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Be Sure to Speak Your Customer's Language

October 11, 2010
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Kimberly Schwartz

Since I joined The NEWS, I’ve had to get up to speed quickly on a number of terms that previously held no meaning for me. I’m not complaining - it’s my job to learn and understand the industry lingo. But it’s not the job of your customers. How often do you rattle off terms like “AFUE” or “audit” without pausing to explain them?

The real question is: After talking to you or your sales staff, do people feel confused and frightened, or educated and excited?

This is an important question for contractors to consider from a sales perspective. It also matters to others who are attempting to spur nationwide energy conservation. In fact, the Department of Energy recently sponsored a webinar that dealt with this topic. I listened in because the title - “Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements” - interested me.

The webinar was based on a 136-page report published last month by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It discusses a wide range of factors that can influence homeowners to make significant actions to conserve energy. But what particularly struck me was that the report dedicated a whole chapter to the concept: “Language Matters.”

You may be saying, “Duh.” Of course, it’s always been apparent that the best salespeople are the ones who communicate well with customers. But it may be time to take a closer look at how well you and your staff are able to communicate with consumers.

For starters, acronyms can certainly turn people off, so you should be extra careful when you’re throwing around SEER, IAQ, AFUE, HSPF, etc. It wouldn’t hurt to provide customers with a mini glossary if you want them to be able to recognize and understand these types of terms.

But beyond acronyms, consider how other words you may be comfortable using are actually confusing to people outside the industry. For instance, two buzzwords for contractors involved in whole-house performance contracting are “audit” and “retrofit.” While these terms may be perfectly clear to you, you might be surprised by the effect they have on your audience.

The Berkeley report specifically cited the use of the words “audit” and “retrofit” as a “glaring example of poor language.” It noted that most people associate an “audit” with taxes and the IRS - and that’s certainly not a positive connotation. “Retrofit,” while it may not be negative, is simply a meaningless word to the general public.

To tackle these concerns about communication, smart contractors can train themselves and others to substitute confusing terms with clear, simple phrases. One example is to stay away from the term “energy audit” and instead use “energy assessment.” And to avoid the word “retrofit,” contractors can carefully substitute “home improvement” or “energy upgrade.”

Learning to control your language may seem difficult or unnecessary, but it can become second nature. In many situations, you may not even realize how you intuitively control your language based on the people you are with. For instance, without thinking about it, many adults automatically use different words when children are present. (And if they don’t, they’ll probably hear about it from the kid’s parents.)

It might initially be tough to retrain yourself to use different terms when talking to customers. But you can start by paying attention to the words you use when you’re with them.

Don’t drop in acronyms or terms that will make them tune out. Try using smart substitutions and simple phrases. If the end result of your focus on communication is increased sales and service opportunities, it will be well worth it.

Publication date: 10/11/2010
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