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Speaking their language

One of the most important aspects of selling something is to speak the language of your customers. However, we frequently find companies and institutions that aren’t willing to do so or don’t even bother to learn their customers’ language. An example is General Motors not understanding why the Chevy Nova wasn’t selling in Latin America. Then GM found out that “no va” in Spanish meant “no go.”

A friend of mine once wrote a book to help a specific group of people do their job. It was  a wonderful book that explored in depth the academic areas of what he was teaching and quoted numerous other books and studies. It appealed to wonky people like me who wanted to understand the technical aspect of what he was teaching, but it failed to speak to the people it was intended to teach; it was too academic. I jokingly told the author that he needed to create a comic book version of the book. As I thought about it more, though, I realized that this is what he should have done right out of the gate. There is a reason the “[Pick-the-Subject] for Dummies” book series has done  so well. It speaks the same language as its intended audience.

We need to think about speaking a common language when it comes to hiring the next generation of workers for our industry. Each generation is different from the one that preceded it. Think back to the hippies of the Baby Boom generation and how the work environment changed as they became part of the mainstream workforce. The same holds true now. The next generation is already the majority of the workforce. They are motivated by flexible work hours and work-life balance, but are willing to work hard at what they do. Yet, the older generation often doing the hiring views these values as nonsense and as an excuse to get out of working hard. We are applying our values to their needs and speaking a much different language than they are.

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A specific example of this occurred to a salesperson of ours who had been selling to a builder for many years. The builder decided to retire from the business and handed the company over to his son. Our salesperson continued to service the account, but he started expressing a growing frustration that the son never answered his phone or called him back after he left messages. The son would reply via text, but then when my salesperson immediately tried to call him, he would not answer the phone, only eventually texting back his reply. Our salesperson took it as a sign of disrespect and believed the son was a poor communicator.

When we reached out to the customer, his enthusiasm toward the salesperson was lukewarm, even though he had grown up watching his dad buy products from our guy. He felt that he “wasn’t clicking” with our salesperson who maybe still viewed him as a kid running around the jobsite. We pointed out to the salesperson that he was judging the customer based on the way that he, the salesperson, preferred to communicate, rather than acknowledging that the son, who was now in charge of the construction company that was our customer, strongly preferred to communicate via text. It had never occurred to this salesperson that he was using a language that the customer did not want to use.

Instead, our salesperson judged the customer negatively and criticized his actions. Only after our salesperson started seeing this customer through a different lens and began communicating with him in a manner the customer understood did both parties’ attitudes about each other start improving.

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It was only after our parents stopped looking at our generation’s long hair and blue jeans— and really began listening to us—that we started successfully working together. Sometimes holding on tight to the language we speak and not being willing to change can make the people we are speaking to seem anywhere from disinterested in what we have to say to outright stupid. But if we listen to the language they speak and communicate with them the way they want to talk, not only do they listen, but great things can happen quickly.

Ultimately, I suggest you listen to your customers and learn to speak their language.

Russ Kathrein is the president and CEO of Aurora, Ill.-based Alexander Lumber, which operates 12 locations throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Reach Russ at

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