Ever open up a client email and exclaim, “They just don’t get it!” or “Weren’t they listening to me?” My personal angst is, “Don’t they remember we talked about this?!”
Welcome to the world of customer service.
Whether you offer a service or a product, you’re B2B or B2C, online or offline, these issues arise.
Help is here! The secret to effective communication is prime numbers. Really.
Think I’m crazy? Think I’m wrong? Read the post and then weigh in.
This post is part of the Word Carnivals – an absolute cornucopia of smart small business experts who are attacking the communication conundrum this month. Read more here. (and I promise I’ll stop with the alliteration now).
What ARE Prime Numbers?
Alternate Title: You say Prime Colors I say Prime Numbers
Despite being something most numbers geeks love, prime numbers aren’t a complex concept. They are the number version of prime colors. With color you have three bases; Yellow, Blue, and Red. You don’t make pure yellow from blue or red, you only make yellow using yellow. Same for blue or red.
Now if you want green, well you need to mix yellow and blue. Of course there are a variety of shades of green, some even have a little red thrown in. Suddenly what seems like a simple color, green, can have a variety of looks. If I say green, well heck I could get anything from Neon to Olive!
Prime numbers are like prime colors. Examples include 2, 5, 7, 11, 13,… The only way you can get the number 2, using whole numbers, is to multiply 2 * 1. The only way to get 5 is to multiply 5 * 1.
Fun Fact: The number 2 is the only even number that is also a prime number.
Consider the number 12 – definitely not prime. We can get 12 by multiplying 12 * 1, 2 * 6, or 3 * 4.
Pretty simple right?
How do Prime Numbers relate to Communication?
Alternate Title: Why are you making me learn this?
If you’re not communicating using the language equivalent of prime numbers there is a good chance of miscommunication. Let’s take a look at a simple scenario.
A client requests your company generate more traffic for their website. You work diligently to increase traffic by 10% using only Facebook. Two weeks later an irate client is on the phone demanding to know what’s going on.
What? You did increase traffic by a material amount, and hey you even did it in two weeks! Why are they upset?
The client is demanding to know why you’ve only increased traffic by 10%. And why aren’t you using other types of social media? Weren’t you listening?
The problem is that their request was not in prime numbers. There was more than one way to get to their goal.
Let’s break it down. “I want more traffic for my website.” This could mean 5 more visitors a week, 50, or even 5,000. They might expect 50% or even 100% more traffic from your campaign. In addition there is no indication of how, or from where, the traffic is generated. Perhaps they feel Pinterest is the best source of leads, or research has shown LinkedIn has the highest conversion.
There is more than one way to achieve “more traffic”, just like there is more than one way to get the number 12. This leads to miscommunication and dissatisfaction.
Ways to Speak Prime in Plain English
Alternate Title: Break it down to avoid a breakdown.
When discussing outcomes, deliverables, expectations, and goals be as specific as possible. Often that does mean including numbers, dates or both. Notice how in the example above the client requested “more” traffic. Putting a number around that, whether it was daily visitors, percentage increase, or new unique visitors, would have avoided a good part of the customers unhappiness. Add in a date – in two weeks, or list a specific date – and you’ve really closed the gap.
Here are few tips:
- Turn words like more, improved, increased, reduced, and decreased into written objectives that include numerical benchmarks
- Watch out for terms such as soon, quickly, this month, reasonable time frame, and. Include either calendar dates or if dependent on another event then state it is due 2 weeks after that event transpires.
- Don’t assume a definition, verify it. In writing.
How is as important as when.
Imagine someone telling their CPA, cut my taxes – I don’t care how! Well creative tax practices can lead to a long stay in a federal prison here in the U.S. The mafia wasn’t brought to justice by prosecuting them for murder. It was the IRS that brought down the mafia over tax evasion.
Discuss at least the bare bones of how you plan to achieve something. While I doubt you’ll end up in federal prison for a misunderstanding, an unhappy client can feel just as bad.
Did I convince you that prime numbers can help you communicate with your clients? What are some phrases, questions, or even contract language that you plan to rework after reading this post? We’d love for you to share the before and after!
Oh how I wish my art teacher had been in cahoots with my math teacher! It would’ve made learning about numbers SO much easier.
Great post, Nicole. It’s so easy to lose track of specifics. Especially because in our heads, those vague things ARE specific. They’re just being specifically different for each of us. LOL
Love the examples you give here, Nicole. Avoiding empty words is a tenet of good writing and you show that it can help simplify and clarify client expectations, too.
Of all the many great things you’ve taught me Nicole, establishing clear goals was probably the best. One of the most crucial components of my on boarding process for new clients is what I like to call”defining winning”.
“Defining winning” is the practice of establishing SMART goals in the client’s own words. SMART goals, of course are:
I like to go a bit beyond that and go for SMARTER goals, with the last two letters being:
SMART goals are great. Unless you never review ’em, or retool them into something new as the situation changes.
SMART goals, when set, eliminate a good portion of client angst about what is to be delivered, when, and how much of it there will be. Of course, beyond that: understanding the BASE of their terminology is very important. Homonyms can be completely catastrophic to relations between you and your clients. Misunderstandings in what a word actually means, but not necessarily homonym, can be just as bad. Having a shared glossary of terms is also somewhere in my near future for clients.
Great post Nicole!
Also dangerous: contronyms. Words that have two definitions which conflict. As in, the word “literally”, which both means it literally actually happened and figuratively now.
What a fabulous analogy. You really do make numbers fun Nicole 🙂
It should be an grammar lesson – write a brief, proposal, report and then go through and replace all the obfuscation with prime numbers. Politician should be taught this method of writing too. We’d actually get to understand what they mean.
I will catch myself out from now on and the next time I mention something like in a few weeks, I will replace it with 19 days. That should grab their attention!
Oh Nicole, you seriously crack me up! You know how much I love a good analogy! Those details are sometimes so difficult to write down, especially in the beginning of a project scope. We want to be free flowing and responsive and respectful and respected, but sometimes we just need containers in which to do that in – ie details and numbers.
I”m certainly working on this myself! Great post. Chuckle chuckle chuckle!
Nicole, I love how you turn everything into a numbers game 🙂 You’re always right on the money!
I may not be a math geek but I KNOW that whole vague, wishy-washy adjective game. Maybe I’m a number nut at heart but long before I ever had a single client snafu i was always the one in the room asking “Soon? What does that mean? Soon as in tomorrow, or soon as in next month?”
I dislike all those words! In fact, I only use them when I’m TRYING to be vague. It’s a great lesson for anyone to learn. Know HOW, know WHEN, know HOE MUCH… quantify yourself silly. Great insight!
Not to confuse the matter any – but on the web, it’s actually red + green + blue (RGB) that makes up all those pretty little hex codes! Numbers, however, I get. (Although I confess, every time I hear “prime numbers” my mind goes immediately back to this movie.