Are You Speaking Your Customers’ Language?
This is my site Written by Alora on December 14, 2010 – 11:41 am

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think that Kitchen Nightmares is the best TV show on the subject of entrepreneurship. (I could do an endless blog series just on lessons from the show!)

Last night, I watched an episode from the second season of the British version of the show, and had a great “Aha!” moment. A team of exceptionally talented and well-trained French culinary prodigies working at buidling a fine dining establishment in Inverness, Scotland ran into a strange problem: they had an empty restaurant that couldn’t attract the locals.

Chef Ramsay immediately saw a problem: the ellaborate menu was in French, and the Scottish locals couldn’t figure out what it meant. To make the point to the culinary team, he showed them a traditional Scottish menu of local food specialties and then asked them to read it. The confused French team quickly realized that it was impossible to tell if a menu item held any appeal when you couldn’t figure out what it said.

This is something that I struggle with every day. Words and phrases like CMS, SEO, PPC, Twitter, RSS, HTTPS, PHP, QA, RFP, ROI, CRM, PMO, etc. all come flying out of my mouth faster and more readily than my own name. And it will typically take a few minutes before I realize that I’ve lost someone.

It is often so easy for us to get caught up in our own little world of jargon, that we forget something really important: part of your job as an expert, is to inspire confidence in the people who come to you for your expertise. While demonstrating that you speak the native language of your industry may have value, what is more valuable is demonstrating that you can translate between your language and your customer’s.

After struggling with this problem for years, I’ve discovered three tricks that help re-set my brain back to a normal member of society, instead of just a die-hard project managing web geek.

Network outside of your network
Most of us go to a lot of networking events. The easiest thing to do is to go to events and gravitate towards people who do something similar to you. This is common, because you speak the same language, you understand the same issues and you start off with immediate common ground.

So flip the coin. Go to a networking event that is totally foreign to you. Maybe go to a small business event that targets people of a different industry, or one that specializes in collecting business people across multiple industries. Talk to people. Tell them what they do, and then see how much they understand.

This is great for two reasons. For starters, often times, you’ll see other struggling with the same problem: their jargon doesn’t make sense to you, or other people who are not in their industry. Secondly, it forces you to think about how you speak, because it’s clear that your normal language isn’t their native tongue.

Record a conversation or a meeting
If you know that you are guilty of speaking in too much jargon, try recording a conversation. (Legally, you are required to tell anyone else who participates that you are recording it.) Play back the recording later — a week or so, is often best.

Put down the distractions, and really listen to what you say. Are you tossing out words that are useful to your client, or are you confusing them? Often times we can miss important cues while we are in the middle of a discussion with someone. But if we can experience that same discussion as a ‘third-party’ we can see things from a different perspective. Sometimes this makes it clear that we missed critical clues during the first go-around.

Can you explain it to your grandmother?
When all else fails, especially if you are in a relatively new industry, talk to your grandmother (or someone else of her generation). Can you discuss what you do with them in such a way that they understand what you are talking about, and can you avoid confusing them? If not, go back to the drawing board.

Clients and customers need to feel secure that you know what you are talking about. But they also need to feel secure that you can understand and communicate with them. If you are getting so caught up in your little corner of the universe that you stop being able to communicate in their language, then your value to them suddenly drops like a stone.

Anyone who has ever been married knows that communication is always hardest when you start getting in the habit of making too many assumptions. So stop yourself, back up a bit, and then start over. Conscious communication is not difficult, but it takes focus.

But, then again, so does entrepreneurship.