Are We Speaking The Customer’s Language?

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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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