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How to Discover the Language of Your Customers – Jeffrey Shaw
The Agents of Change

How to Discover the Language of Your Customers – Jeff Shaw

Your business is more than just a commodity, so price should not necessarily be the differentiating factor between you and your competition. Brand message expert Jeffrey Shaw shares how to create innovative branding strategies around the specific audience you wish to target and how to speak to them in their own lingo. Integrating your customer’s language into your communication will make all the difference in separating – and elevating – you from your competition. 

Rich: As a brand message consultant and former portrait photographer, my next guest helps companies who feel lost in a sea of sameness stand out, by making their customers feel seen as a photographer sees their subject. When that happens, businesses attract and retain their ideal customers by learning to speak their lingo.

He is also a keynote speaker, host of Creative Warriors Podcast, a TEDx speaker, and author of Lingo: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language and Make Your Business Irresistible. Get ready for some great insights from Jeffrey Shaw. Jeffrey, welcome to The Agents of Change Podcast.

Jeffrey: Well thanks, Rich, I’m glad to be here with you.

Rich: Now tell me, how and why did you shift from portrait photographer to keynote speaker?

Jeffrey: We never find our own lives as interesting as other people do. Because to me it’s just it makes perfect sense and it was just part of the journey. And it wasn’t really an intentional shift, so I’d been a photographer for 35 years, I do very little of it. The shift came about because I built a very unusual business and I didn’t realize it. I was just like a lot of entrepreneurs, I had my head down doing my thing, I was decades into the industry before I realized that I had built something really unique and that it was unusually successful as a business compared to others in the industry. And I had such a specific clientele, these were very affluent families in the United States, which for many would be considered the hardest market to break into.

So when people started asking me, when I kind of came out of having my head down and grinding away, when people asked me how did I do it, I started revealing how much I was driven by other people having a similar experience in their business, but even more so that I felt that the way I accomplished my success was by deeply understanding the client.

And I have to say, Rich, I kind of tapped into a deeper sole purpose for me. Suddenly I felt that I could make a difference in the world if I could help businesses have greater empathy and understanding of who their customers are, and in return the customers would have better experiences doing business. And that to me can have a major impact on everybody’s day.

So from there I just started helping other people and helping their businesses, and that led me to speaking as a way to getting the message out broader, and then speaking has led to consulting and companies. So there you go.

Rich: Alright. Now a lot of what you’re talking about is around using our customer’s language, and something I absolutely love. We’re talking with them. How can we discover the lingo of our customers?

Jeffrey: You have to get to know them. I think first of all you have to assume you don’t know as much about them as you think. I look at my customer lingo as the evolution of buyer personas. Which are fabulous and have been great, it had been a marketing method for quite some time. To understand somebody’s lingo is to understand what makes them tick.

To understand their values, their priorities. At the deepest level, to understand someone’s lingo is to know what they need that they don’t know what to ask for. Which to me really accentuates our expertise, because whatever we are the experts in we should know what people need and what they know to ask for. Because people ask for what I refer to as an “acknowledged need”. They ask for what they think they need. What they actually need to change their businesses is almost always something other than what they know to ask for. As the experts, we know it.

So to me to speak someone’s lingo is to go way beyond a surface level. I think the first thing you have to do is put aside any assumptions and then put in the legwork. Live their lives. So my story as a portrait photographer, when I had a failing business and turned it into a successful business, is when I realized my ideal client were affluent families. Affluent families that were family-centric, meaning these are not families that brush the kids off on nannies but the families that had enough money that have a lot of staff in their home so that the parents could spend more time with their kids, they’re going to value portrait photography.

I knew nothing about that world, but what I realized is I didn’t need to be from that world to understand the world. So what I did is I did a deep dive for 3 months into the lifestyle and the world of affluent people by going to the brands that they went to, to go to the restaurants they went to, to read what they read. I did a deep dive into their world, a world I knew nothing about, and then created a brand, message, and image that matched what I knew about them. And it created instant success.

And it truly was instant. Once I got into that world – considered by many to be the hardest world to break into – but it’s because I was willing to speak their lingo. But you have to understand how to speak their lingo. So you first need to do a deep dive into what triggers them, what their lifestyle is, what their priorities are.

Rich: Is anyone who wants to replicate what you’re doing, is that the only path or is that the best path to take? Are there other ways to accomplish you understanding the language of your customers?

Jeffrey: You know I think the way you can go about it principally is the same. We have to walk in the shoes of those that we want to serve. Rich, you already know this, but businesses are inherently built backwards. The way businesses are built is that an idea is born and it’s built on ambition, and then businesses run around for years trying to fit into the box they built. But the right way to build a business is to get to know who you’re building a box for, and then build it for them.

