Friday, June 19, 2015

Learning the Language

Dia daoibh, a chairde.  Conas atá tú?

For the last nine months or so, I have been learning Irish.  My mind is being stretched in so many ways, just trying to wrap my head around the orthography, pronunciation rules, and grammar.  One of the greatest joys I have experienced recently was being able to read and understand a book that was written for parents to read to their children.  That's right, folks: in Irish, I've reached the verbal equivalence of a six-year old!

Learning a new language requires changing your worldview, biases, and priorities.  What works for you in your native tongue may have to be changed before you can understand — or be understood in — another language.  For example, English has a Subject-Verb-Object order: The cat drinks milk.  On the other hand, Irish has a Verb-Subject-Object order: Ólann an cat bainne (drinks - the cat - milk).

The change in sentence order and structure requires a fundamental shift in the way you think, speak, and read.  It is similar to using a postfix notation calculator like those from Hewlett-Packard: Push the Verb onto the stack, read along to get to the end of the Subject clause and push it onto the stack, read along to get to the end of the Object clause and push it onto the stack, then pop off the whole phrase.

Another major difference between languages is in the way prepositions are used.  Simple little words like "In", "Through", "Over", "Under", "With", "About", "For", and "To" make up a huge portion of any language, and learning the new words is fundamental for effective communication.  But, it isn't just about learning the new words; you have to learn the correct usage for each preposition.

Consider an English sentence like "We listen to the radio".  In Irish, though, the sentence becomes "We listen with the radio".  Even though it may not make sense to your mind, you have to change your way of thinking, your verbal processing, to speak the language properly.

It is this change in mindset that makes learning a different language so important.  You can read all you want about a country and its people, but until you try to learn its language, you won't be able to touch its soul. In fact, I believe learning a new language is one of the highest forms of respect you can pay to another culture.  You have to be willing to accept that their way and their culture trumps your background.

Can you picture what would happen if I — with my vast experience of nine whole months and six-year old equivalency — decided that the Irish were wrong about their prepositions and that thousands of years of spoken culture was incorrect?  Imagine the laughter and derision that would accompany such arrogance!

But yet, those of us who provide technology services and support are often guilty of the same type of behavior with our clients.

I was on a conference call the other day with one of my support clients. My client is a large, multinational corporation, and client representatives from France, Italy, and the United States were on the call.  Also on the call was a third party who had been brought in to build a catalog of my client's products.

(Sorry to go into the weeds a bit, but on this client's website, they have their product lines split into a hierarchy of "Product Lines" and "Segments".  A "Product Line" contains multiple "Segments".  An example of a Product Line might be "Ceramic Coffee Mugs", and it might have four Segments: "#1601 - 16 Ounce, White", "#1602 - 16 Ounce, Black", "#2401 - 24 Ounce, White", and "#2402 - 24 Ounce, Black".  You get the idea.)

During the call, the representative from the outside vendor briefly mentioned "Product Lines", and then went into a lot of detail about "Segments" and "Types", and the format of the data for each.

What followed was a long period of silence as people in different countries tried to parse the English words into their own languages, and from there, tried to correlate the words with their own corporate culture.  Then, the questions started flying back and forth.

For nearly 15 minutes, the actual business of the meeting was put on hold as the participants tried to understand what the vendor's representative was trying to convey.  He kept insisting that the "Types" were simply "Segments without size or color".

Eventually, it became obvious that what he was calling a "Type" was actually what the client calls a "Product Line".  Once the client corrected the vendor — and he accepted the client's terminology — the meeting got back on track.

As I left the conference call, I was struck by how similar supporting a client — and particularly taking on a new client — is to learning a new language.

Providing Winning Support means that we have to be willing to learn our client's corporate culture, corporate paradigms, and corporate language.  We have to accept that our corporate culture, worldview, mindsets, and language may need to be modified when supporting that client. 

Developing a deep and lasting relationship with a client should be a primary goal for anyone in a support role.  We've all heard that it costs "ten times more to find a new client than it does to keep an existing one".

I don't know if it is really a 10:1 ratio, but I do know that keeping an existing client happy generally means your company gets to keep that client.  And one of the best ways of keeping a client happy is to provide Winning Support.

To deliver Winning Support consistently, you have to respect your client's unique culture, and to do that, you have to learn the language.  The great thing is that many of you already have the tools to do this, for the secret to learning your client's language is that you have to LISTEN!

It's actually pretty simple.  I know you can do it.  Let's get out there and start Winning Support!

Feicfidh mé ar ball thú!