Are You Speaking the Same Language as Your Customers?

Recently, I was getting ready to board a flight from Austin to Dallas, and as a (far too)

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!

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