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Jargon basement: How not to talk to customers

"OMG WTF" done in old letterpress More than half of Britons admit to using business jargon regularly and marketing is particularly rife with it. Although some might view it as a means of impressing colleagues or clients, jargon often leads to misunderstanding. Tom Whitney considers the importance of clear communication in your sales and marketing activities

You may think that business jargon is the preserve of corporations. But terms like ‘upskill’, ‘core competencies’ and ‘change agent’ are just as likely to be heard in smaller firms these days. A 2010 survey by Opinium found that office jargon was one of the top five workplace annoyances.

Sales and marketing are particularly rife with jargon. Internally, this may not be such a problem – it’s likely your colleagues understand when you talk about ‘segmentation’, ‘positioning’ and ‘conversion rates’. But every sector, product or service potentially comes with its own jargon, and using it with customers can undermine your sales efforts.

“Business jargon is just about everywhere now – we have yet to find a sector where it isn’t used,” says Marie Clair, spokeswoman for the Plain English Campaign. “People often use it to make it sound like they understand what is going on, elevate their image or hide their real message.”

Sending out mixed messages

Don’t assume that using jargon at work will make you a ‘heavy hitter’ with your colleagues. The chances are it will just cause confusion. What does it mean to ‘interrogate a marketing plan’ anyway?

“There’s no point trying to use long or clever words just for the sake of it,” Clair cautions. “Wrapping things up in technical language or ‘corporate speak’ effectively puts up a barrier between people - and there’s a concern that if people don’t understand something, they won’t speak up in case they look foolish.”

Aside from miscommunication, many people find business jargon irritating. Opinium's research highlighted that ‘thinking outside the box’, 'let's touch base' and ‘blue sky thinking’ are considered the most annoying phrases. More recent additions to the business jargon lexicon include ‘eat a reality sandwich’ and ‘leading edge’, which is apparently beyond ‘cutting edge’. Marketers have been particularly guilty of popularising these kinds of phrases.

Acceptable use of specialist language

There may be some contexts in which the use of jargon is acceptable. “There is no problem in using it internally as long as explanations are consistent,” concedes Clair. “But beware of those who don’t admit they have no idea what you are saying.

“Externally, with customers, it can become dangerous if terms are unfamiliar and need explanation,” she adds. “If your clients are using it, have the confidence to throw back jargon you don’t understand.”

Industry-specific terminology may also be ok, but only among those in the know. The IT industry is rife with impenetrable phrases such as ‘backward compatibility’, for example. But it is important to remember that ‘outsiders’ – ie customers, are unlikely to know what you are talking about when you slip into technical terminology.

The technology and IT sectors are very prone to this sort of thing. One well-known PC retailer frequently builds its adverts around features such as ‘dual core processors’. But how many potential customers will actually understand what this means?

Clear communication in your marketing

Whether you are communicating with staff or clients, it is vital to be understood. Clear language should feature in all your publications, from direct mail and marketing brochures to website copy, advertising and even email correspondence.

“Small businesses need to understand the language of their market, both from suppliers and customers,” emphasises Clair. “When in doubt about what level of language to use, ask the audience being addressed.

“Never assume that what is clear to you is clear to another,” she points out. “Hiding behind words is the perfect tool for politicians, but doesn’t usually build strong customer relations.”