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Is Your Storytelling Smothering Your Customer Relationships?

By Christopher J. Bucholtz
Jan 24, 2013 5:00 AM PT

"People buy your story."

Is Your Storytelling Smothering Your Customer Relationships?

Hearing that said from the stage at DemandCon 2011 by Forrester's Jeff Ernst made my withered writer's heart grow two sizes (to paraphrase Dr. Seuss). Covering the technology industry has made me an unwilling witness to a range of crimes against language, ranging from tortured grammar to made-up words to an impenetrable lexicon of jargon. All of these interfere with telling stories.

If people buy based on your story, why are you mucking up that story in the telling?

This is a lesson we can learn by observing the vendors that sell CRM technology. Don't forget that they're software vendors at heart; CRM is their product, but often they're battling to embrace the discipline of CRM just like every one of their customers. Thus, the story the business learns about itself is told in the language of that business -- and in software, that language is replete with the jargon of the industry.

Speaking that language in the past was not a problem, when customers' buying decisions were driven by IT departments that spoke the same language. Now, though, CRM buying decisions, like much software, are being driven by line-of-business people concerned with their own problems -- problems they articulate in the language of their business.

Avoid Insider-Speak

RelayWare CEO Mike Morgan pointed this out to me at an Oracle OpenWorld event a few years ago, when he spotted the phenomena in action: Customers would approach his team with business problems that were tailor made for the company's partner relationship management solution, but the explanation of that solution used the company's -- not the customers' -- language. The mismatch resulted in a failure to connect that left both sides wondering why things didn't work.

Much to Mike's credit, he spotted the problem. That's a major step toward fixing it. If you can adjust the way you speak to the customer and bring the discussion's tone, language and emphasis closer to the way the customer is speaking, that conversation no longer seems like an apples-to-oranges discussion.

This problem of telling your business' story in a language your customer doesn't speak is not limited to people selling technology. It's very easy to do the same thing in any field; language from your industry or from within your office can easily become a regular part of your lexicon. When you tell your story externally, you mistakenly take for granted that your audience has the same vocabulary you do.

Industries ranging from healthcare, insurance and finance all the way to fashion, retail and food service have their own ways of describing things -- but few of the people they sell to use those terms. To tell a story using your language in place of the language of the customer is ineffective and, worse, sends a signal that you're more concerned about what goes on internally than what's going on with the customer.

You need to tell your story. You need to tell it to the right people. You need to tell it in the right way. So how do you do that?

4 Steps to Solid Storytelling

Step one is to understand your story. Clarity in what you want to say is important; it allows you to get to the point with customers, and it prevents confusion.

Step two is to tell the story, and to do so with clarity and in a way that your customers will understand. Your verbiage is often a warning when you stray form the path of clarity; listen to the words you use and ask yourself whether those terms exist in the wild.

Few people I know say "utilize," "impactful," or "incentivize" when they speak out loud; this kind of business-school thesis-padding language cuts the momentum out of your story. Similarly, industry jargon that forces customers to look things up or guess about your meaning also harms understanding and makes it harder for a buyer to make a decision.

That brings us to step three: Try to step out of yourself and hear that story as if it were being heard by a customer. If you can't do that, enlist someone you know who's not part of your industry; if you can make clear what you're talking about and how it could offer a customer a benefit, you're on your way to crafting a good story.

Step four is to check the way you talk about your business against the people who tell stories for a living within your organization: sales people. They know what works and what doesn't in speaking to your customers.

If the objective is to build relationships with customers and you're failing to connect with them on this basic language level, no amount of CRM technology or changes in CRM strategy are going to get you to your objectives.

If you're looking to match what you're selling to what your customers needs, it's your job to adjust the way you describe what you do and what you sell so the buyer understands it. The alternative is to wait for the buyer to learn your language -- which could leave you waiting for customers for a long time.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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