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What Would Happen If We Saw Things The Way Our Customers Saw Them?

by David Brock on November 5th, 2009

Most of the organizations I work with are very high performance organizations.  They have great products, great sales people, and provide solutions that can have great impact on their customers.  However, in meeting with them, I often hear, “Our customers just don’t get it, they don’t see the impact we produce!  How do we get them to better understand?”

The challenge, time after time, is that we have great products that solve important customer problems.  But we express those problems that we solve in our terms—using our language.  Because we are sophisticated it has to include at least one really cool acronym, and if we are in high tech it should mention social media or at least a cloud or two. 

But our customers see things differently, they don’t talk like we do.  They express their problems in different terms–their terms.  (Why are we surprised by this?)  We tend not to connect with customers because we are speaking different languages.  We see the same problems, but from different points of view.  We actually can solve their problems, but the customers don’t know it.  Putting myself in customers’ shoes, often, I read the marketing materials or listen to sales presentations and feel like they are speaking Swahili and I only understand English.  Why can’t they speak my language and talk about things that I worry about?

I had a great conversation with a talented sales professional the other day.  He was lamenting on the same issue.  He said, “I know how to ask the most powerful open ended questions about this problem (Imagine one that you solve for customers).  Their response is always ‘I don’t have any issues with that,” or ‘Huhhhhhhhh??????????  What’s that mean???'”  Since he is a great sales person, I asked, “How do you connect with your customers and get them to understand?”  He replied, “Unfortunately, I have to take all our presentations and change them.  I know what their hot buttons are and the terminology they use.  When I use those, they immediately understand what I’m talking about.  I explain our products in their words and we connect.”

Many years ago, I managed a team selling CAD/CAM software.  Our sales people spent a lot of time talking to automotive designers about “flow lines.”  Those car designers, really got what we said and liked our products.  We ran into trouble when we went to the airplane companies.  We started talking to them about the tremendous capabilities we had with “flow lines” and their engineers said, you don’t solve our problems, we care about aerodynamic wing surfaces.  It turned out our capability in flow lines was the same capability the aeronautical engineers needed for aerodynamic surfaces, we just were explaining it in terms that had no meaning to them.  We almost lost some very large sales because those customers didn’t think we could solve their problems!

Sales becomes very easy when we start thinking like our customers.  When we use the words they use, rather than our words for expressing a problem or discussing a concern, we immediately connect.  Marketing has higher impact when we are using the language of our customers.  Brochures and materials in Mandarin, probably don’t have a great impact in Mexico.  Likewise, if our brochures are filled with our pet phrases, cool buzz words, or neat acronym’s.  Marketing materials that talk about what we do in the customer terms have great impact.

Doing this effectively creates a great challenge for sales and marketing professionals.  We can no longer be satisfied with a “one size fits all approach” to our customers.  We have to tailor strategies, programs, materials to our high priority market segments.  We have to be knowledgeable of their problems, goals, and challenges—in their terms.  We have to present our capabilities, addressing the issues they view as important, using the language they use.

Use the customer’s terms and language.  Focus on the customer perspective and connect.  It seems so simple (maybe too simple), but we consistently fail to do this.  We focus on what’s important to us, we impose our language on the customer and expect them to do the translation for themselves.  Imagine what could happen if we changed our point of view and aligned it with our customers’.  We might be able to sell a lot more—-more efficiently.

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  1. Great post, Dave

    As a vendor, your capabilities are irrelevant unless and until they can be connected to your prospect’s challenges in a language they can relate to. Your value propositions can’t be generic – they have to relate to what really matters to the prospect. And finally, the really smart sales people have figured this out. That’s why (as in your example) they tailor the “corporate” presentations churned out by marketing. Imagine what could happen if product marketing listened to and learned from their wisdom? Imagine what they could produce if they saw their role as problem solving marketing instead?


    • Bob, I really appreciate the comment. While marketing is the blame for a lot of things, I think much of it starts with the orientation companies have—we see it in product development, policies, etc. Overall, we would be much more effective if we start all efforts with the customer in mind.

      Thanks for the great insight. Please keep visiting and contributing. Regards, Dave

  2. Hi Dave,

    This is a fantastic post and one I understand all too well. I spent a great deal of time selling software armed with materials loaded with techo-speak. Now I’m a copywriter and spend most days trying to convince clients to embrace common terms. It’s hard.

