Justin Locke

Are You Aware of Your CPA Dialect?

The way you speak may be keeping your clients guessing and you losing out.

January 24, 2011
by Justin Locke

You speak English, but you may not be aware of the fact that you actually speak several dialects of English. For example, there are probably certain words that have unique meaning to just you and your spouse, or just you and your kids. It’s not a very big dialect, but it’s a dialect. It’s a unique variation of the English language, one that outsiders do not understand.

As a CPA, when you are talking shop with other CPAs, you have another dialect, which is your professional “shoptalk” dialect. Within your professional group, you no doubt use words and phrases that are largely incomprehensible to the average human being.

When you are communicating with someone outside your immediate family/social/work group, especially a new customer, there is another common standard dialect that most of us use. Specifically, since we have all spent so much time in the environment of a school, we use the kind of dialect that we used when we spoke to our teachers.

Throughout your formative years, “teachers” were your customers. If you demonstrated your knowledge, you were rewarded. Therefore, when you speak to a potential customer, it’s easy to presume they have the same “buyer persona” of our classroom teachers, and you may speak to them the same way out of sheer habit.

Why You May Want to Rethink This

The classic example of “speaking to a teacher” dialect is a standard PowerPoint presentation. If you have ever wondered why so many people give dull PowerPoint presentations, it’s not because they talk like that all the time; it’s because most people present to an audience using the same language they used when they gave a book report to a teacher in the sixth grade. Their presentations are complete and correct in every way, and we usually can’t wait for them to end.

Your relationship with your clients is entirely different from your relationship to an authority figure, and therefore requires the use of a different language. When my eighth grade English teacher asked me, “Justin, is this word an adjective or an adverb?”, I never would have answered “Well Mrs. Gebhardt, that’s a very interesting question, but before I answer it, can you tell me a little bit about your personal professional goals, how much money are making right now and how much money you’d like to have when you retire?” I shudder to think what would’ve happened to me had I asked a teacher such a question.

This kind of exploratory personal questioning is not something that happens when speaking to a person in power and authority in school. However, things have changed. Now you have power too, and your clients need your help. There has been a severe shift in the dynamics of power. That means the “dialect” you use should change as well.

For example, one thing teachers love to hear — that clients may not — is a quick “correct” answer. When a client is speaking, it is probably better not to interrupt them mid-sentence to say “I know the answer!” They wanted to share their story, they need to have you listen to them and your “knowing the answer” can be dismissive of their unique selves and the importance of their issue.

There is also always a tendency to want to quickly “sell yourself” by telling a client about your extensive expertise. After all, teachers were always testing you to see if you knew the material. However, since your client is not a teacher, this is somewhat moot; a new client may not have any way to judge your expertise. They saw your name on the door, they see your name on a business card or one of their friends may have recommended you. For most new clients, that’s all they need to know.

There is always a fear in school, to be caught not knowing the answer; but speaking in a very different language, in which everyone is allowed to openly admit to not knowing all the answers at the moment, can be very helpful to you now.

Listening, Revisiting This Golden Sales Technique

Instead of demonstrating that you know the answer, if you presume that you don’t know anything at all about a new client, this will make it easier to listen to them. It’s a very handy “listening trick” to always presume that you are essentially meeting someone from a different country who speaks a different language than you. That means you have to sit down and slowly develop a common basic vocabulary as a team. Accepting your mutual ignorance allows both of you to be more open and honest about what you know and what you don’t know. It also makes you seem less intimidating. Listening is a great sales technique, and all you have to do is sit there and nod your head.

When you start from scratch in listening to someone, it will open up channels of communication that you would otherwise never imagine or know about. The actual service you provide may be a generic standard commodity, but you can have a monopoly on your relationship with your customers if you are willing to invest the time up front in building a common language with them.

Granted, dealing with people as unique individuals can be somewhat time-consuming, but real communication and personal connection is based on clearly understood common vocabulary. Establishing a common dialect with your customer is far more important than demonstrating your expertise.

Don’t be embarrassed if you never learned this kind of dialect. Most people never do. Schools teach you how to talk to a teacher, not how to talk to a client or a total stranger. In fact, when I went to school, I was constantly told not to speak to strangers. Since marketing and business development is all about speaking to strangers (i.e. new clients), well, perhaps it’s time to rethink the communications skills you were taught in school.

Universal Client Speak

Opening up to new dialects may sound a bit scary, but it’s actually not that hard to do once you just sit down and accept that you need to do it. Much of “client speak” is universal, but you can also establish unique dialects with every single one of your clients. Yes, it is a bit time-consuming, but once you establish this kind of connection, your clients will be loath to ever leave you to and seek some stranger’s advice who doesn’t “speak their language.”

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, an amusing look at how to be more successful by going against the conventional wisdom. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.

© 2011 Justin Locke