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Are We Speaking The Customer’s Language?

by David Brock on April 25th, 2012

Recently I was in China in a series of meetings with CEO’s of Chinese companies.  The meetings were great, but we each struggled to maximize their impact.  My Mandarin is very limited–basically to “Hello,”  “Thank you,” and a couple of other words.  Many of the executives spoke some English and were very polite in trying to communicate in a way that I could understand.

Mostly we relied on an interpreter.  The problem was, the interpreter interpreted the discussion–that is he describe things based on how he heard them, not necessarily what was intended.  So we had to be very careful in what we were saying and in verifying that we were aligned in our discussions and what we were trying to achieve.  Fortunately, our shared intention allowed us to be effective in our meetings.

Often, when I go on sales calls with sales people, I think that we are speaking different languages.  The customer is speaking their language, the sales person is speaking their—and there is no interpreter.

Each of organization and industry have their own terminology, jargon, buzzwords, and shorthand.  We have ways of expressing things, that others may not understand.  Too often, I see sales people reeling off terms and acronyms–often to make them sound important, but meaningless to the customer.  Or sales people don’t take the time to understand and communicate in terms that are meaningful to the customer.

A very simple example–many years ago, I managed an organization whose key customer segments were automotive and aerospace design engineers.  Even though the design processes were very similar, the terminology used in each industry were profoundly different.  Automotive engineers tended to talk about “flow lines,”  aerospace engineers tended to talk about “aerodynamics.”  Same concepts, but if we used the term “flow line” with the aerospace guys, we would both lose credibility but we would lose the customer–they wouldn’t understand what we were talking about.

As sales people, we want to maximize our impact on the customer.  We want to make sure our customers understand us and that we understand the customer.  It’s not the customer’s job to speak our language—we have to speak the customer’s language.

This goes beyond the words we and our customers use.  Each industry has key processes, metrics, practices, business drivers.  These are ingrained in everything the customer does.  For us to be impactful, we have to understand all of these, what they mean to the customer and how we can impact them.

Do you understand your customer’s language?

Do you speak the customer’s language?

Do you understand the key metrics, processes, practices, and business drivers for your customer?

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  1. Hi David,

    speaking the customer’s language is one of the things I concentrate on in my sales training and coaching.
    I too have sat in sales meetings where I wondered what my colleague was listening to. In fact they either were not listening at all or just didn’t realise what they were hearing.
    Your post here seems to be aimed mainly at industry terminology which I know is important. And so is the personal language of the customer.
    The way people speak gives a lot of clues as to how they process thoughts, their Internal Language. If you do not respond to them in that language your force them to translate (just like the Chinese interpreter you mention in your article) and things can get lost in the translation.

    • Greg: Thanks for amplifying the post. I was speaking more broadly, but your point about the personal language–that of each individual and connecting with them in a way that we are really hearing what they say, mean, and intend–unbiased by our own personal filters. And they truly hear what we say, mean, intend. This is critical, but too often overlooked.

  2. Thanks for the article.
    I think jargon being used as shorthand is a big part of the problem as you say, and also in many departments or professions has taken over and become a lazy way of communicating (like in marketing we talk about impactful display etc). If we all focused on ensuring our mother understands what we are saying when interacting – and the person’s mother maybe that would help as a guideline! By that I mean make it specific, clear, simple and unambiguous – taking no previous knowledge as a given.

  3. Hi Dave,

    What a good article. I think in terms of speaking the same language, regardless of what industry you are in, you must first listen so that you can hear what the customer is saying and begin to use that language.

    I do a lot of copywriting for clients as well as teach business writing and it’s the first thing that I say – find out what language your reader wants to read. It’s actually in the first chapter of my 31 days to write better copy book aswell. I think it’s so important.

    You’re spot on about the credibility factor. Isn’t it amazing how two words which describe the same concept can blow a person’s credibility or at least dent it? This is what happens so SMEs or SMBs really need to understand that.

    Loved your analogy at the beginning.

    Thanks Dave for the article.
    Take care,

    • Thanks Denise, using industry terms and company terms meaningful to the customer improve our ability to connect and increase our credibility.

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