Written by Andrea Belk Olsen, MSC and CEO of Pragmadik
We use abbreviations all the time. CRM, SOW, CPA, etc. While this shorthand often makes it easier to communicate internally between co-workers, it often is confusing for customers. Companies inadvertently start to create their own language with these acronyms and even put them within their marketing materials, proposals, and other communications. Yet the problem is that this frequently minimizes communication effectiveness, creates confusion, and even worse, causes customer frustration.
Take for example, "CAC". In sales and marketing, it might be deemed as Customer Acquisition Costs. In other industries and applications, it can mean Common Access Card (a smart card the size of a credit card), Coronary Artery Calcium (in medicine), or Collective Action Clause (in finance). Not to mention the myriad of organizations which may use that abbreviation, such as the California Arts Council. Just take a look at this laundry list of meanings for CAC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CAC
While it may seem that none of these areas overlap and that if you're "in the industry", you'll know what an abbreviation really means. The problem is it doesn't mean your customers do (or new employees, for that matter). Your customers are in their own industries, whether it is an industrial company, or a professional services firm. Your industry, whether it be legal, insurance, sales, marketing, etc., has its own acronyms that often overlap with your customers'. If you are a marketing firm, CAC makes sense to you. But if you're speaking to an industrial client, CAC may mean something totally different.
Instead of short-cutting language, it's essential to focus on making your communications as effective and thorough as possible. This doesn't mean lengthy and excessive copy or content, but the clarity of content. Specifics and explanations where required. In essence, assume that the individual or group you are communicating to doesn't know any of your shorthand.
Even Elon Musk saw these types of acronyms creeping into the SpaceX organization and posted an all-employee communication addressing the issue:
"There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don't want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees."
"For example, there should be not "HTS" [horizontal test stand] or "VTS" [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A "stand" at our test site is obviously a test stand. VTS-3 is four syllables compared with "Tripod", which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name!"
Remember, your language isn't their language. Just like speaking to a non-English native speaker, simplification and clarity in your communications helps them understand and helps you get the message across more effectively.
About the Author
Andrea's 22-year, field-tested background provides unique, practical approaches to creating more efficient, more competitive, customer-centric organizations. A 4-time ADDY® award-winner, she began her career at a tech start-up and led the strategic sales, marketing and customer engagement efforts at two global industrial manufacturers. She now leads a management and communications consultancy, dedicated to helping organizations transform their organizational cultures from "internally-focused" to "customer-centric". More information available on www.pragmadik.com or www.thecustomermission.com.
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