Perspective (Issue 615)

In which we are reminded to speak in our clients’ tongues, not our own.

At 7:45 pm on Saturday evening,   I arrived with several hundred others from Munich at  Boston Logan Airport’s Terminal E, the International Terminal (remember that, it’s important). I felt queasy from a recent hour’s turbulence over the Atlantic and worn out after 17 hours of travel.

After a week in Italy and two passages through Munich airport, my mastery of traveler’s Italian and sightseer’s Latin had developed nicely. I’d successfully navigated Italian train stations, airports, subway stations, taxi cabs, museum lines, and buses. (The Latin was useful largely in museums.)

As we arriving travelers surged into the commodious customs hall in the International Terminal (remember that, it’s important) and snaked our way back and forth through the line, a stocky customs officer periodically barked at us, “People, you need only the blue customs form, you don’t need your passports or boarding passes, please put those away.”

After one such bark, I passed a group of about 20 teenagers in the snaking line excitedly exchanging questions and ideas in French, attempting to interpret the customs officer’s counsel.

After another bark, a young couple with two small children and a lot of bags carried on what I presume was the same conversation in German.

After still another bark, a late middle-aged Japanese man got out of line and approached the customs officer waving what looked like every document he’d accumulated in his travel, looking for help, prompting the customs officer to look over his head and repeat his counsel, only louder: “People, you need only the blue customs form, you don’t need your passports or boarding passes, please put those away.”

Once through my own customs interview, I emerged into the vaulted International Terminal (remember that, it’s important) reception and transportation lobby filled with people awaiting others to emerge. I took a long look around at the signs to reorient myself to my home airport.

And then I noticed: “Huh…every sign in this place is in English. Every officer is speaking only English.”  Even the tourist information sign was in English.

I imagined that I were coming to Boston as a tourist and I thought, “If I were standing here, as I am now, coming from Italy speaking little or no English, I would feel lost about what to do or how to navigate from here because… everything is in English.”

In contrast, important signs in the Italian and German airports I’d visited are presented in Italian or German, in English, and, many times, in other languages.

“This isn’t really an ‘INTERNATIONAL Terminal’ at all,” I thought.  “It’s an ENGLISH terminal!”

It had taken a week’s immersion in Italy for me to experience this perspective as an outsider.

As sellers, we can fall into the same trap.  We expect our clients and prospects to talk and understand OUR language (the jargon or language of the company or industry we represent) rather than theirs.  We see and interpret our clients’ and prospects’ challenges and actions through OUR  companies’ cultures and lenses rather than through theirs.

When they don’t understand us, we tend to speak “louder” or “longer,” hoping they will somehow comprehend.

Speaking in our own language and jargon in our sales calls seems as natural to us as speaking English seems to the “People, you only need the blue form…” customs officer even though some of his “clients” literally don’t speak English at all.

How to change our frames of reference?

First: A week in Italy.

Then, how about… spending one day a quarter shadowing one or two of our clients, sitting with their payables and receivables clerks, watching their operations, talking to their sales and finance people?  How about…interviewing client team members on camera (smart phones are wonderful for this) talking about their issues and sharing those videos with sales team members? How about reading their blogs and trade journals routinely to understand where THEIR conversation is focused.

The food and scenery are better in Italy; we learn client language better in our clients’ offices, not our own.

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