Recently, I was getting ready to board a flight from Austin to Dallas, and as a (far too) frequent flyer, I get to request to have my seat upgraded. Since these upgrades are not automatic on the airline I was flying (I won’t say which one, though other frequent flyers will be able to easily guess), the standard process is to go to the desk at the gate and ask “did my upgrade come through,” which is exactly what I did prior to this flight. The response that I (politely) received from the gate attendant was “First class has checked in full.” While, as a frequent flyer, I understood what that meant (no upgrade), it really didn’t answer my question directly, and reminded me of what a friend of mine who gives classes on strategic selling used to say – “You have to speak your customer’s language.”

You might ask why speaking your customer’s language is important, to which I would say there are at least three reasons which might apply, depending on the customer-seller relationship (and yes, there is always a customer and a seller in every business interaction):

  1. Speaking the customer’s language shows that you know something about his/her business. By using the customer’s language, you show that you might actually understand at least some of the important factors that drive the customer’s business. This is an especially important consideration for customers with complex needs. At the very least, it will give you an advantage over your competitors who don’t speak the customer’s language (everything else being equal), because if the customer perceives that you know more about his business than your competition, he will also likely believe that you will be more likely to meet his needs.
  2. Speaking the customer’s language shows that you respect the role of the customer. There is nothing more off-putting than feeling you are powerless as a customer. When you look at industries with consistently low customer ratings, they tend to be ones where customers feel “locked in,” and really have no choice. Examples of these are utilities (especially cable companies), airlines (think of that frequent flyer program I spoke of earlier), and banks. For each of these examples, it is not hard to think of situations where the customer is forced to think, act, and speak in terms of the provider/seller, rather than in his/her own terms. The companies that have the most positive ratings in these industries are the ones that look at each customer interaction as an opportunity to improve customer perceptions, and the language that these companies use seldom contains the “jargon” that their competitors’ communications materials do. In essence, you, the seller, are saying, “I respect that you are the customer, and I will demonstrate that to you by speaking in your language.”
  3. Speaking the customer’s language shows that you understand the customer’s role in his/her organization. In complex sales transactions, there are often many people who have a say in the buying decision. Each of these people have very different roles, and each looks at the seller through their own particular viewpoint. Using the right terminology with each person shows that you not only understand his/her role, but also which factors in the transaction are important to them. Talking to a network engineer about the “quality of service” feature of a network switch makes sense – talking to that same engineer about whether invoicing will be “X-works” or “FOB destination” just makes the engineer think you don’t know what his role is.

Unfortunately for us in the high-tech industry, speaking your customers’ language is generally not “natural.” This should not be surprising – after all, how many of us have servers, network switches, and storage arrays at home? I have spent much of my career in the data center and storage networking business. When I started in this market (1990s), most marketing messages were competitively focused on how one company’s products were faster than the competition. At some point in the mid/late 2000s (possibly during the Great Recession?), customers decided that buying a product simply because it was faster was not necessarily in their best interests. This forced us to become better at creating relevant messages that were focused on communicating our products’ business value to our customers, rather than on what we now call “speeds and feeds.” If one of our target market segments was customers utilizing desktop virtualization software, we spoke in terms of how many more VDI sessions our product could support than those of our competitors. This not only increased the relevance of our messages to our end customers, it also increased our value to the server OEMs that were our route to market, which made it easier for them to position their own products against their competitors’ offerings.

What all of this means is that you have to actively spend time and effort to learn your customers’ languages (no, there will not be just one), and to practice using those languages. Make no mistake – this is hard work, and it takes a LOT of practice and late night/airplane time reading (however, it is a better use of your time than watching the same movie for the third or fourth time!). But if you really want to improve the percentage of prospects and opportunities that you turn into evaluations and sales, it is critical that you learn to do so. In our industry, customer perception of a salesperson or sales team are made in the first couple of meetings (if not the first meeting). The language you use will either help you to make a connection with your prospective customer, or will put him/her off, and negatively influence your chances of being able to move to the next stage of the buying process (whether we like it or not, there is no such thing as a “sales process”).

As a practical exercise, go through a day where you are primarily a customer (maybe a Saturday or a Sunday), and think about the various interactions you have. I will wager that the sellers that you end up having a positive perception of are the ones who speak your language rather than making you speak their language. Try it and let me know!

If you go to and search for “marketing messages” in the book department, you will get over 12,000 results. Furthermore, there are literally hundreds of consultant agencies that will help your organization develop a messaging platform. Yet, large and small companies alike, in the IT space in particular, struggle to create messaging, and more still struggle to deliver this messaging to their target audiences. The reason for this is simple: developing concise, impactful messages is really hard. Harder still is getting your target audience to receive, digest, and act upon those messages in a consistent manner. This is why most messaging processes utilized by messaging consultants focus on message development, and not on message delivery. Much of this difficulty results from a lack of understanding of the purpose of marketing messages and how these messages are implicitly tied to the mediums utilized to deliver those messages, which is the purpose for today’s blog.

