Parlez-vous my language?

Think about a time when you travelled to a country where you don’t speak the language. You probably got by (maybe eating a few things you hadn’t planned, or getting lost down a few side streets) –  but no more than that.

Maybe you were one of those tourists who believe that volume increases understanding (we’ve all seen them, asking for “2 beers and a G&T” in a louder and louder voice, with increasing frustration on the part of speaker and listener).  “They just don’t get it” we say, and we get very frustrated when we say the same thing over and over and still get blank looks or no response.

Without speaking the language, we will always be a tourist in a foreign country. Conversations are limited and superficial, and relationships the same.

Language opens opportunities

By contrast, when we speak the language, we get to understand how people think, feel and live and we have the opportunity to become a welcome visitor, a friend, to become part of their life, to be indispensable.

It’s no different in business – we need to speak the same language as our customers and potential customers if they are to understand us. We need a common tongue if we are going to build meaningful and trusted relationships.

No-one buys what they don’t understand.

So how do we make sure we are speaking our customers’ language? How can we increase the chances of them understanding us?

Learning to speak ‘Customer’

The very first step is simply to recognise that there are two languages in business. Sure, we might all be talking English, but there are still two underlying languages, with sufficient differences that using the wrong one at the wrong time will undermine our efforts to be understood and to build business opportunity.

Our ‘native tongue’ in business terms, is knowing what we do from the internal perspective of our business. We know our products, why we offer them, what they do and the processes and systems needed to deliver them.

Our clients’ language is about benefit to their business. They need to understand how our offer is going to deliver benefit to their business. Depending on your product or service, they may well need to know a bit about how it works, but their primary driver will always be value.  I understand nothing about engines and automotive technology, but I still have a car. I understand the value that a car brings to me.

Digital communication only further enhances the need for absolute clarity and understanding. In many cases your potential clients’ first engagement with you will be via a screen. Without face to face communication, you cannot gauge their understanding or otherwise – there is no opportunity for them to ask question and for you to clarify. Chances are that if they don’t ‘get it’, they’ll just move on and find someone who does speak their language.  They won’t be motivated to engage and learn more.

If we can speak their language, we can articulate how we help our audience, and the value we deliver to them.  So we need to be able to translate from the language we speak within the business (‘what we do’) into the language we speak to our clients (‘how we help’).

I saw this so many times in corporate life and with the businesses I help now. They don’t realise there are two languages, and that they have to speak each one at the appropriate time. If I speak French and German, it’s not going to do me much good to go to Germany and speak in French. Similarly, we need to ensure that we reserve our internal language for internal situations and that when we’re with the client, we speak in their language. All too often, we forget this, and we speak our own internal language in front of the customer, instead of switching to theirs.

The five most common traps

The most common examples of ‘our language’ rather than ‘customer language’ that I’ve seen are:

  • The mission statement and internal goals – a mission statement can be a great internal tool, but may not always be appropriate to share with customers
  • Personal strengths and achievements – particularly on LinkedIn, where it’s very easy to shout about our success, rather than the value we can deliver to a client or employer
  • Jargon and acronyms – Jargon intrinsically forms a ‘club’ of those that understand it. If your customer is in the club, jargon can be a great tool for building a relationship. But if they’re not, they can feel excluded.
  • Pricing and offers – so often we see special pricing offers for new clients, based on the company’s own (internal) goals. These offers often don’t consider the loyalty of existing customers.
  • Features vs Benefits – features are ‘internal language’, describing what the product does and how. Customers may well need to know some of this, but what they primarily want is benefits. Benefits are ‘customer language’.

We’ll explore these examples, and some techniques for handling them, in future articles. Just as it’s harder to speak a foreign language than your own, learning ‘customer language’ can take a bit of though and effort. But just like a foreign language, practice makes perfect.