Can You Hear Me Now? How to make sure you and your customers are speaking the same language (you probably aren’t)

What is it you do again?

I’m going to let you in on a guilty pleasure of mine: I love reading Urban Dictionary.

Urban Dictionary is a place where everyday folks can go and make up a word or phrase, define it, and share it with the world. It’s a perfect barometer of how the internet savvy public views something.

You can also go there to make fun of your exes or share inane inside jokes that make no sense out of context, apparently a favorite pastime of internet trolls. Maybe I should clarify: I love the non-chauvinistic, non-moronic parts of Urban Dictionary. Every popular site has dark little corners filled with trolls – but for the most part, Urban Dictionary is filled with short bursts of insight into your ethos.

You can find out a lot about your customers by exploring Urban Dictionary. For instance, did you know that a shady, rip-off car mechanic/dealership has a name? Stealership. Even existing brands have street lingo (Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, known as PBR or Phosphorous Bromide to some very bored chemistry majors).

If you look up marketing, you find under the “see also” section: bullshit, scam, spam, crap, and pr. Mostly true, when you consider the kinds of things most marketers do to get attention.

I’ve even coined a few phrases on Urban Dictionary having to do with freelancing: communitywashing, for instance – the act of pretending to be about/for the community when you couldn’t care less. Exploitsourcing: seeking out the lowest possible bid, then asking for a discount or offering to trade in “exposure”.

“Fuck, Nick, what’s your point?”

My point is this: we’ve all heard of the mostly false myth that states eskimos have 1,000 words for snow, right?

While the myth may be based on dubious ground, the moral of the story is actually pretty brilliant when you pair it with the idea that 10,000 hours of experience can net you mastery of a thing, not to mention a whole new lexicon of jargon to go with that mastery. Let me say that a different way, just in case I got a little wordy:

When you have mastery of a subject, and the jargon to match, you have a better appreciation of that topic and can appreciate and articulate concepts that novices do not know exist. In short, you have a Street PhD (I just realized this term doesn’t exist in Urban Dictionary, I’m submitting it RIGHT. FUCKING. NOW.) Update: CREATED!

Who has better mastery of being the customer of your business, using the product or service, and all the concepts that it entails than your customers? There are concepts that exist in your customer’s lexicon that you probably have never thought of. Think about that for a moment.

Your customers can articulate things about you, your business, and your industry in ways that you can’t even appreciate or understand – and you do it for a living.

Did that just blow your mind?

You don’t even have to dig very deep to discover there are some very deep-rooted communications chasms between you and your customers. Just look at Clients From Hell – I have a hard time reading that site since most of the stories give me Vietnam-style PTSD flashbacks. Even so, each story represents either a total troll of a customer, a total breakdown in communications, or a customer who understands the market well enough to totally screw with those who service it.

I used Clients From Hell (the original version) to craft most of the clauses in my contracts. I used it as a warning of how to spot dangerous customers. I used it because it’s 10,000 hours of “getting screwed 101” condensed into one spot.

You want to speak the same language as your customers? Here’s how:

  1. Find the lexicon – find as many words as possible. Possible sources: forums, reviews, Urban Dictionary, social media…
  2. Learn the lexicon. Have a trusted friend or customer explain anything you don’t know. Never try to use the lexicon at this point – you’ll sound like Betty White singing gangster rap (except only Betty White can pull that off).
  3. Try to influence the lexicon through your behavior. Never attack a concept itself, it can’t be destroyed – but it can be forgotten. You can only ever change the behaviors that led to the articulation of the concept in the first place.

Marketing, done well, is doing magic with words. Until you learn the words, you’ll miss the point over and over again.

What are some of your favorite terms you’ve come to learn from your customers’ lexicons?

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series of posts. This month, our carnies take on the challenge of clearly communicating to clients! Read the rest of the Word Carnival posts here for more great advice from some of the smartest business owners and entrepreneurs you’ll meet.