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Why terminology matters

Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly vs. Explosion. Pre-Owned vs. Used. We’ve seen a lot of terminology changes over the years, and it’s because words matter. How you communicate and frame something has been a technique used by marketers for decades. Yet as organization leaders, we often make terminology more abstract and complicated instead of simple, compelling, and clear. This is one of the main causes why our organizations don’t understand what we do and why we do it.

Take any mission statement. They all sound the same. Here’s one from a well-known big box store: “Our goal is to provide the highest level of service, the broadest selection of products, and the most competitive prices.” Who is it? Doesn’t matter, because it could apply to anyone or anything. Why wouldn’t you want to deliver the highest level of service? What does the highest level even mean?

Or take any vision statement. Here’s a good one from a major tech company: “Design a more enlightened way of working”. It’s virtually impossible for an employee to understand what that means to their day-to-day. It’s also impossible to tie that vision in any way to key business decisions that impact the future.

The worst culprit is values. Here are just a few that have come from 16 different companies and industries, yet all the same: “We are honest and ethical”, “We support our customers”, “We are fiscally responsible”, “We value other people’s opinions”, and “We care about quality service”. These could apply to anyone, anywhere, and really should be fairly common sense statements, which don’t bring any unique value to the company or culture. They shouldn’t even have to be said.

That given, how do we look at our use of terminology in a different way? Let’s go back to our examples in the beginning. Pre-owned versus used. This change of wording was intentional – to reposition the perception people have about used cars. Used indicates old. Used indicates wear. Pre-owned says something different. Ownership implies a level of respect and care given to the thing that was owned. It’s a smart change, that has impacted not just the marketing and messaging of used cars, but their perceived purchase value.

When we look at our own organizational terminology, what have we done to sharpen its impact on our customers and employees? When we say “quality service”, we should focus on what that truly means. What terminology illustrates this in a more meaningful way? Should it be, for example, “seamless service”? This more specific term provides more ability to build a vision and direction around.

With more specificity, you can narrow the definition and scope. “Seamless service” may mean you invest and work on ensuring customers aren’t shuffled from one department to another, or their online and in-person experiences can be interchanged without additional steps. Or it may mean the customer makes one request and the company handles the rest. Whatever you decide, the terminology has a direction.

Even with existing, generic terminology, such as “support our customers”, can have a more robust definition to support it, but without a clear direction, this often becomes more vague phrases with even more broad platitudes. It’s important to look at your company terminology and really assess whether it’s working to help your message get across and if your audiences have an aligned definition of it. Otherwise, they’re just those Dilbert-esque words on paper that no one really understands and no one really cares about.

About the Author

Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of three books, including her most recent, What To Ask: How To Learn What Customers Need but Don’t Tell You, released in June 2022.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive MagazineEntrepreneur MagazineHarvard Business Review, Rotman Magazine, World Economic Forum, and more. Andrea is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also an instructor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

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