OPINION

Is Your Storytelling Smothering Your Customer Relationships?

“People buy your story.”

Hearing that said from the stage at DemandCon 2011 by Forrester’s Jeff Ernstmade 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 ofcrimes against language, ranging from tortured grammar to made-up words to animpenetrable 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 thetelling?

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, butoften they’re battling to embrace the discipline of CRM just like every one of theircustomers. Thus, the story the business learns about itself is told in the languageof that business — and in software, that language is replete with the jargon of theindustry.

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

Avoid Insider-Speak

RelayWare CEO Mike Morgan pointed this out to me at an Oracle OpenWorld eventa few years ago, when he spotted the phenomena in action: Customers wouldapproach his team with business problems that were tailor made for the company’spartner relationship management solution, but the explanation of that solutionused the company’s — not the customers’ — language. The mismatch resulted in a failureto 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 fixingit. If you can adjust the way you speak to the customer and bring the discussion’stone, language and emphasis closer to the way the customer is speaking, thatconversation no longer seems like an apples-to-oranges discussion.

This problem of telling your business’ story in a language your customer doesn’tspeak is not limited to people selling technology. It’s very easy to do the same thingin any field; language from your industry or from within your office can easilybecome 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, retailand food service have their own ways of describing things — but few of the peoplethey sell to use those terms. To tell a story using your language in place of thelanguage of the customer is ineffective and, worse, sends a signal that you’re moreconcerned 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 itin 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; itallows 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 yourcustomers will understand. Your verbiage is often a warning when you stray formthe path of clarity; listen to the words you use and ask yourself whether those termsexist in the wild.

Few people I know say “utilize,” “impactful,” or “incentivize” when they speak outloud; this kind of business-school thesis-padding language cutsthe momentum out of your story. Similarly, industry jargon that forces customers tolook things up or guess about your meaning also harms understanding and makes itharder 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 itwere being heard by a customer. If you can’t do that, enlist someone you knowwho’s not part of your industry; if you can make clear what you’re talking about andhow 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 peoplewho tell stories for a living within your organization: sales people. They know whatworks and what doesn’t in speaking to your customers.

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

If you’re looking to matchwhat you’re selling to what your customers needs, it’s your job to adjust the way youdescribe what you do and what you sell so the buyer understands it. The alternativeis to wait for the buyer to learn your language — which could leave you waiting forcustomers 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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