    If you think it’s difficult in B2B selling, it’s even more critical for industries that sell directly to the public. I’ve recently begun to work with the aged care sector and they present example after example of jargon-riddled collateral. I’m doing my best to convince them to abandon industry terminology and remember who they’re actually selling to: elderly people in the private sector.

    I’m going to bookmark this post and send it out when I’m having difficulty making my point. Thanks again for a valuable and succinct explanation of an all too common problem.

    • Sarah, thanks so much for the comment and compliment! I’m glad you find it useful. I think it’s an issue all of us face, and as we work with customers we need to be keenly aware that we are speaking different languages.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, keep it up, it creates a richer dialog. Regards, Dave

  3. Dave: thanks for the post and for recognizing the impact of communication gaps. Similar to the other commenters, I have spent time addressing this issue. Techno-speak is a hard habit to break, and here are some reasons sales organizations perpetuate the problem:

    1) “We only want to hire people with industry experience!” When companies do, we risk the communication discord you describe. Often, experienced salespeople have forgotten what it’s like NOT to know the technical jargon they have mastered. And they can’t empathize with a prospect who gets slammed with five or six acronyms in the first sales call. A great book that addresses this issue is “Made to Stick” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

    2) Product developers view their offerings as full-featured and sophisticated (who wouldn’t!). Prospects often value simple and easy-to-use. There’s conflict because many technology marketers DO think that the best way to drink technology is from a fire hose!

    Breaking buzzword dependency among salespeople isn’t easy, but it’s mission critical if you’re selling into new market verticals. A college class I taught, “Strategic Uses of Information Technology,” reminded me of the difficulty. I deducted points for using industry jargon on assignments, and required that classroom discussions define all but the most common acronyms. At first these rules weren’t popular, but they got the idea across. If we’re going to succeed as technology salespeople, managers and executives, we must excel at communication. There’s room for all us to improve.

  4. Andrew, thanks for the great comment!

  5. Norm Roth permalink

    One of the primary differences tween the great sales professionals and the also rans is that the great ones do see things as their prospects see them. In order to understand the prospect/client one must do the necessary pre sales research of the client company, enter into socratic conversations with the correct people, learn abouy them, learn their implied and explicit needs gain agreement on the pain and then move forward toward solution and need payoff.. In the end a relationship of trust has been built and a sale should be made, more importantly as we learn to understand the client and they us we will have a client for life and a friend

    • The ability to put oneself into the “shoes” of the person we are communicating to, regardless of each other’s roles, is a critical element of connecting with that person. As you mention Norm, the great sales people do this effortlesssly. The peddlers don’t even try. The gap between the two approaches is a chasm. Thanks for joining the discussion Norm.

  6. Nicely said. You illustrate exactly why it’s so important to Ditch The Pitch and really connect with your customer. You could have two different people purchase exactly the same product or service for exactly the same price on the very same day and each could (probably would) have an entirely different reason for making the decision. That’s why you really need to engage your customer in conversation, find out what thier issues are and help them solve their problem with what you have to offer. But there’s a catch to this, you also have know your product / service well enough so you can adapt and be able to show it’s relevance in each individual situation and context. . In other words you’ve got to speak the customer’s language. If you want to know why John Smith buys what John Smith buys, you have to look through John Smith’s eyes. The good news is that to get there all you need to do is ask him what he sees.

  7. Gary Peyrot permalink

    You rightly point out how essential proper language is. This is a great observation. Once you have the language, it allows you to enter into their world.

    I’d be interested to hear your insight on how to approach the solution from the customer’s point of view once you speak their language. Is that automatic or do you need to purposefully set aside your own agenda? What is required to do this beyond just using the right terminology?


    • Great question Gary, the answer is long but I’ll try to shorten it. If we’re talking to the right customers, our agenda–which is to sell products and the customer agenda which is to solve problems should coincide, so there is no conflict. It’s critical to know what problems we are the best in the world at solving and who has those problems (our sweet spot). When we work within that sweet spot with customers who want to solve those problems, then we are aligned and achieve our goals. The problem is too often, we don’t know this or we work with people outside this space. In this case, we are wasting their time and ours.

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