Whether you’re in marketing, design, development, sales or customer relations, making your customers feel comfortable, welcomed, and valued is important. But, in order to do this, you need to know the ins and outs of your customer.

Who is your target persona, and how can you best relate to them? What problems do they have that you’re able to solve? How can you engage, interact, and form a genuine connection with them, rather than just sell to them?

Speaking their language is the only way to understand and connect with them. And, if you can’t speak their language, they’ll find someone else who can.

Why You Can’t Just Assume You Know Your Customer’s Language

It’s tempting to make assumptions about your customer and how they speak. After all, between Google and Wikipedia, anyone can feel like an expert on any topic with just an hour of reading. But there is no substitute for real life experience.

The video game Far Cry 4 is set in a fictional country called Kyrat, which is based on the alien and perilous country of Nepal. The team at Ubisoft had been working from reference photographs and travel documentaries for a while, before taking a two week trip to Nepal to experience the culture and landscape first-hand.

“We’d been making these characters, but we needed to go out and come back to look at our project with fresh eyes. We had this sneaking feeling that the characters that we’d made didn’t feel real,” said executive producer Dan Hay. Upon reaching Nepal, they found that Far Cry “looked like a Disneyland version of Nepal”, and this led to a major pivot in the game’s thematic development.

A marketer or developer working for an organization that makes healthcare software, for example, simply won’t have the qualifications or experience of a nurse or doctor. What may sound realistic and accurate to you may sound superficial, misguided or hackneyed to someone with more experience in the field.

Most organizations don’t know their customers very well. They deal with them from a distance, and generally only hear from them when something is seriously wrong. Even if things seem to be going well, developing a better understanding of your customers can always show how to improve.

Bonus: Need some more guidance on speaking your customer’s language? We’ll show you in this free resource.

Authentic vs Inauthentic Language

What works for one organization won’t necessarily work for yours. Your language must be unique and authentic. If you try to imitate a competitor who hasn’t done their research, then it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. And, even if the competitor you’re imitating has done their research, sounding like a clone won’t do much to help you stand out from the crowd.

Similarly, trying to impersonate those outside of your competition is also misguided. Denny’s Diner uses very colloquial language when talking to their customers. This works well for them—their target market is young, and it works with the “Denny” persona.

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But just because it works for Denny’s doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone.

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Customers aren’t stupid, and constantly pandering to them with the flavor of the month isn’t appropriate for most organizations. “When you see a brand aging down its social channels by tossing in ‘bae’ and ‘on fleek,’ it’s a warning sign in most cases that the brand is struggling to connect in a meaningful way with its audience,” says Shankar Gupta, VP of Strategy at 360i.

Where Should You Go to Find Out How Your Customer “Speaks”?

The only way to find out how your customer speaks is by listening to them. Let them take the lead, and be open to ideas you may have never thought of. Surveys are the quick and dirty way, but often lead to superficial results. They’re great for quantitative data gathering, but when developing an authentic, empathetic voice you need qualitative data—and surveys just don’t cut it.

Interviews are the best way to better understand your customers. They provide a chance for a dialogue, for testing your knowledge, and getting immediate feedback. How do your customers describe your organization? How do they describe your competitors? What words and phrases pop up repeatedly?

An important distinction to make is that an interview is not a conversation. In order to receive accurate, useful information, an interview needs to be structured in a way that allows the interviewee freedom of expression. It might be tempting (or even unconscious and unintentional) to lead the interview in a particular direction, but this is just another way of assuming instead of listening with an open mind.

You can often integrate this research into your existing company processes. For example, branding consultancy StickyBranding developed the Win-Loss card, which is completed after every sales call, answering questions like, “What symptoms, issues, or events are motivating them to seek out solutions?” and “What caused confusion or objections in the sales call?” Keep in mind that this is great if you’re trying to understand the people making the decisions, but might not work well to understand the people actually using the product.

So How Do You Speak Your Customer’s Language Without Sounding Inauthentic?

You’ve done your research and got a solid foundation of data. You’ve condensed that data down and created a persona or two to target. You’ve educated yourself on the reality of your customer’s everyday environment. You know the jargon they use, what it means, and when to use it. Is that it?

Understanding your customers is not a goal, but a process without end. The more you learn about your customers, the better questions you can ask them, and the more you can learn. Your customers will change and grow, as will their environment, and iteration is the only way to keep on top of it all.

Bonus: Need some more guidance on speaking your customer’s language? We’ll show you in this free resource.

It can be difficult to start speaking in your customer’s language. If you’re used to emailing, phone calls might be awkward. If you’re used to blogging, condensing your ideas into a 140 character tweet will be difficult. And, if your customer is in a different generation, that adds an extra challenge.

But ultimately, with user experience becoming a higher priority amongst organizations, customers are beginning to expect companies to come towards them, rather than the other way around. And if you’re not able to do that, then someone else will.