Are you speaking your customer’s language?

Eight seconds – that’s the average human attention span, according to a Microsoft study.

In those 8 seconds, you better be sure to choose words and visuals carefully to make sure you’re speaking your customer’s language.

Think of buzz words, hashtags, and popular industry jargon that will resonate with your customers. It’s essential to know your audience and the communication platform you’re using.

Communication Lessons Learned from Tokyo, Japan

Cathy Olig during her Japan Central Railway internship
Cathy Olig in Japan Central Railway’s uniform for a week spent at Tokyo station as part of her summer internship.

My greatest lesson in communication came from a summer internship in Tokyo with Japan Central Railway in 2002, also the year that Japan hosted the World Cup. It was an exciting time for me personally and professionally, and for the company and country as a whole!

As part of my internship program, I gave four presentations to the Japan Central Railway management with help of a translator.  With each presentation, I learned something new, and by my last presentation at the end of summer, I finally felt more comfortable sharing my assessment of the railway system’s customer experience for English speaking passengers and my marketing plan to help increase seat utilization during off-peak travel times.

Lesson 1: Keep it Simple

American business jargon doesn’t translate well.  In my first presentation I learned this the hard way. Instead of keeping it simple, I wanted to sound intelligent, and chose to use business terms and concepts that I would have used in a classroom.  These terms didn’t have direct translations in Japanese, so I spent a lot of time rephrasing my sentence with the translator.

I learned that it’s best to speak plainly, in shorter sentences, and leave time to pause, so the translator could have his turn to relay the message in Japanese.

The same goes for writing to customers. Write and speak at their level in a concise, easy to understand manner.

Lesson 2: Be Aware of Cultural Differences

The Japanese and American cultures are constantly used to compare and contrast cultural norms, so this example may be a bit difficult to relate to in domestic business settings. Just bear with me though – it’s a good story.

In one of my presentations, a senior executive happened to fall asleep.  I was told this after my presentation.  Maybe it was during my first one that ran long because of my poor word choices. At any rate, this would have insulted any American.  I was more amused than anything, but the Japanese employees subordinate to this executive reassured me that this was commonplace.

If an executive falls asleep, it is assumed that a junior team member will fill him or her in on the important details. Also, subordinates are expected to stay at work until their bosses leave.  The group-oriented culture in Japan is very predominant in the workplace.

This illustrated the importance of the other influencers and team members associated with your customer.  It’s not just the highest ranking executive that plays a role in decision-making.  By understanding your customer’s company, department, and other key players, you’ll be able to more effectively communicate your message.

Lesson 3: Respect the Home Field

Now, I don’t expect that you’ll run into cross-cultural differences as stark as those in Japanese and American cultures, but on a more local level, you should pay attention to your customer’s business culture.  If they dress professionally, then don’t wear jeans to their office. Respect the rules and norms of your customer’s home turf and match them as I did to adapt to Japanese culture as an American visitor.

Before my final presentation, I was in “American business professional” mode, and met a Japanese person who had spent some time in Canada as a child and spoke English very well with little accent. Because of this, I held out my hand for a typical American handshake, as is the norm in the U.S. In return, I received a “dead fish” style handshake from this Japanese man. I should have bowed and kept my space to follow the Japanese cultural norm.

Communication is a Two-Way Street

Just like giving and taking, so is communication: a pattern of talking and listening to share a message. Tailor your speaking and writing to words that your customer uses and it will be easier to hold his or her attention, communicate, and work together (hopefully) for years to come.

Need a communication plan or help drafting customer materials? Get in touch to talk about your project needs.