Why You Need to Talk Like Your Customers

“Deficiency-Free State Survey” proclaimed the giant letters.

The nursing care facility was so proud of those words that they bought a half-page newspaper ad to share them. But did any of their current or prospective residents understand what that meant, or why it was a big deal?

I’d be willing to wager a substantial sum that they didn’t. Now, I knew exactly what they meant and why the facility was so excited, but that’s only because I’ve done work with the senior care industry over the years.

State inspectors regularly visit nursing homes and similar facilities for intensive inspections and try to identify as many deficiencies in care, cleanliness, recordkeeping, and other areas as they can. When they don’t find any deficiencies, it’s a cause for celebration and recognition of the extraordinary quality of care the facilities provide. That’s definitely worth promoting, so I can’t blame the facility for running the ad.

Only one problem: the phrase “deficiency-free state survey” is meaningless to the people the facility was hoping to impress: current and future residents and their loved ones. I’m confident that more than 98 percent of them have no idea what a “state survey” is or how “deficiencies” is defined. The facility’s leaders chose words that have a great deal of meaning to nursing home administrators and zero meaning to the residents they serve.

That’s a mistake I see all too often. Companies design beautiful websites, print nice brochures, or create dazzling ads using language their intended audiences just don’t understand. Instead, they use the vernacular of their industry. They include the jargon they employ when speaking to their colleagues and peers, not realizing that everyday people don’t talk that way. Most professions and companies develop their own languages and shorthand that are familiar and obvious to insiders, but confusing to the outside world.

My favorite examples come from healthcare. I’m reminded of the hospital that opened an “ambulatory clinic” as a lower-cost alternative to its emergency room, because “ambulatory” is the medical term for someone who’s capable of walking. When the clinic failed to generate the expected traffic, research revealed that most patients thought “ambulatory” meant that people arrived there in ambulances.

Another familiar healthcare example is that when a medical test comes back “positive,” it’s rarely a good thing. Or have you ever had a nurse tell you that you had to be “NPO after seven?” That’s medical shorthand for “no food or liquid by mouth” after 7 p.m., but if you didn’t know that, how can you be expected to follow the directions?

Within companies and organizations, specific departments often have their own ways of speaking and writing that baffle folks in other areas. Ever watched a colleague struggle with assistance from the help desk? The technology-savvy experts who man the desk often speak in very different words and phrases than the technology-challenged workers they’re supposed to support. The result is frustrations on both sides and misunderstandings that get in the way of what should be simple solutions.

One profession that’s become notorious for this self-inflicted failure to communicate is education. I believe that the vast majority of conflicts between teachers, administrators, and parents are the direct result of differences in language. At a parent-teacher conference, parents will hear that their child “scored in the 74th percentile on a norm-referenced assessment” and have absolutely no clue whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. If the teacher instead said “Johnny scored higher than 74 percent of students his age nationwide,” the parents wouldn’t be confused. I suspect that a large number of parents who hear that an essay is being graded against a “rubric” wonder what a sandwich made with corned beef has to do with English. And what you and I refer to as “schools,” educators call “buildings.”

What’s the lesson here? It’s simple. If you want to communicate effectively with customers, prospects, or any other audience, you need to communicate in their language, not yours. You can’t expect your audience to know your company, industry, or profession’s jargon, and it isn’t their responsibility to become educated enough to understand you. Speaking in language that’s familiar to them is the best way to ensure that they’ll understand what you want to convey, and to avoid the misunderstandings that can derail relationships.


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Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. To learn more, visit http://www.sfwriting.com, or read his blog at http://sfwriting.com/blog.

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