Sales is a Profession of Words. Choose Them Wisely

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“Nothing happens until you sell somebody something.” When salespeople gathered in offices, this Zig Ziglar  quote adorned the walls. A nearly identical aphorism is attributed to a salesman from Minnesota whose name is lost to history, but not his product, which according to the record, was manure.  A product that does not sell itself, I’m guessing. I wonder how he pitched it?

Throughout the buyer’s decision process, there are myriad ways for them to acquire knowledge about vendors and their products. Salespeople, as we know, are the linchpin in that process, conjoining buyer and seller activities.

For sellers, words – and word choice – are fundamental for success. For hawking manure, would you start by giving it a more attractive appellation? Fertilizer sounds good. Would you highlight rapid decomposition and low-odor? Would you ship your product in unmarked, leakproof bags and tout that as a feature?

These conundrums point to a necessary corollary to Ziglar’s quote: Nothing gets sold until something compelling is communicated. The raison d’etre for salespeople.

Today, sales communication overwhelmingly depends on written and spoken language. Accordingly, for salespeople, outstanding conversational and communication skills rank among the most desirable personal attributes. To succeed, salespeople must reach a pinnacle of sorts for communication: persuasion. A Herculean task, accomplished one conversation at a time, day in, and day out. This is not a job for mere mortals.

In Willy Loman’s time, salespeople could feed prospects a steady diet of schmaltz and “happy talk.” For example, “Our products are tops,” and “We’re committed to win-win.” The fluffier, the better. Today, these platitudes have mutated into the cliché patter of the archetypal pushy salesperson.

Persuading buyers to purchase a particular product, or to take a specific action has become increasingly complex. Compare today’s methods to just a few decades ago when the state of the art was for managers to admonish salespeople to “get in front of customers,” without offering a clue as to how. At that time, salespeople embarked on their mission after being told “It’s a numbers game! – go knock on some doors!” When salespeople weren’t “out on the bricks,” they were expected in the office “dialing for dollars.” In many ways, it was the dark ages.

Instead of pounding doors, today’s sales professionals pound keyboards. Their activities center on engaging with customers, a reflection of the technological, social, and economic changes that have upended sales strategies and execution.

New approaches, however, bring new problems. An unintended outcome of selling in the information age is the deluge of braggadocio directed at buyers. That has brought a new word into the sales lexicon: noise. Breaking through requires messages to be crisp, inspiring, and motivating – not just to us, but to customers. Duh!

Word choice presents just part of the challenge. The right message must be conveyed the right way at the right time. Do you send a new prospect a text message? What about using email? InMail? Twitter? Or, do you place a phone call?  Send a request to connect on LinkedIn? Should you initiate a relationship through Facebook? If so, when? Morning? Afternoon? Outside “business hours?” And which days of the week? How much outreach is too much? All are important questions. Employers want “aggressive” salespeople, but heaven forbid, they don’t customers to perceive them as “too salesy,” or to burn a bridge by violating an unwritten rule of digital etiquette.

When I started selling in the 1980’s, salespeople didn’t face such quandaries. Forty years ago, producing a written sales communication – the predominant method at the time, along with phone and face-to-face – was agonizingly slow, laborious, and expensive. I remember composing letters and transmitting them to the sales office’s clattering IBM printer, which, when it didn’t jam, dutifully spat my words onto company letterhead. From there, I applied lick-and-stick postage to the envelopes (to look more personal than metered postage) and dropped them into the mail. I often waited up to a week before placing a phone call to the intended recipient to “follow up.” Back then, laryngitis, icy roads, and cancelled flights impeded my sales efforts, not spotty Internet connectivity. Crazy, right?

If you were lucky, you had a secretary to manage sales correspondence. Among the books on her shelf (and it was almost always a her) were a well-worn dictionary and thesaurus. The secretary’s – or Admin’s – attention to detail and patience allowed salespeople to stay front of customers, while she dutifully prevented their writing errors from escaping the office.

Alas, the secretary has moved on. Hopefully, she’s received a well-deserved promotion, and a raise that fairly compensates her for the value she provides. Personally, I’m for progress, but that development has left us on our own, writing-wise. That’s both good and bad.

Good, because in a fraction of the time it took me to craft and send one sales letter, today’s hyper-efficient, micro-measured salesperson can draft targeted sales communications, merge them with other content, and transmit the whole shebang to millions of prospects.

