Separated by a common language

Written by: Karl Sakas

Have you had an unexpected misunderstanding with a client or colleague at your agency? Part of the problem is that we’re “separated by a common language.”

A former boss liked to use that phrase, with the point being we assume others think like we do, but that’s rarely the case.

Let’s take a closer look, including how it happens with clients and coworkers, examples of 20+ risky words, and 5 tips to fix the “separated by a common language” problem at your agency.

When you fix communication problems, you’ll get happier people, better results, and higher profits at your agency—it’s a win-win-win.

Think like a “behavioral detective”

In a recent MBA class on cross-cultural teams, management professor Brad Kirkman shared a tip to help us adjust to new cultures while avoiding common faux pas.

One mistake is that people assume things are similar, and then they look for differences. To fix communication problems, it’s smarter to assume everything’s different, and then look for similarities. He described this as thinking like a “behavioral detective.”

This should help me avoid getting hit by a car while crossing the street in Australia this month—look both ways, and then look again.

In this article, I’ll assume your clients and colleagues are native speakers of the same language. If people have different native languages—or the same language but grew up in different countries—you have a larger challenge that’s beyond the scope of what I share here.

Teams separated by a common language

You probably see this with your teams. For example, designers and developers think differently, but because they both speak English (or another language), they assume what they say is clear to the other person.

The same is true between your PMs and SMEs—they’re both using the same project management system, but that doesn’t mean they’re perceiving things in the same way. (Is hours target a hard cap or a rough guideline?)

Misunderstandings lead to avoidable problems, which often lead to frustration. That hurts employee morale and damages productivity, which hurts profitability.

Clients separated from agencies by a common language

I bet you’ve seen this with clients, too—where you said something and they thought it meant something else. And vice versa.

It especially happens in sales and in client service, particularly when you’re doing work with intangible deliverables.

As the agency, it’s your job to educate clients about what to expect. Different agencies handle things different ways. If you are daring enough to be a client’s first agency ever, plan on even more client education.

20+ commonly mis-understood words

Here are some risky words and phrases that often cause communications problems at agencies, plus notes on why each is dangerous:

  1. Done” (what constitutes completion? who decides day-to-day? who decides if there’s a dispute?)
  2. “Almost done” (never true; ban the phrase)
  3. “Final” (never label a file “final”; it’s rarely an accurate word)
  4. “Revision” (what constitutes a revision?)
  5. “Easy” (“easy” sounds free; “straightforward” sounds like $1,000+)
  6. “Soon” (in an hour? in a day? in a week?)
  7. “Tomorrow” (in the morning, or 11:59pm?)
  8. “Next week” (is that Monday morning or Friday afternoon?)
  9. “End of Day” or “Close of Business” (is that 5pm? 11:59pm? your time zone or the client’s time zone?)
  10. “Try” (no; are you spending a few minutes on it, or guaranteeing you’ll complete it?)
  11. “Comps” (are these pixel-perfect designs, or something else)
  12. “Wireframes” (is this an IA layout or a sitemap?)
  13. “Signoff” (what are they approving? what are the follow-on implications?)
  14. “Client can update it” (at what baseline skillset?)
  15. “Sales lead” or “Qualified lead” or “SQL” or “MQL” (how do you and the client define each?)
  16. “#1 priority” (compared to what? really?)
  17. “Top of funnel” and “Middle of funnel” and “Bottom of funnel”
  18. “Let’s do a call at 10am” (what time zone?)
  19. “Cross-browser testing” (which browsers? which versions?)
  20. “Full-time” and “Part-time” (how many hours a week?)
  21. “Billable” (in what situations? at what rate?)
  22. “Time” (billable hours, or duration/timeline?)
  23. “Free” (how much? how long? what level of quality?)

I bet you can think of plenty more!

5 tips to fix communication problems at your agency

The exact solution will depend on the root cause(s) at your agency, but here are starting-point tips if you’re “separated by a common language”:

  1. Create an internal glossary of terms. This keeps everyone on the same page.
  2. Create a client-facing glossary of terms. This reduces confusion later.
  3. Give clients an overview of your process. If you can’t document it because you make it up every time, stop doing that; it’s costing you money.
  4. Remind clients about project-specific deadlines. Be sure to use terms that make sense to them, and plan to remind them multiple times—they’re busy, and your work isn’t their only priority.
  5. Ask people to restate things. At the end of a meeting (whether client-facing or internal), ask the recipients of tasks to recap their actionables (instead of you or the PM doing it). It takes a bit longer, but it’s worth it—you have a chance to correct any mis-understandings now, before it becomes a big problem later. Restating is helpful for decisions, too.

Question: How do you fix communication problems at your agency?

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