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Do Customers Know Your Lingo?

Last week I presented at the fall conference of the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association (CFESA), which took place at a lovely resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.

I needed to wake up early to put finishing touches on my PowerPoint slides, so I called the hotel operator for a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m. When I requested the call, the operator's response was "Do you want a follow-up?"

I was not expecting that response, so I puzzled over whether she had said follow-up, fill-up, or something completely different. I said, "I'm sorry. I don't understand. Would you repeat that?" She repeated, "Do you want a follow-up?"

Although I stay in hotels fairly often, I had never before been asked about a follow-up. I explained that I wanted a wake-up call, not a follow-up.

Then it was the operator's turn to explain. She said, "Will one call be enough? Or do you need a follow-up call?"

Finally I understood. A "follow-up" was a second call for those who don't wake up easily. No, I did not need a follow-up.

When the operator phoned the next morning at 5:30, she asked, "Do you need a follow-up?" This time, I understood. I told her I was awake and did not need a follow-up.

A similar exchange might have taken place in email:

"May I have a wake-up call at 5:30?"

"Do you want a follow-up?"

"No, I want a wake-up call."

And so on.

Problems occur when we business communicators assume that the other person knows our language. This assumption often involves business representatives communicating with customers and clients, using terms that are second nature in the business. To the hotel operator, "a follow-up" was as familiar as sunshine in Scottsdale. But it puzzled me, the customer. 

What about the expressions you use with your customers in email and on the phone? Do your customers, clients, donors, and others know your lingo?

Please share your comments here.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “Do Customers Know Your Lingo?”

  • Being in the technical field, I hear many phrases that are confusing to me when used outside the context of a technical conversation. Many times, I have politely asked the speaker to define terms like “bandwidth” (when not used with its actual meaning) and most sports metaphors (because I’m not a sports person). Regionalisms such as “catty corner” (instead of kitty corner) sound funny to me, too.

    I’m sure I’ve said some things that only make sense out here on the West Coast and have made people from the East Coast scratch their heads.

  • I’m in the printing business with its own lingo, particularly with regard to production. With a new contact or customer I usually inquire about their background /print production experience, and I explain that I want to make sure I use terms we understand the same way. I admit I worry that this line of questioning will seem condescending to my customer, and if they are “new” to print, I’m quick to point out some of the terms are regional, and the technology is changing rapidly, so even those of us who have been in it our whole careers have to be open to new vocabulary, and new meanings for old words. I’m very aware of the lingo issue, but I find this initial query difficult to conduct by email; I prefer to speak with a new contact on this topic so I can hear their reaction to this line of questioning and tailor how I proceed accordingly. The balancing act is to come across as helpful/service oriented, no matter where on the spectrum of experience a new customer may be, without seeming like I’m schooling them.

  • I agree with using customer language instead of company lingo but this example to me feels more like “lazy person texting syndrome”. I am guessing that the more we text and cut our sentences down, the more our verbal offerings get cut short too, out of habit. If the operator in this example had taken the time to use a full and complete sentence, I bet the communication would have been clear the first time.

  • Shelley, I admire your enlightened approach to working with new customers. I also appreciate your sensitivity and desire to have the first discussion live rather than by email.

    I bet your thoughtfulness regarding terminology pays off in getting the job done right and pleasing your customers.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas.


  • I think the real message in this story, Lynn, is the failure of the operator to *think* about your response.

    “Do you want a follow-up?”
    “I don’t understand.”
    “Do you want a follow-up?”

    Talk about repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome! This is as dumb as shouting at a non-English-speaker to get the message through.

    And, of course, “follow-up” is jargon in this case — a workplace shorthand for “follow-up call”. I wonder how many other guests have been similarly confused?

  • I work in Human Resource communications, which means I market our benefits to our employees as part of our engagement and retainment strategy. I am constantly battling the “HR-speak” and “Benefitese” my HR clients want to use in communications. The average employee doesn’t know the difference between a defined-benefit versus a defined-contribution plan, but they do know the difference between their pension and 401(k) plans. They don’t know that they are “electing” their benefits during Open Enrollment (sounds like they are voting for them), but they do know they need to select their benefits. The list goes on and on!

  • Hi, Terry. I too wondered how many others had been confused by the question “Do you want a follow-up?”

    Perhaps the operator learned something from our exchange.

    Thanks for making your important point.


  • Hi, Jennifer. Thanks for the terrific examples of HR jargon. I would love to read your definitions of “defined-benefit” and “defined-contribution plans.” Pension plans are so important. It is a shame to be unclear about them.


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