Marketing, as we know it today, is a relatively new business field, which developed along with the spread of mass media such as radio and television. As it developed, it evolved from simply making potential customers aware of the product’s existence, to the concept of using marketing to create interest in (and often even a need for) the product. Wikipedia defines the primary purpose marketing as “communicating the value of a product, service or brand to customers, for the purpose of promoting or selling that product, service, or brand.” Thus, the purpose of a marketing message is to encapsulate that value in a concise and impactful way (for simplicity’s sake, we will leave branding out of this discussion, and focus on messaging for products and services). Put another way, the purpose of a marketing message is to get the attention of potential customer, and creating a preference for your particular product or service for that customer’s need(s). As such, marketing messages are a tool that enables sales to be more effective by creating prospective customers (“attention”) and by influencing customer perceptions of your product (“preference”). This is the fundamental reason we develop marketing messages, and why they are important (if they are developed and delivered correctly).

the purpose of a marketing message is to get the attention of potential customer, and creating a preference for your particular product or service for that customer’s need(s).

The medium used to deliver marketing messages has a profound impact on the development of those messages. For most marketing people, message development activities are focused around messaging that can be embedded in marketing content such as white papers, PowerPoint slides, web pages, banner ads, media buys, and the like. While you may be able to (potentially) reach large numbers of people through these mediums, we all know as marketing professionals that the yield of these mediums is relatively low, often on the order of single-digit percentages for lead creation (the “attention” part), and even less than that for actual customer creation. More importantly, this approach limits the scope of message delivery to those mediums which the marketing team controls, which by its nature limits the scope of messaging development to that which is appropriate for these mediums.

Why this is a problem is illustrated by the typical first sales call on a prospective customer. While we as marketers would like to think that this first sales call revolves around the great PowerPoint presentation that we have created, and ends with the salesperson leaving the prospective customer with some of our shiny new collateral explaining our products, the reality for most salespeople is quite different. I have been on more than a few first sales calls where the salesperson never even opened up his laptop or tablet, or only used the marketing or product presentations as ‘backup’ to answer specific questions that the prospect brought up. The reason for this is simple, to the salesperson, the purpose of the first sales call is to understand the prospect’s need, to create a personal connection with that prospect, and to create interest in the prospect around his company’s product. That means that the messaging has to be tailored to the specific delivery mechanism of a one-on-one (or one-on-few) conversation to be effective. Moreover, the salesperson has to be trained on how to effectively deliver the message, and how to respond if the message is not understood. Similarly, successful viral marketing campaigns have to tailor the messages to be able to be spread effectively through social media.

Implicit in the concept of marketing messages is that they are customer-oriented. For most marketing people, this means identifying the market segments that you are trying to reach, as well as the roles within prospective customer companies that you are targeting with your message. However, to be effective, you must also identify likely customer needs, so that your messaging can address those as well. This is one of the areas that makes messaging development so difficult in the IT world – since most of us don’t utilize IT equipment in our daily lives, it is often difficult for us as marketers to understand what real problems IT decision-makers deal with, and how our products might solve them. This often leads to a messaging approach that focuses on product positioning vs. competitors (e.g., why my product is better than yours), and leaves it up to the reader to figure out how the product being marketed might address his needs. This approach also neglects the fact that most IT needs are driven by business needs, and the expenditures for those IT needs have to be justified in terms of the business benefits they will provide. It is critical that your marketing messaging include these business benefits if you are going to get your messages noticed by your prospective customers. It is also critical that your messaging speaks your customers’ language, utilizing the standard terms and concepts in his/her industry, as this helps the messaging to be more effective in its impact.

As you think about messaging, one of the most useful concepts to consider is that of a message tree (sometimes also called a messaging platform). The messaging tree illustrates how your core message (the product promise) is tailored to reach different audiences via different delivery mechanisms (the sub-messages). Optimally, the message tree is organized along three axes: vertical market, prospect role and delivery mechanism. Formally developing a message tree has three benefits: i) it allows you to see gaps in your message coverage; ii) it shows you where your messages might be contradictory (i.e., what you say to one audience is not consistent with what you say to another audience); and iii) it lets you evaluate how changes to your core message impact the sub-messages. The best message trees also combine verbal messages with graphic messages to further standardize the delivery, improving customer retention of the key facets of the. While creating a message tree would seem to have obvious benefits, it is more often than not something that most marketing organizations do not practice on a regular basis.

One final thought: one of the most critical (and most overlooked) aspects of messaging development is message validation, or put another way, do customers believe and agree with your message? After all, the most critical person that you need to ‘buy in’ to your message is not you, your marketing VP, your CEO or your investors – it is the prospective customers you are trying to sell products and services to. A rigorous process of message validation can help you to identify where your perceptions about your company, your products and your services are misaligned with those of your customers. If done on a regular basis (we suggest annually), it will also allow you to identify market changes and how they affect your positioning and value. We will deal with approaches to each of these concepts in this blog series. Let us know if there are any other messaging subjects you are interested in discussing. Thanks!