Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Lingo Bingo: Why Being a Good Interpreter Matters More than Your Technical Skills

Posted by debrahelwig on September 17, 2009

Lingo Want a wake-up-call about how to attract great clients? Have I got a story for you.

Last year, when my husband’s birthday rolled around, I casually asked about what he needed for his beloved woodworking hobby. “A stacked dado, probably,” he replied.

Oh, boy. Stacked day-dough. What the heck is that? Since I was being sneaky, I couldn’t ask. No problem. I’d go to a woodworking place and they’d know.

I started at the most exclusive woodworking specialty store in our area – upscale, smelling of lemon oil and cedar, full of expensive toys. Conversations about things I didn’t understand buzzed around me. Intimidated, I sidled up to the counter between two customers debating arcane aspects of rotary sanders and asked, “I need to buy a … stacked day-dough?” The clerk waved me over to a wall of – stuff. To an experienced eye, it was probably a cinch to see what I needed. But to me, it was a giant wall of metal pointy things. The clerk didn’t notice. The air in the room was definitely, “If you have to ask, you don’t belong here.” I left.

My next stop was a big box store. The orange one. The huge racks and displays were even more intimidating. But this time, the clerk made all the difference. My questioning, “Day-dough?” was met by a smile. “Ma’am, you have absolutely no understanding of what you’re asking for, do you?” he said. “NO,” I replied in relief.

So, for the next 10 or 15 minutes, this kind man asked questions. LOTS of questions that I did understand. What kind of work my husband did. How often he did it. Who he did it for. And at the same time, I got a kick-in-the-pants introduction to table saws and saw blades (including stacked dadoes). I bought what I needed. But – the much more important thing is – I felt great about it. I felt like this man cared about what my husband needed. He cared about making me look good. He cared about helping me learn something.

And, on B-Day, not only was my husband delighted with the gift, he was thrilled that I could talk to him about it. Hooray, me. Double hooray, big orange sales clerk! Big Box Orange immediately became my home improvement store.

And from that experience, I learned something that applies TIMES TEN in the professional services world: It’s not your skills that set you apart. It’s your ability – and desire – to listen and interpret.

Every industry is full of acronyms and insider-speak that are gibberish to folks on the outside — and accounting and law are worse than most. To a non-accountant, hearing phrases peppered with IRS, A&A, SALT, PCAOB, AICPA, IFRS, and the like sounds like little more than Jabberwocky.

And if they don’t understand in their own context what you’re doing, or why it’s valuable, they’ll go somewhere else.

It’s the same story as my quest for a stacked dado. Most of your potential clients aren’t sure what they need, and they definitely don’t know the ins and outs of how to get it done. Your value as a trusted advisor is greatest when you clearly explain what they need and why, in a language they can understand. A few folks will be impressed if you throw around acronym-laden insider speak, but most will just quietly take their business elsewhere.

At the end of the day, trust is worth more than talent. When you can meet a potential client where they are, understanding their needs and using their lingo to explain what you can do for them, you’re well on the way to a perfect meeting of the minds. And a highly fruitful client experience.

** For a fun (and scary long) list of accounting acronyms, visit For law, see
Photo by zinjixmaggir (license).

8 Responses to “Lingo Bingo: Why Being a Good Interpreter Matters More than Your Technical Skills”

  1. Ken Kendall said

    This is what I am trying to tell men as well.

    I write a blog on how men can better love their wives. I would really appreciate it if you would take a look and give me any feedback or comments.


  2. Silverbunny said

    During the dot-com years, I worked for a company that had a small army of marketeers writing copy for its website — over 1 GB of content when we had to back it up! Our website used every buzzword that was in vogue that month and addressed every cutting edge trend that was making the tech magazine headlines.

    I worked there; I knew what our products were, and even I couldn’t understand from our website what we sold, what it did, or why you would want to buy it. What a waste of time and money that website was!

    Always, always, always try to write to a general audience. Please.

    • Just yesterday I attended MarketingProfs’ online Digital Marketing World Conference, and in one attendee chat I saw someone say, “We’re afraid of letting too many people do social media because we’re afraid we’ll lose control of our message.”

      My reply to that was – “If your message is that complex, you need to rethink your message.”

      Keep it simple, keep it relevant. That’s what really matters. It’s all about paying attention and responding in a mindful way.

      Thanks for the great insights!

  3. Stephanie said

    “At the end of the day, trust is worth more than talent.”

    Very insightful. Especially when money is tight–and whose isn’t in today’s economy–you want to spend it with people you trust.

  4. Debra,

    As always great post (and congrats on scoring with such a great birthday present!). For me, it comes down to genuinely taking an interest in the PERSON and not categorizing people as a “prospect” or “client.” Then, the focus should be on how you can help this person without thinking about what’s in it for you. If that is your mantra in business and in life, it’s all going to work out.

    — Barbara

    • Thanks, Barb! You are dead on, and you express the concept beautifully. With the “running & gunning” way firms have to operate these days (the “I want it now” culture at its best), it’s soooo easy to get caught up in numbers and prospects and spreadsheets and all the impersonal bits of the business. If we can stop and remember that there’s a life behind every transaction we touch, it makes all the difference in the world.

  5. Here is my observation as one who teaches technical writing seminars in the workplace. Many “techies” use jargon to impress their colleagues that they are subject matter experts. Others find it easier to repeat the jargon and acronyms they hear than to craft a clear message with concise word use. One of the outcomes from the training I provide is refocusing a group on practicing both clear thinking and clear writing.

    • EXACTLY, Catherine! And you hit the nail on the head: focus and thought (and honest care about the end consumer of your interaction) make all the difference in effective communication, no matter what your business. Thanks for stopping by!

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