Customer-Focused Verbs


When building successful relationships with your customers, certain verbs such as "to respond," "to listen," and "to involve" are important and should be used. But this column is about another common place verb that's not at all customer focused: "to get." Naomi doesn't mean "to get a 50% raise for completing the project on time" or "to get a week off for creating a brilliant test plan." No, she means, "to get customers to do things your way." Learn how simple verb replacement therapy can help you build better relationships with the customer.

I began noticing this use of "to get" many years ago in companies I visited and I continue to encounter it often, which is disconcerting. The problem is that it's easy to slip into this speech pattern and remain oblivious to its counterproductive consequences. For example:

  • In organization #1, a project manager bemoaned her customer's refusal to read her meticulously prepared weekly status reports. "How can we get him to pay attention?" she asked.
  • In organization #2, an IT manager complained about the headache-inducing challenges he faced as a result of his customers' demands. "How can we get them to stop issuing such unreasonable demands?" asked the manager.
  • In organization #3—the most striking example of all—a director, frustrated with his customers' resistance to process changes that would improve the development process, asked, "How can we get them to be partners with us?"

Now, I'm not a linguist, but these uses of "to get" concern me because they imply that coercion is necessary to achieve the desired result, as if clobbering customers into submission is a stepping stone to a win-win relationship. Furthermore, they suggest that our way is the only way, the right way, and the best way.

How Can I Get You to Read On?
The reality is that you can't get customers to willingly do anything they don't want to do. They may grudgingly go along, especially if they have no choice, but that doesn't mean they'll like it, accept it, or whistle a happy tune while doing it. And compliance certainly doesn't mean that they'll become a joy to work with.

IT personnel who persistently use get-oriented language fail to realize that customers aren't resisting or resenting the decision (or solution, process, procedure, or action), but how the decision was made. Unilaterally, the decision is made without customer input or participation, or even without any explanation of the rationale behind it. And then it's foisted on them as a fait accompli—a done deal; agree quietly because we said so. Is it any surprise that many customers consider the decisions of their IT organizations as "just another hare-brained scheme they've come up with to make our lives difficult," as stated by one IT customer whom I interviewed.

Verb Replacement Therapy
Fortunately, the solution is not only painless but rewarding as well. If you are guilty of "get" abuse, all you have to do is replace this divisive verb with customer-oriented verbs such as help, involve, and listen. Then match your actions to these verbs. So, rather than getting customers to do things your way, you'll help them understand the reasoning behind your decisions. You'll involve customers in making decisions that affect them, so they buy into those decisions. You'll listen to their concerns so that you can present your ideas with those concerns in mind.

In the process of helping, involving, and listening, you may discover that your solution isn't the only one or even the best one. The perspective customers bring to situations may lead to solutions that are different from yours, but at least as effective—and perhaps more likely to succeed because the customer had a say in the formulation.How would verb replacement affect organizations such as the three I described above? Let's revisit these three organizations and see what transpired:

  • I urged the project manager in the first organization to talk with her customer about the usefulness of the status reports. In doing so, she learned that he saw the status reports as a mishmash of little geometric symbols and technical jargon in tiny type. Not finding any value in the reports, he simply ignored them. Thus enlightened, the project manager invited several members of the customer department to help create a communication process to ensure open communication and enable the two parties to stay in synch. Included in that effort was a discussion of what status information was most useful and how best to communicate it. With a new approach that they all agreed to, get was no longer needed.
  • Alerted to his misuse of the "get" verb, the IT manager in the second organization held a meeting with his team about their customers' unreasonable demands. In the course of their conversation, they came to realize that the requests declared as unreasonable were likely reasonable from the customers' perspective—from a business perspective, not a technical perspective. They agreed to banish unreasonableness from their vocabulary by soliciting more information from their customers earlier in the project. This gave them a better frame of reference in which to understand their customers' requests.
  • The technical staff in the third organization came to realize that they had no chance of creating a partnership with their customers as long as they defined partnerships as, "Let's agree to do things my way." They also came to accept that actions speak louder than often meaningless words. The transition to a "we're in this together" relationship wasn't instantaneous. It wasn't even quick. But once they started trying to understand, appreciate, and respect their customers' concerns (three other great verbs), their customers became more accommodating as well. No one called it a partnership, but thanks to a few verbs, that's exactly what began to evolve.

Are your verbs contributing to productive relationships or interfering with them? Could it be that a little verb adjustment is in order?

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