The simple reason customers don’t understand you

Companies often complain that their customers and prospects just don’t seem to understand what they offer, or what differentiates them from the competition. They blame those customers and prospects for a lack of knowledge or intelligence — but they should blame that person in the mirror.


As someone who earns a living helping companies communicate, I spend a lot of time studying and analyzing what people say and what they hear. And, because my role is usually to make communication more efficient and effective, I pay particular attention to the situations in which the sharing of information falls short.


Take a sign that frequently pops up at auto-repair shops, promoting specials on something called LOF. While LOF sounds like a low-cal alternative to lox, it’s actually auto technician shorthand for “lube, oil and filter.” That’s what most of us call an oil change. And therein rests the problem. If the average driver passing the sign doesn’t realize that a LOF is an oil change, how likely is he or she going to take advantage of the special? That driver may even be in the market for an oil change. So who’s at fault: the driver who doesn’t know the shorthand, or the shop owner who referred to a familiar service with an unfamiliar name?


Bankers are notorious for using similar shorthand when talking with customers. Because I speak fluent Banker, I had no trouble understanding what a teller meant when I overheard her tell a customer that something had been debited from his DDA. That customer wouldn’t have looked so confused had she instead said, “We took the money from your checking account.” That’s what the rest of us say.


I saw a sign at an ice-cream chain’s store reading “DT until 10.” It took a while for me to realize that the shop’s manager wanted customers to know that the drive-through stayed open late. To me, “DT” is a reference to delirium tremens, a symptom of severe alcoholism, rather than a quick way to get a strawberry sundae.


Perhaps no industry is more prone to using language its customers don’t understand than healthcare. If a nurse told you that you needed to be “NPO” the night before a test, would you know that meant you couldn’t have any food or water? When the doctor tells you that the results of that test are “negative,” should you break into tears or start to dance? The nurse was completely comfortable using NPO because he and his colleagues toss it around all the time. And when the doctor shared that negative information, she expected you to smile, because she knew that was good news. But terms like those baffle those of us outside of medicine.


What about your industry? Whether you’re in construction or clothing, insurance or food service, your industry has a language of its own. In fact, many companies have their own internal terminology for all sorts of things. That’s okay, as long as your use of that terminology stays within your business or your industry. But trying to use it with the outside world just doesn’t work.


In far too many cases, people respond to this disconnect by becoming frustrated or deciding that their customers must not be all that bright. That’s a deadly mistake, because customers pick up on that. If a customer fails to understand what you’re saying, it doesn’t mean he or she is ignorant. It means you’re not explaining it in a way that’s understandable. In other words, if your customers or prospects fail to understand you, the blame doesn’t rest with them. You’re at fault.


No matter what industry, no matter which corner of the global marketplace, if you want to communicate effectively with prospects, customers, or any other stakeholders, you need to speak in their language. Otherwise, you can’t assume that they’ll understand what you’re trying to tell them. Most people won’t speak up when they don’t understand something. Even worse, they’ll apply their own meaning to whatever they think you’re saying.


When you do speak in their language, you’ll notice that something will start to happen. They’ll become more engaged with you and your messages. You’ll see fewer mistakes and find yourself spending less time fielding those same questions that drive you crazy. The reason? You’ll finally be communicating, and your customers and prospects will finally understand what you can do for them.

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