The Wrong End of the Stick

Matching Our Words to Customer Context

Our customers heard something we weren’t saying because we were not speaking their language. It’s a mistake we make in IT over and over again. As practitioners, we are immersed in our own view of software development, testing, and delivery, and we use a vocabulary for those activities that makes sense to us. But those less involved in the day-to-day project—such as customers and executive stakeholders—are usually business people with their own priorities and their own vocabularies. They may ascribe very different meanings than we intend to the words we use.

Exhibiting a tin ear for customer vocabulary doesn’t always trigger major emotional reactions, but it does signal that the speaker is an outsider to the customer’s world, and it can be subtly damaging to working relationships. Using unfamiliar language—or familiar language in unfamiliar ways—inhibits clear communication and can irritate or offend people. Sometimes, customers perceive our insistence on speaking our own language as lack of respect for their business culture or a sign that we are out of touch with their concerns.

Am I saying we can’t introduce our customers to new words or new ideas? Not at all. There are many circumstances where it’s our job either to promote new concepts or to put a different slant on old ones. For a change agent, it can be advantageous to be an identified outsider.

 But before we can introduce a new reality, we first need to understand the current reality—where the people we’re working with are coming from and what the words we plan to use mean to them. If we want to avoid misunderstanding and needless upsets, we may sometimes have to compromise and use different words for the same thing in different customer contexts. 

We need to be sensitive to our customers’ perspectives and work within them. We can begin with by exercising awareness of the words we use and conscious intent in how we use them. Because the thoughtless use of a single word could so easily cause someone to get the wrong end of the stick.

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