While most of the small business owners I work with deal with their customers in English, there are many different ways customers use phrases. They speak the language of their surroundings, and often this is different from what you speak. As someone who was born and mostly raised in the South (with a foray into Oklahoma for a short time) I’ve certainly experienced not being able to understand business owners when I’m in New Jersey, for instance. We’re speaking the same language, but we’re not!
I collect terms and phrases from other regions that seem descriptive and unusual to me. And when I work with someone from another part of the country (much less someone overseas) I don’t expect that we will have seamless communication. In fact, one of my current clients taught me a new phrase about a month ago. We were talking about her ideal clients (she is an interior designer who also owns a retail store front). She replied, “I don’t target the dolly decorators.” That stopped me! I had to ask for a description of these prospects before we move forward. In this case, the term “dolly decoration” is industry-specific. Almost any interior designer would know who that refers to.
Of all the phrases I’ve collected, none are more descriptive and endearing to me than the ones I’ve gotten from Appalachia, a region in the American Southeast along the mountains of the same name. Some of their phrases are close to many of the Southern phrases I grew up with, but many are news ones to me. (I’m Southern, but I’m not Appalachian.) Here’s a little glossary of some of my favorites.
- Swimmy-headed – Dizzy, faint
- Dusky dark – Late evening while there is still just a bit of light
- Knee deep – A bullfrog (from the sound it makes)
- Airish – Windy or cool outside
- Cackleberry – A hen’s egg (that one took me a moment to get).
Regional phrases definitely can cost you business. If you had a bodega in New York City, and I walked in looking for flour, I might say “I need flour for cat’s heads.” Would you know what to give me? I’m asking for a self-rising flour to make extra large sized biscuits, which are often called cat’s head biscuits in the South.
Here’s a few tips about using the right language with your customers:
- If it’s someone you don’t know and their accent or phrases are different from yours, repeat the phrase you don’t understand and ask “do you mean……”
- Ask your potential new customer what brought them to your business, and then listen very intently. You’ll be able to pick out key words and phrases, which the person will probably repeat a few times. When you respond, use their exact words back to them instead of the words you might commonly say. Example: A 55 year old woman said to me, “I’ve been in a deep, dark place. My daughter was killed in a car wreck, and I just couldn’t focus on my business for two solid years. I was in a deep, dark place.” When I responded to her, I used her term “deep, dark place” rather than the word “depression.” Repeating the prospect’s language will help you build rapport and trust.
- Remember that even though your accent and phrasing might be different, you are more like the person than you are different. We all have the common bond of wanting to be listened to and understood. Make your best effort to do just that, and you’ll help both your new customer and your small business.