Bad, because whereas I might have sent an occasional cruddy letter, salespeople today are one careless mouse click away from blasting hideous and embarrassing marcomm to the entire planet. I routinely see incorrect word choice and other mistakes infecting communications. It’s that should be its. Misusing your and you’re, averse and adverse, complimentary and complementary, Capitol and capital, and perspective and prospective. Ugh! Like wrong notes in music, incorrect words contaminate and devalue otherwise decent copy.

Even when sales communications are grammatically correct, the risk of coming across as babble always exists. Jargon-saturated word groupings can leave prospects befuddled, evidenced by this example from a blog by Jim Karrh titled, Mangled Message:

“You know your company. And we know how to improve customer relationships. That’s why we listen to you and adapt our products and services to meet your needs. Together, we can create meaningful interactions that help you get the best from your business.”

According to Karrh, that passage drew snarky reader comments, including this: “What does that word salad even mean?”

Snark aside, I feel that reader’s pain. It would be an act of compassionate kindness to our customers if we asked that question more often.

Why have semantics and word choice in sales and marketing become so important?

  1. Advances in technology have upended the selling lexicon. Expressions such as “dialing for dollars,” “on the bricks,” “tire kickers,” and “rolodex” are fading as new, specialized parlance from emerging roles such as Podcaster, AI Chatbot Copywriter, and SEO Content Writer enter sales conversations.
  2. Cross-departmental selling. Strategies such as Account-based marketing means salespeople often communicate with employees across the organization. It is not uncommon for a single salesperson to hold conversations with executives in Finance, Legal, Logistics, Operations, and Human Resources – both in the buyer’s organization, and in their own. This development requires salespeople to possess an expansive business vocabulary.
  3. Time scarcity. It risks stating the obvious to say that today’s multi-tasking buyers have diminished attention span and less time to squander. However, for sellers, the significance of this trend cannot be overstated. During the buying-selling process, communications must be on point, or they will be ignored.
  4. Retention. Nothing is permanent, but digital communication comes close. Ask anyone who has had the misfortune of having a pungent tweet or online post from the distant past bubble up from the digital muck. Even seemingly benign sales and marketing messages have mutated into new legal risks for organizations. “Never post anything online that you wouldn’t want published on the front page of a major newspaper.” Wise advice for any CXO.

Attentiveness to linguistic precision shouldn’t stop with customer communications. Poor practices impact the organization in numerous other ways.

When is chicken not chicken? In an article, Ambiguity and Misunderstanding in the Law,  Sanford Schane describes a case between  Frigaliment Importing Co. versus B.N.S. International SalesCorp. The plaintiff, Frigaliment Importing, ordered frozen eviscerated chickens from a New York wholesaler.

Stay with me. I promise this gets interesting.

According to the article,

“The [buyer’s] order called for chickens of two sizes: 1 ½ – 2 pounds, and 2 ½ – 3 pounds. When the shipment arrives in Europe, Buyer discovers that the larger birds are all stewing chickens. Expecting broilers and fryers, Buyer cries ‘foul’ and brings suit against Seller for breach of contract. The issue before the court becomes: “what is chicken?”

The plaintiff buyer contends that ‘chicken’ means a young chicken, suitable for broiling and frying. The defendant insists that a chicken is any bird of the genus that meets contract specifications on weight and quality, including what it calls ‘stewing chicken’.”

The judge determined that “the word ‘chicken’ standing alone is ambiguous,” and he “look[ed] to the contract to see whether it offer[ed] any aid for the interpretation of this word.”

You can learn the resolution by reading the brief.

One takeaway is not to assume that everyone will draw the intended meaning from a purchasing contract. Especially important in situations when sales words are legally binding. As author David Mellinkoff wrote, law is a “profession of words.” The same is true for the sales profession.

Word choice matters for protecting brand assets. Linoleum was once a brand name. That ended when the company fell victim to its own marketing success, and Linoleum, the brand, came to mean any equivalent flooring material. In 1878, British courts ruled that linoleum lost its proprietary status to become a word in the public domainFormica, the company that manufactures countertops and other products, appends the words brand surfaces to its product name. This  is not pretense. The policy is designed to mitigate the risk of suffering that same fate as linoleum, scotch tape, Kleenex, and other brands that lost control through inattention to word choice.

I wish we had a panacea for such problems, but right now, I would settle for some good solid help. Fortunately, it’s newly available in The Dictionary of Selling Terminology (DST) from Wessex Press. (Disclosure: I served as a pre-publication advisor.)

