What you say to your agency’s clients isn’t as important as you think — all that matters is what they hear.
Sometimes a well-intentioned phrase can be misconstrued as offensive. Other times, an offensive statement is all you can think of in response to your client’s know-it-all behavior.
So to help you avoid ruining client relationships in as little as a sentence, we’ve compiled some words and phrases that — although they’re common and sometimes warranted — are best left out of business conversations.
10 common business phrases to exclude from conversations with marketing clients
1. “With all due respect”
This phrase is just as bad as “no offense.” It was originally used to soften the blow of the second part of a sentence — which would include a criticism of, or disagreement with, the listener. But today, it’s evolved to mean something completely different. Grammarist explains:
With all due respect has become an overused phrase, it is now often used sarcastically to mean the exact opposite of what it states. Political debaters and others may preface a rebuttal to an argument with, with all due respect. In this case, a subtle disrespect is intended.
An example: “Brady’s agent, Don Yee, said on Thursday morning that the report ‘with all due respect, is a significant and terrible disappointment.’”
Six years ago, the Oxford dictionary ranked “with all due respect” as the fifth most irritating phrase in the English language. Steer clear of it to avoid potentially offending your clients.
2. “To be honest”
Any sentence that starts with “to be honest” never ends well. Have you ever said, “to be honest, I love that new design”? In that regard, “to be honest” is kind of like “with all due respect,” but it adds another problematic layer.
It could also make clients wonder, “Were they not being honest with me before? How many times before have they spared my feelings at the expense of the product?”
It’s best to keep this one out of your communication with clients altogether.
3. “HTML, SEO, AMP, KPI”
Just because you understand what the acronym “PPC” stands for, and what the difference between “outbound” and “inbound” marketing is, doesn’t mean your client does. That’s why, just like you would on a post-click landing page, avoid using industry acronyms and jargon in conversation.
The same goes for bigger, less common words like “tendentious,” “axiomatic,” or “propitious.” They’re far more complicated than they need to be. “Biased,” “obvious,” and “favorable” could all be easily substituted here with no loss of meaning.
Why express yourself with a pretentious alternative when a more basic word will do?
It may make you feel smarter, but according to research from Princeton University, it’s probably making you look dumber.
In 2005, Daniel M. Oppenheimer conducted a study that was later published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
In the first part of the study, they had evaluators rate three college admission essays. The first was written in basic language, the second was slightly more complex, and the third used even higher level vocabulary.
After reading all three, evaluators gave the simplest essay the highest mark and the most complex the lowest.
The second part of the experiment involved translating foreign texts. Two different versions, one simple and one complex, were created — and the results were the same. Evaluators rated the simpler version more highly.
In the third, and maybe most significant part of the experiment, Oppenheimer’s team compiled two different versions of research summaries to be assessed by evaluators.
In the control version, his team left the first 144 words of content untouched for participants to read. In the test version, the longest of the first 144 words were replaced with smaller synonyms.
At the conclusion of this portion of the test, participants not only found the second version of the text easier to read, but rated the author’s intelligence more highly.
So, the next time you’re tempted to applaud a client’s “coruscating” idea, use “brilliant” instead. You’ll look smarter, and your client won’t feel silly for having to look it up in a dictionary.
4. “It’s not our fault”
The next time a client project doesn’t meet expectations, avoid casting blame elsewhere even if it’s justified.
In the moment, pointing the finger at external factors might seem like it absolves you of wrongdoing, but saying “it’s not our fault” is actually more likely to negatively impact your client’s perception of your team. Consider some research from social psychologists Fiona Lee, Christopher Peterson, and Larissa Tiedens.
In their experiment, participants were handed one of two made-up company reports created to explain why a fictional business had performed poorly over the last year.
In the first report, the company held itself accountable by blaming strategic decisions for its bad showing – but in the second, it deflected responsibility by pointing the finger at external factors, like the economy and competition.
At the end of the test, the company that took responsibility for the negative outcomes was rated more favorably by the participants.
Additionally, after studying yearly reports from 14 companies over 21 years, researchers also found that organizations that made “self-disserving” attributions for negative events (took responsibility for their own poor performance), had higher stock prices a year later. The reason, they believe, is because those statements made the company seem more in control of its own performance.
So the next time you’re tempted to say “it’s not our fault,” remember that by doing so, you’ll likely lower your client’s belief in your ability perform better on future projects.
5. “You don’t know what you’re talking about”
When it comes to selling your product or service, marketers are taught that there’s no word more powerful than “you.” And that holds true even in conversation not intended to persuade.
