Do You Understand Customer Language?


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In his landmark Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus books on male-female communication and relationships, couples therapist John Gray has concluded that men and women speak fundamentally different languages. The emotional needs, communication styles, and modes of behavior men demonstrate are frequently not understood or appreciated by women; and the reverse is also true. As a result, the language differences between men and women can be so great, Gray asserts, that each gender can seem to come from a separate planet.

A good part of this difference stems from the fact, according to Gray, that men want to be trusted, accepted, and appreciated while women want to be understood and respected. Gray believes that men often act as if they are right, invalidating a woman’s feelings. In reaction, women may disapprove but not disagree with male efforts at creating relationship value and solving problems; and they also ‘keep score’ differently, looking for a continuous flow of consideration rather than occasional bursts of benign interest.

We have found Gray’s ideas a very useful metaphor for helping interpret the interaction between customers and the suppliers who provide them with goods and services, trying to earn their loyalty. Gray explores how male-female language and behavior differences can cause attrition and defection in loyal relationships. Males, in this context, are like suppliers, seeking to be trusted and earn loyalty. Females are like customers, seeking to be heard and validated. In preparation for our book on customer loss and recovery, my colleague Jill Griffin and I conducted original research among purchasing agents and sales/marketing managers to better understand the essential male-female language and behavior differences between customers and suppliers.

Our sample included a statistically valid cross-section of purchasing agents in both business-to-business and consumer product and service companies. Purchasing agents were selected because, while others often influence purchases and may even be instrumental in decision-making, it is the purchasing agent who usually has the most day-to-day contact with suppliers. Sales managers from business-to-business and consumer product and service were included because they can provide a landscape perspective of the entire selling and support process. Finally, marketing managers were included because they are frequently responsible for their company’s communication efforts.

One of the first things we wanted to know from the purchasing agents was whether they saw their suppliers as commodity-oriented, providing competitive prices and basic service and support, or customer-oriented, working to deliver optimum value and benefit. Customer-orientation, which emphasizes relationships and high customer commitment, correlates very closely with customer loyalty.

Only 43% of the purchasing agents said their suppliers were customer-oriented, compared to 73% of the sales managers and 71% of the marketing managers who thought that purchasing agents would consider them customer-oriented. This significant difference was a telling clue into the degree of misinterpretation and misperception between customers and suppliers. The two groups are not speaking the same language, struggling to make one another understood.

We asked each group to assess the importance and performance of close to twenty elements, or attributes, of delivery. These included product/service quality, communication, timeliness, problem-solving, service support value, supplier flexibility/adaptability, billing, and pricing, to name a few – a complete spectrum of what a supplier provides to the customer. Like the results to our first question, these findings were no less sobering and revealing. With minor exceptions, the sales and marketing managers rated attribute importance similarly to purchasing agents. The real story was in the attribute performance ratings. Other than pricing, need anticipation, and communication channel availability, purchasing agents consistently gave high attribute ratings less often than sales and marketing managers. Many of these differences were in relationship and communication areas, critical in leveraging customer loyalty.

One of the things that particularly struck us was just how low purchasing agents rated their suppliers. For example, under 10% gave ‘Excellent’ ratings on communication, follow-up, service support, supplier dependability, and flexibility/adaptability attributes. As I said, sobering results. In the aspects of delivery that really matter to purchasing agents, sales and marketing managers seem not to be speaking their language.

Almost two-thirds of the purchasing agents told us that they the number of suppliers they use for any given product or service has decreased over the past two or three years. Only about ten percent reported that their supplier list had increased. Further, only about half said that, if any suppliers were warned of possible termination, the suppliers responded aggressively to re-establish the relationship and delivery of value. Apparently, the language purchasing agents use to communicate this may not be well enough understood for threatened suppliers to respond with any greater enthusiasm.

On the other side, about half of the sales and marketing managers reported segmenting their customers according to long-term value; so many of them had no idea how to apply resources to customers based on their worth. In addition, about half of the marketing managers and 30% of the sales managers could not identify an annual customer loss percentage. Equal percentages of both groups didn’t know the percentage of lost customers they were able to win back. We found these figures close to amazing.

Probably the most unsettling statistic in our research, especially in view of the rate at which purchasing agents reported trimming back their corps of suppliers, was the fact that almost two-thirds of the sales and marketing managers said their companies had no way of identifying customers at risk for defection. How can they intervene to save a valued customer if they can’t even determine which one is most likely to leave? To be proactive, you not only have to have loyalty processes and programs in place, you have to communicate with, and respond to, customers in language they understand.

Here’s a parallel from the medical industry. Most young physicians are taught, before they leave medical school, that, to gain a patient’s confidence in the treatment being provided, they must communicate in lay terms rather than medical terms. If they speak in the crypto-complex argot of their profession, they aren’t likely to have a very healthy practice. This is a lesson marketers should learn as well.

Perhaps one of the best ways a marketer can reduce or eliminate language gaps with their customers is to begin where most effective patient examinations do, by proactively finding out where customer complaints reside. In prior research, we’ve learned that relatively few companies actually go to customers and identify areas of complaint. I confirm this low percentage each time I present or conduct a workshop at seminars or conferences in the United States, Canada, Asia, or Europe. The fact that outbound complaint gathering is done by such a small proportion of companies, then, is actually a strategic opportunity for closer communication and better relationships between supplier and customer.

Our experience with complaints is that they can have a more powerful influence on customer loyalty than even the most effective CRM, customer support, or frequency marketing program.

Customer advocacy groups in the United States report that more than 50 percent of the buying public have a complaint about the products or services they purchase. We’ve found similar percentages in business-to-business markets. Yet, it has been estimated that only about 5 percent of customers (higher in business-to-business) actually air their grievances. If a supplier cannot get customers to bring their concerns back to the source, the chance for better understanding the customer’s issues, in their own language, is lost. Customers, in the main, won’t contact the company because they’re too busy, don’t see the value to themselves in complaining, don’t think anything will be done about their complaint anyway, don’t want to put up with the annoyance involved in complaining, or – worst of all – simply find it’s easier to switch to a competitor. Some customers won’t complain because the company doesn’t provide any mechanisms to express their complaints. There are even instances of non-complaint because customers may fear negative, or vengeful, post-complaint treatment by the company.

Several years ago a major American bank conducted a study of the loyalty leveraging effects of expressed and unexpressed complaints. The study found that about half of the bank’s retail customers had service complaints. Of those with a complaint, under half expressed them, Customers who expressed a complaint – and were then treated in a positive manner – demonstrated a very high level of expected downstream loyalty for the bank. On the other hand, those who hadn’t expressed a complaint, even though they actually had one, were shown to have very low loyalty.

We can think of the bank as a ‘new age’ male in their relationship with customers, able to understand customer language and eager to communicate with them. Loyalty-based, customer-centric companies not only solicit complaints, they also handle them promptly and enthusiastically. They train front-line staff in language skills and empower them to personally and effectively handle customer problems.

Language is, then, a critical component in a company’s expression of customer benefit, through performance delivery, service, and relationship continuity. If companies can learn the language of their customers, and parlay that ability to help make relationships more valuable, it’s clear that customers will reward them with higher levels of loyalty.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


  1. Incidentally, it’s also extremely important for companies to SPEAK customer language as well as UNDERSTAND it. As in any meaningful relationship, willingness and facility to communicate is everything.


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