Authors Pamela Peterson and Kent Kubie wrote The DST through extensive research, compiling vocabulary from selling parlance and related disciplines. Recognizing the benefits of standardized lexicon in architecture, medicine, law, finance, and other professions, the authors sought to address the risks from ambiguity and confusion in selling and buying activities. The result: an easily accessible breadth of clearheaded selling terms and definitions. Advancement in any profession depends on a uniform use of correct terminology, especially for terms that could have several versions in the source language or several translations due to definitional differences. Imagine the difficulties in constructing buildings if architects and engineers did not adhere to specific meaning for words such as foundation, beam and soffit. Or if medical practitioners did not have common language for the pathophysiology of pain.

Unfortunately, the sales profession is behind the curve when it comes to deriving similar advantages. Sales professionals operate without consensus over routinely used terms, words, acronyms, and expressions – evidenced by the widespread attempts to attribute meaning to customer centricity, customer delight, customer experience, and more.

The DST resolves the semantic confusion and ambiguities endemic to our profession. It achieves that by being both prescriptive and descriptive. The prescriptive aspect documents what is understood as correct use of a term, while the descriptive aspect reflects the actual use of the term. This pairing makes The DST more useful than lighter word repositories, such as glossaries and lists of selling terms. The DST also includes terms such as return on investment (ROI), widely used among financial decision makers and buyers. (Lexical items that describe concepts in specific fields are usually called terms instead of words, and The DST makes that distinction.)

The DST is particularly useful for answering vexing questions, such as “How do you describe how people acquire information?” To answer that, you will find a proper explanation of learning curve. Other jargon we bandy about has useful explanations – from familiar terms such as low hanging fruit, BHAG and WIFM to other terms that are less commonly used. Further, The DST includes terminology from other disciplines, drawing from accounting, economics, finance, legal and operations. Words with derivatives have comprehensive entries. Market, for example, has over twenty derivative terms.

You will find useful web links within the definitions. ICP (ideal client profile) includes a cross-reference to the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule), and a link to a website that provides additional details.

The DST demystifies fuzzy expressions, for example, defining ethical congruence (“situation where one’s decision is consistent and aligns with the applicable set(s) of values”) and ethical standards (“extrinsic wide-ranging and non-specific rule set designed to guide decision-making processes to determine right and wrong conduct by weighing the pros and cons and or the competing values and interests”).

Word choice and clarity matter as much within sales mission statements, policies, processes, procedures, and codes of conduct as they do in stakeholder conversations. The edict, be customer obsessed, might foster delivering delight, but the words are meaningless without articulating exactly what obsessed and delight mean, and connecting those meanings to a measurable outcome.

Whether used internally or externally, this exposes a profound shortcoming of marketing hype. How do executives and employees parse obsess, a word that connotes excessiveness, into actions that, in an organizational context, must operate under constraints in the form of rules, regulations, and numerical targets? Similarly, if managers properly understood the definitions of accurate and forecast, they would see the futility of insisting that forecast results match actual results, bang on. Chasing forecast accuracy is a fool's errand. Forecasts can be intelligent, high-quality, good, excellent, and many other things. Juxtaposing accurate and forecast creates an oxymoron, and promotes the misconception that accurate forecasts are desirable, let alone even possible.

The selling lexicon changes constantly. It has evolved to be both broader and more specialized. Words that originated outside the selling profession have been adopted into the everyday language of sales and selling. Accounting and operational words such as asset, velocity, throughput, and capacity. Theatrical words such as improvisation and mirroring. Street words such as sandbagging. Medical words such as pain. Zoological words such as bluebird. Sports terms such as game changer and playbook. The list goes on. In the future, look for more words to enter and permeate our lexicon, while others filter out. New words will come from disparate specialties, too. From information technology, artificial intelligence, law, and data science. They will originate from sources we don’t yet know. But many of them will become so embedded that we will scarcely think about their provenance.

Compared to our ever-elastic selling lexicon, the core mission of marketing and sales – stakeholder persuasion – has been more durable. According to Peterson and Kubie, “If you want to be more effective and efficient in your professional role, whatever that role is, you need to study and master the craft, which includes the language.” When it comes to finding the best words, or the right words, The Dictionary of Selling Terminology can help every practitioner.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Andy, really interesting and thoughtful article. Agree completely that word choice is important for sales and for contracts, as evidenced by the chicken story. It seems that the more ambiguous a scenario, and the less trust between the parties, the more voluminous the legal and technical jargon. Paring speech and writing of nonessential and confusing buzzwords, clichés and platitudes is not easy. As Mark Twain put it, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

  2. Hi Chris: thank you for your comment, and for sharing the quote from Mark Twain. Churchill had a related sentiment: “This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read.”

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