Keep that in mind when you’re communicating with clients, because statements that begin with you — like, “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” for example — can have a more profound impact on them than you’d think.
Preston Ni, M.S.B.A., and author of “How To Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People,” explains why beginning a sentence with these words can be harmful in communication with clients:
Most people don’t like being judged or told what to do, and when we use ‘you’ language plus directives, it’s easy to arouse in others feelings of resentment and defensiveness. This type of communication is also problematic in that it tends to invite a ‘no’ response, resulting in disagreements and conflicts.
On the other hand, “you-positive statements,” as Ni calls them, can have an equally powerful but opposite effect.
“You did a great job putting together that brief.”
“You have a great understanding of SEO basics.”
These are phrases that can boost your clients’ sense of contribution and improve your working relationship.
So, the next time your client thinks reading a blog post about SEO gives him the right to tell you how to do your job, fight the temptation to say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Instead, explain to him why he’s incorrect, and don’t attack his statement, but emphasize the negative impact on his business.
For example, if your client suggests you add more of the target keyword to an already optimized blog post, try saying something like this:
“You have a great understanding of SEO basics, and that’s been really helpful to us. However, in this case, adding more of that target keyword to this blog post could actually hurt your bottom line. The technique is known as ‘keyword stuffing,’ and Google penalizes businesses that use it by decreasing their visibility on search engine results pages.”
Here, you’re not outright saying “you’re wrong,” but explaining why the idea won’t work and how it’ll ultimately hurt your client’s business.
6. “Never,” “always,” “again”
These words, when used in combination with the word “you,” generalize a client’s character or behavior negatively. Aside from “never,” “always,” and “again,” words like “so,” “everyone,” “and every time” can also be problematic. For example:
“You sent us that brief late again!”
“You never take our suggestions.”
“You always forget send us feedback before the project deadline.”
“Everyone on our team thinks you’re so critical of our work.”
These are called “universal statements,” and they’re an issue for a few reasons.
First, the speaker is making a general and absolute judgment of the listener. He’s discounting the possibility that the listener could change his behavior, and that the listener behaves only in this way.
Second, universal statements are often used negatively to emphasize what’s wrong instead of how to be better. By doing so, they can actually discourage change.
Third, statements like these are easy to argue. All your client has to do is think of one time they took your suggestion, or one instance in which they sent you a brief on time. Then, you’ve been proven wrong. Stay away from these unless you’re giving praise like “You’re always so helpful in these situations.”
7. “To whom it may concern”
If you’re writing this in proposals to potential clients, you’re just lazy. In most cases, finding your addressee is as simple as doing some Google and social media sleuthing.
Go to the potential client’s website and learn about their team. Head over to LinkedIn and find employees associated with the company you’re proposing to work with. Ask your contacts if they know anyone inside the organization.
With today’s technology, there’s no excuse for putting “to whom it may concern” on the top of any message. Even if you can’t find a specific name, you should at the very least address it to the appropriate company team.
8. “Does that make sense to you?”
This seemingly innocent phrase, often meant to convey, “Am I explaining myself clearly enough?”, can actually be interpreted two other ways that can undermine your competence, or even insult your client’s intelligence.
“Does that make sense?” can also be translated to “Was that thought coherent?” When your client is paying you for your expertise, you don’t want to come across as unsure of yourself.
It can also mean “Do you understand what I’m saying, or should I explain it even more simply for you?” Your client isn’t an idiot. If they don’t understand what you’re saying, they’ll ask you to clarify.
9. “Take it to the next level,” “Think outside the box,” “Low-hanging fruit”
For the same reason you want to remove clichés from your writing, you want to remove them from your speech. Why?
Because relying on overused phrases to convey your point can make you look unoriginal and even unintelligent — especially in marketing, a field in which your success often depends on your ability to think creatively.
The same goes for phrases you might see on a motivational poster, like “It’s not a problem, but an opportunity for a solution,” or “Synergize.” If you want your client to take you seriously, think of a different way to express yourself.
10. “I think”
“I think” can have the same effect as “does that make sense to you?”. It can weaken your statement by making you sound unsure of yourself.
“I think it’s probably a good idea to remove that navigation menu from your post-click landing page.”
“I think a brighter CTA button would likely draw more attention.”
Do you think that? Or are your statements backed by research and industry experience?
Don’t question yourself. Be confident in your recommendations to clients and let the data determine whether you’re right or wrong.
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