Did You Say “Dinosaur”? Or, Doing Business in a Way Customers Understand.

In a great old Twilight Zone episode coincidentally named “Wordplay” (the name of my business), a salesman wakes up to find himself in a world where familiar words have suddenly taken on new meanings. In the end, he’s forced to sit down and learn a whole new language, where “dinosaur” means “lunch” and a dog is a “Wednesday.” (Here’s a synopsis.)

This reminds me of what it’s like to work with a new client or start a new job. There’s so much to learn…the players, the lingo, how people interact, the systems and processes — everything that’s familiar to them is new to me. It can feel like everyone is talking jibberish. And it’s easy to see the oddities in the way things are said and done. (Customers have to do what to process an order? What’s this ‘taxonomy’ you keep talking about? You fill out a Z form to get a rebate?)

These early, head-spinning stages  give me the opportunity to help my client see things as the customer might see them. Is some of their language odd or unclear? Is a customer-facing process a little wonky? Did I have a hard time understanding how something was done or why it was done a certain way? I can use my experience as a newbie to help my clients simplify and clarify what they present to the outside world. I try to take note of what seems odd or what I struggled to understand — chances are others less in-the-know struggle with the same thing.

It’s a small window of opportunity, though. Turns out you can teach an old dog new trumpets. Before long, what seemed unclear or odd will be familiar and “the way we’ve always done things” will make  sense. Before that happens, I try to capture my initial impressions and use those insights to improve my work, and ultimately, my client’s work.

What if you’re on the client side of the fence? You have the curse of knowledge, so your challenge is to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Formal methods like focus groups, surveys, trial runs (just how does someone approach your website for the first time?), and direct marketing tests (half the list gets one version, the other half gets another version) are all good ways to understand your customers. So are informal methods, “Hey Aunt Meg (or Neighbor Sam or Vendor John), what do you think of this? (How would you fill this out? Does this make sense? Where would you start with this?) The answers you get may confirm what you knew all along or throw a bucket of cold reality in your face, but at least you won’t be basing your decisions and actions on assumptions.

Frankly, if you simply recognize that what’s clear to you may not be clear for your customers, you’ll be a lot farther ahead than many businesses. Use the insights of those new to your business — new employees, new customers, new vendors like me — to define a language that everybody can understand.

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His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.
~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


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