So I think it’s the methods of how we go about it, the principal is the same but how you go about it is different. The 80’s and 90’s when I was doing this starting my photography business, it was more brick and mortar. Which I think is advantageous because it is a very face to face experience, it’s going into brands of affluent people.

However today you also have the added advantage of being able to do a lot of this online. One of my coaching clients is a very high end designer and I had her looking into chartering jets and what that experience looks like. So I think the principle is the same but how you go about it can be a lot easier today. You can do a lot of research online to find out how whatever market – whether its millennials or affluent – whatever market you’re looking to reach, I think it’s easier to find out more about them now than ever.

Rich: I’m guessing that when you started doing your research you quickly recognized that these affluent family-centered families really didn’t care too much or used the language “family portraits”. Like, that was not the thing that was going to motivate them. Because when you hear family portraits you might be thinking of going down to the Sears in the mall and getting your family picture taken. So what were some of the things that you uncovered from your research that allowed you to use the lingo that your customers were using? If we can use you as an example.

Jeffrey: Yeah, perfect question. Actually I was targeting painters, because at the time that clientele were commissioning painted portraits at $20,000 – $25,000. And photographers locally were charging $500. And I knew I wanted to fall somewhere between there. I was very clear – and Rich I’ve made every decision in my life in business based on how I wanted to live – and to me I literally priced myself according to hard I wanted to work. I knew I wanted to do x number of shoots a year, and therefore I needed to average $8,000-$10,000 per shoot. Because I never wanted to be a high volume operation, I also never waned other photographers. I knew from the beginning I was going to build a brand name and then bank on that brand name.

So I needed to average between $8,000-$10,000 per phot shoot, which is highly unusual in the business. So I couldn’t position myself against photographers, I had to position myself against the painters that were commanding $20,000-$25,000. So by comparison, I was half the price. So I actually positioned so I referred to it as portraits. Photography was the medium, but what I taped into is more about the intangible, the capture of a moment.

The #1 lingo, and this is really kind of unpacking the big secret, the lingo of the affluent client that I was serving – I think this is pretty true of a good sector of the affluent market – their lingo is primarily responsibility. Now in 35 years no one has ever contacted me and said, can you help me be a responsible parent or a responsible person of society. And yet underlying because I know their lingo, I actually know that is their #1 driver. Because when you’re wealthy and you have money, money is not an excuse. You can’t send two of your kids to Ivy League and the third one to Community College.

So therefore knowing that I spoke to their pain around responsibility. You don’t ever want to have to say to your third child that you missed a moment that you captured the older kids, so I made sure all their children were photographed at the same age. I made sure I spoke to them letting them know that all you need to do is let me know in February that you want to do a session because I have an 8 month waiting list, so if you let me know in February that you want to do a photo shoot that year and approximately the season and I will be in touch with you 10 weeks in advance to make sure it gets booked and you don’t ever have to worry about it again. So I spoke to their driving, underlying need to be responsible and show up in the world as responsible people that they would never know to ask for, and that was the key.

And I think every market has that. You just have to tap what is the emotional driver, the thing that they value so much. Like what’s underlying, what’s that thing that they value so much hat that’s their lingo. When you’re speaking to that you’ve got them in your hand and they will be loyal.

Rich: A lot of what you’re talking about right now is B2C, business to consumer. And I always feel that B2C has both advantages and disadvantages, but in this case it might have an advantage, where you’re really pulling on the heartstrings to a degree.

B2B so often is really driven by ROI, and our messages when we’re B2B and really trying to speak the lingo of our customers – so to speak – is about driven by results, driven by ROI. You’ve been able to charge a lot more than the average photographer, what advice might you have for somebody in the B2B marketplace; a) in terms of using the language that their customers use, but also maybe moving beyond just ROI to provide some sort of other results for them?

Jeffrey: So I actually speak at this point almost primarily in the B2B space, oddly enough. Because what I’m finding is the B2B space is really starting to appreciate what can be gained and understood from the B2C space.

The other thing that I have learned is I’m an entrepreneur and I’ve actually never had a job, I’ve never received a paycheck. I started earning every dollar I made from the age of 14 selling eggs door-to-door, I grew up in the country, and I’ve literally never received a paycheck. So I used to hide behind that a little bit. Like, who am I to speak in the corporate world, who am I to speak B2B, because I’m an entrepreneur?

