Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics - portraitHave you ever found yourself in a foreign land, trying to communicate your needs in a different language? It’s a disquieting feeling, to say the least.

I recall doing client work in Osaka, Japan, years ago. We were well cared for by our hosts and by expat Americans who spoke Japanese during our week’s stay.

One night, my colleague and I were left “on our own” to get dinner as our hosts had a business dinner to attend. My colleague spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese and excellent English. I spoke only English. We ventured into a neighborhood cafe, hoping to find someone there who could translate for us.

No such luck. We each tried communicating in English and Chinese to no avail. We eventually pointed to a menu photograph of a bowl of, well, something. That’s what we had for dinner. It was delicious – we just didn’t know what we were eating!

The fault was ours. We had been spoiled by our hosts and didn’t make any effort to learn the basics of communicating in Japanese.

How well do you speak the language of your customers, today?

To serve external customers today, your organization may have hired team members fluent in your customers’ native languages. When customers can converse in a comfortable language, they are more likely to engage your organization in solving their problems – be it leaky plumbing, providing aviation services, or something in between.

Equally important is the need to communicate effectively in the business languages of your internal customers. You and your team members must be fluent in each of your key customers’ native business languages.

For example, if you need to influence your organization’s CFO to get his or her approval for project expenditures, you must speak to them in their daily language – not in your daily language. You must learn about their needs and concerns, and present your solutions in their terms.

Let’s say you are in charge of facilities and your air conditioning and heating system is in need of replacement. Most of our organizations have not been good stewards of our infrastructure! We “hope” that our buildings last another 10 years with little investment in maintenance and capital expenses. Going to your CFO with an unexpected expense – especially a large, unbudgeted expense – requires something more than “rational” explanations of the need to replace a broken system.

To influence a CFO today requires you to analyze the investment in terms of the return on that investment (ROI), beyond payback over time. One client facing this scenario presented a business case for investing in a high-efficiency HVAC system that would not only pay for itself in less than eight years (due to electricity savings), but, over twenty years, would actually reduce expenses by over 8% annually.

That approach – with supporting documentation – not only got the CFO’s interest, but got the CFO’s commitment to the project. Funding was granted by the board within a month.

Learn to speak the language of your internal customers. Educate yourself about the issues and concerns they have, and communicate where you and your team can help with those issues and concerns.

You’ll gain friends in high places.

What do you think? How well do you understand your internal customers’ issues and concerns? How can you get smarter more quickly in “their” language? Add your comments, insights, or questions below.

Add your experiences to two fast & free research projects I have underway: the Great Boss Assessment and the Performance-Values Assessment. Results and analysis are available on my research page.

My new book from Wiley, The Culture Engine, guides leaders to create workplace inspiration with an organizational constitution. Get your free sample chapter here.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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