Language, Words And Mindsets

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We sales people have adopted a unique vocabulary about what we do and how we work. In some sense, it’s not unusual, every profession has words that help them do their work. When I talk to software developers, I get lost a couple of sentences after they say the word “code….(either the noun or verb).” Likewise, as financial types start talking “debits, credits, etc.” I start getting a little dizzy.

Developing these unique “shorthands” are helpful in communicating with others in the profession. Since software developers must work in close collaboration, adopting a commonly understood language, and even process/techniques, enables developers to communicate efficiently and get work done.

One of the things I learned as a beginning sales person was to learn the language of my customers. I started selling to large banks and investment companies, so I made it my job to learn their language so that I could understand what they were saying and I could make myself understood. This language, as well as understanding key processes, problems, challenges is all part of what we call “business acumen.”

The language we adopt as sales people, like other disciplines, enables us to communicate effectively with each other. When a manager asks about the pipeline, we don’t conjure up sewage systems, water or gas pipelines and the associated pumps and valves. When we talk about sales process, we think of a certain set of steps and activities we use to go from start to finish. And within the process, we have all sorts of words to help describe it.

As with the words, processes, /techniques every other profession uses, once we start using them with others outside the profession, our ability to effectively communicate and engage those people becomes very difficult. Just imagine a programmer talking to a financial professional. The programmer would be using very common terms like algorithm, argument, array, bugs, calls, class, compilers, crashes, data structures, function calls, instance variables, instantiate, loop, object-oriented, string, syntax, variables, Python, Java, PHP, C (and its variants). You can imagine how quickly the financial person might get confused and overwhelmed. Imagine them worrying about snakes from the Amazon, while drinking a cup of coffee and worrying about a potential accident (for those that can’t follow my weird logic, Python, Java, crash).

Likewise, when the financial person tries to communicate to the programmers, they use terms liked EBITDA, EPS, amortization, depreciation, ROCA, NI, free cashflow, present values, GAAP, and dozens of others; the programmers heads would start spinning (In programming terms, this is called looping).

We learn as programmers, engineers, financial, manufacturing, operations, HR and other functions, that if we are to communicate effectively with each other, we have to learn the languages, functions/processes of those that we are trying to communicate with. But probably, a lot of our day to day communication is with people who are in our function–so the shorthand can be very effective.

Within sales, our language, processes, techniques are very efficient in helping us communicate to others in sales. But here’s the problem, sales people have to spend most of their time communicating to and engaging people outside of sales (unless we sell sales tools and services). We have to talk to developers, engineers, operations people, HR, financial, customer service, manufacturing, and other groups that have different languages, processes and issues.

And we have a mismatch with so many of our customers. We don’t understand their words, terms, processes, challenges, problems. So when the customer uses those with us, we don’t understand and can’t be helpful. This is part of the importance of business acumen. It gives us the ability to better understand the customer and for them to understand us.

But the problem is we focus on selling, we focus on the words, techniques and processes that are most effective/efficient for us—even though they are, for the most part, irrelevant to the customer and often counter to their concerns and interests. As a result, we create a communication chasm between our customers and us, and our abilities to have effective and impactful two way communications.

Imagine me as a salesperson trying to make a call on an executive in Shanghai. I don’t know Mandarin, she doesn’t know English, and we don’t have a translator. And the onus isn’t necessarily on her to try to understand. This is not very far removed from a lot of our sales conversations. We talk to and hear things in our language, and the customer does it in their language. The onus isn’t necessarily on the customers’ part to understand what we are selling, particularly very early on in the process.

But it’s a little more complicated. The language, processes, techniques we leverage to talk to each other, as sales people, influence our mindset and behaviors in how we work with customers. The mindset of the customer is oriented around their businesses, goals, objectives. They are focused on how they work together to get things done to achieve their shared company goals.

Concepts like prospecting, qualifying, pitching, objection handling, closing are objectionable to the customer. Our focus is on our objectives and achieving our goals, so we drive things based on month/quarter/year end goals.

You can see how the orientation of sellers is profoundly different than that of buyers. This widens the chasm and disconnect between the two. For years buyers have been telling us this in the research and their behaviors. Yet we haven’t adapted. We continue to focus on the efficiency of our selling, not on the effectiveness of our customers in solving their problems.

Buying and selling is difficult enough without the chasm created by our different languages and mindsets. It is not the customers’ responsibilities to change this–though sometimes we approach them as if it is. We are far more impactful and effective if we adopt language, process, techniques that are aligned with those that customers already use. We create the greatest value by working with, not differently from our customers.

It starts with the words we use to talk about selling. For every word we use in sales, for every concept we have, there is a customer analog. Wouldn’t we be far more effective just using their, rather than inflicting ours. (A couple of years ago, I wrote a “translation guide,” focusing how we move from sales-speak to customer speak. If you are curious, follow this link: How Sales-Speak Limits Us.

Afterword: Ian Meharg wrote an outstanding post on this concept:

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