer can look at the display, move your seat if necessary, or theirs. Use the Zoom feature of your browser to make sure they can read what's on the screen, especially if the customer is of old age. You can ask "is it readable?" or something like that. You can install extentions like Stylist on your browser to change the look of the form (high contrast for example) if your customer has really bad eyesight.

Then, ask questions and fill the form in front of them. Since they will see what you type on screen, this will give them something to focus their attention on, and should prevent them from starting a chat with your colleagues.

Also it feels more like you're working together, and they can monitor the progress of the operation. They should be less bored.

They will also see all the fields in the form that need to be filled. For example they will see "age", "weight"... This will provide a justification for you to ask these "awkward" questions: it's in the form, you are simply filling the form. If they follow what's going on on screen you might even not have to ask any questions at all.

This makes them an active participant in the process. Perception of space is also important: if the desk is between you, you and the customer are in separate "spaces". However if you both sit at right angle instead of face to face, or you rotate your screen and lean a bit over your desk to point at things on screen, this "frontier" between you will matter a lot less. It should make the process less stressful and more friendly for them, and perhaps also for you.

Also, being able to see the next questions relieves the uncertainty a person may feel when wondering what you will ask next.

Likewise, if they can read what you type they will correct you if you make a mistake, no need for awkward lines like "huh? can you spell your name again?".

About the awkwardness:

I assume that once the data is entered into the website form it will be recorded in a database, and you would be able to view it later. Thus it doesn't really matter if they fill the form at home, or in your office, or if you fill it for them. You (or someone from your company) will be able to view the data anyway. I hope this helps you feel less awkward about having to ask "personal" questions, since no matter how the data is entered, it will be in the database anyway...

When they are chatting with my co-workers

I recommend briefing your coworkers about "please don't chat with the clients while I'm processing their order".

When I have to ask for the customer's bank details. Whether I ask for their card, or for them to read it aloud

Just ask for their card, it will be faster if you read the numbers and type them. Also it is a bit more "secure" than the customer speaking the numbers aloud in the office. They know they are making a purchase, so it would be natural for you to ask "may I have your credit card?"

For more confidentiality, you can hand them the keyboard, or even purchase a USB keypad. Most PCs will work fine with a keyboard and a keypad plugged in. It looks a bit like a calculator, and your old customer with bad eyesight can hold it in their hand closer to their eyes. Entering the expiration date would be trouble if the website uses combos though. So I'm not too fond of this solution.

When I have to ask for a persons Age, Weight and Height. I know some people can find these questions personal and they are not easily understood to be connected to the device, although to sign up they must be entered.

In a medical context it would be acceptable. You can always explain this is for whatever your device does, perhaps it needs to be calibrated according to age and weight to be accurate. But if you turn your screen and they see there is an "age" and "weight" question, it should not be awkward at all.

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    Re positioning the desk is great, I think I will use that idea, and even bring up a chair for them too. – Jesse Nov 24 '17 at 11:44
  • Not all data entered by customers is necessarily available to any joe staff member to retrieve at will - eg, credit card details. – Phil Feb 10 '18 at 6:11

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