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Think Carefully When You Speak – You Might Be Offending a Customer

Aug 04, 2011

I had just finished a presentation where I was discussing the importance of marketing plans and planning to an audience of folks from the non-profit world.  I thought the presentation went well and there was lively discussion at the end.  All-in-all, I was thinking that this was a pretty successful day’s work.


As I was packing up two ladies from the audience, one of whom had participated in the discussion, came up to me.  They were somewhat hesitant, but then jumped in to tell me that some of my verbiage during my discussion was felt to be very offensive by some of the people in the room.


I was more than a little stunned.  I am an experienced public speaker and I strive to never use offensive language.  I apologized and indicated that being offensive was certainly not my intention and I asked what I said that was out of line.  The response was that when I was giving examples about understanding your customers and their demographics I said something along the order of “if your audience is left-handed, red-haired stepchildren, you should try to find out how many people meeting that criteria are in your service area.” In this case and for this audience a verbal crutch that I had relied upon for many years and which was intended to put across a simple point…that you need to know your customer was offensive. 


When I returned to the office, I went through a couple of stages of further reflection.  The first was “what the heck, don’t they understand I wasn’t meaning to offend anyone?  After all I’m a nice guy and I mean well!”.  This led quickly to thinking about times when what others have said that hit my “hot buttons”.  I realized what I think is an important lesson.

When you are trying to communicate an idea or concept, or if you are trying to sell a person on an idea, concept or product, why take the chance that you will make that person shut down and stop listening because a phrase or term you use is offensive to them? 


My “red-haired stepchild” seemed inoffensive to me, but one of the nice ladies who brought this up said to me “I’m sure you had some good things to say, but I shut you out once you had offended me”.   This is valuable information and I’m pretty sure that I won’t use anything red-haired as an example in the future.  (Left –handed Martians anyone?)

In today’s complex and changing world it may be impossible to always avoid any offensive, but I think that we owe it to ourselves, to our businesses and to our customers to try.  After all, an opportunity missed because of offense given is an opportunity that may not come around again.  Remember, each time you talk to a customer might be the last time if you don’t work at making it a pleasant experience.


Has this ever happened to you?  How did you handle the critique?

Category: Entrepreneur

Mike Lambert

Mike Lambert is the manager of the Wyoming Market Research Center in Laramie, WY.

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