I recently spoke with a client who is concerned about how some of his staff members speak to CEOs. He owns an IT consulting firm with a variety of clients and is worried about his consultants’ professional communication skills. His consultants are required to interact with various individuals both on the phone and at client locations. He is concerned that some of the consultants’ language choices are inappropriate for dealing with clients, especially when the client in question is a C-level executive.

People judge you by how you speak, whether you like it or not. You may not think it’s fair, you may think it’s class-based discrimination, and you’re right. It is, however, a reality recognized by people who are serious about their careers. Some people make the mistake of not tailoring their word choices and usage to the individual with whom they’re speaking. A good general rule, especially in business, is to tailor your language to the most conservative person in the room. There’s no harm in being a little too formal in your word choices, but there’s great potential harm in assuming it’s okay to be casual.

Seven rules for successfully talking with a client (CEO or otherwise):

  1. When speaking with clients, always be respectful. Be careful not to get too familiar. Avoid terms of non-endearment such as dude, bud, sweetie, dear, and similar pet names. “Ma’am” and “Sir” are usually appropriate.
  2. Err on the side of formality. Of course, it’s possible to go too far with this. You certainly don’t want to sound like a character on Downton Abby. Similarly, you don’t want to sound like you’re speaking with your best friend in high school. Keep it vanilla and avoid terms that have been invented by your generation. (This goes both ways, by the way. Members of a different generation may not understand generationally-specific terms.
  3. Avoid the use of technical terminology, unless you know the client understands such jargon.
  4. Also, avoid business buzzwords. Not everyone knows what it means to “gain traction”, but no one wants to admit they don’t know. Use plain language.
  5. Consider the culture at the client’s location, but don’t assume that they’ll accept the same informality from you as they practice amongst themselves.
  6. Be a friendly professional. Avoid voices such as squeaky toy, surfer dude, or gangsta rapper in business settings.
  7. Lose “like”. Don’t be a member of the “like” generation when dealing with clients, especially upper-level execs. Blogger Robert Brustein describes it best as the “repetitive, ritualistic use of the word ‘like.'” Here are some examples, “So I’m like seriously dude?” or “She’s like totally into Toby Keith.” That’s the opposite of professional communication!

Use Proper Grammar and Spelling

In written communication, make sure you’re using proper grammar and spelling. For a quick guide to commonly misused and abused words and phrases, see my blog post from earlier this year, titled “How to Avoid the Wrath of a Grammar Nazi”.

Carry Yourself with Confidence

When dealing with clients at any level, CEO or otherwise, you must always act with poise and confidence. That means use a firm handshake (but not too firm), maintain strong posture, look them in the eye, smile when appropriate, and be honest about your abilities and experience. It’s always okay to say you need to do some research on a problem or escalate the issue. It’s never okay to mislead someone about your qualifications.

Actor Lake Bell (It’s Complicated, What Happens in Vegas, No Strings Attached, HBO’s How to Make It in America and the TV series Boston Legal) has some interesting insights into how voices affect perception in a recent interview on NPR. Her forthcoming film In a World explores some of those perceptions.

Is it uptight to worry about such things? Maybe, but that’s not the point. Do you want to be taken seriously by your clients and have credibility when you speak? Not following these rules could keep you from getting a job or prevent your company from getting an important piece of business. It’s just not worth it.

It’s not a matter of being unauthentic. In the same way that we dress differently for different situations, we also tailor our language for different situations. Even within the context of business, we sometimes need to tailor our language and mannerisms to match the environment. For example, when your client is a video game developer, you might speak and act differently than when your client is a conservative law firm. Good judgment is always appropriate! That’s what makes for professional communication.

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