And I realized that B2B very much wants to learn from the entrepreneurial perspective and the B2C space. So the way I’m able to point out the ROI – and this is why I focus on what I do – is I help companies attract their ideal customers by saying the right thing to the right people. And the question I ask audiences so often is, what percentage of your customers do you feel are your ideal customer. The average that I hear from companies is 30%-40%.

Now for me that is remarkably low. For a business to say at best 40% of our customers are ideal customers. I point out the ROI by explaining to them that the benefit of working with your ideal customers is not only are they the most profitable, but they are the easiest to work with. We all know how we bend over backwards for some people and they’re always the least profitable, but our most profitable customers breeze through our systems. So they’re the easiest to work with and they can enrich an entire company because everybody is able to do their best work and get positive feedback for doing their best work.

And of course because they’ve done their best work, you’re far more likely to get referrals because you have aligned your business with the regular customer who’s coming into doing business with you already positioned to like you and only likes you more by their experience. So they’re far more likely to give referrals.

So when I lay that out, companies can see the ROI. Working with your ideal customer is as greater percentage as possible, I believe, is the best journey to exponential growth. And B2B, I believe, is starting to see that a lot.

Rich: I absolutely agree with that. But I want to kind of push it a little further because what I’m thinking about is when you’re selling B2B, so often we talk about the benefits of working with our company because of the ROI we’re going to provide for that client. But when you’re talking to these people about your portraits, you’re talking to them about responsibility, family, about how you’re creating this lifetime memory. It has nothing to do with ROI. Because obviously they could hire another photographer for a lot cheaper. That’s not what you’re competing against.

So you’re able in a B2C space maybe talk about some of those other things. I’m wondering if it’s more challenging in the B2B space because so many businesses that were selling too, are only concerned about the bottom-line. Or at least that’s the way we think they’re thinking.

Jeffrey: That’s the key, I think people think that’s the way they’re thinking.

Rich: So it’s a mindset. We as sellers, as vendors, have to overcome so we can use the language of our customers.

Jeffrey: Exactly. I think every business is on the journey to irrelevance. And I don’t mean to be negative about it, but that’s just the reality. Every industry, every business, is on the path to becoming commoditized.

So I love looking at the negative of that so that you can fight it off. But if you don’t embrace the idea that every business is heading towards irrelevance, then you stop being relevant. I’m not one to buy into the idea that humans have less of an attention span, the problem is most companies aren’t saying anything attention worthy. What happens in a lot of businesses, they start buying into the idea that they’ve been commoditized so they start competing on price.

I’ll give you an example. I worked with a construction company. They are a hardscape company so they did rocks and thigs for hardscaping. Their assumption was that their customers wanted them to be the cheapest. And after working with them and hearing a lot of case studies and hearing conversations, the best person to talk to in a company is the person answering the phone. Because the people on the front line often hear very different than the sales team and the marketing team. And what I gleaned from my conversations was that actually on time delivery was the most important thing to this company’s customers.

The hardscape company is providing to contractors. What was most important to those contractors was on time delivery of the product. Because that on time delivery meant that they could complete the job on time and move onto the next one. And yet the company was focused on feeling a need to compete on price. We shifted it and said you don’t need to compete on price, you need to promise I explained to them how many times have you had customers willing to pay a rush charge to get something on time. All the time it happens, so then your customers are not concerned about price they’re concerned about on time delivery.

So the assumption all along, this company was building and trying to compete and win on price. So often businesses commoditize themselves and yet we blame it on the world. But so often we’re the ones doing it to ourselves because we haven’t fought hard to figure out what is going to keep us from being irrelevant. What does the customer really want?

Rich: Now that brings up a point, Jeffrey. Earlier in hearing your story, you were very clear in the audience you were going after. What advice do you have for people who are maybe just starting out with their business or maybe they’ve been in business for a while but they’re not really clear on who their ideal customer is. Is that the first step, and how do we really identify that ideal customer?

Jeffrey: It is a great question and I’ll tell you, when I was writing my book, Lingo, I didn’t address this issue initially. The book was in the hands of the editors and I was out doing podcast interviews getting ready to promote the release of the book, and every host asked me that same question. And I realized I didn’t address it in the book so we went back and wrote what is now chapter 2 in the book called, Who Would Love That?, because that’s the key.

And I think my approach is a little different. What I do with companies is do a deep dive into who they are. If you think of this almost as a Venn diagram, what I do first is I want to understand the origin story of the company, I want to understand the values of the company, I want to understand their differentiators, what they’re really good at.

One thing I love to unpack is what that company’s unique perspective is. And I think that’s a huge differentiator in the world, your unique perspective. And what I want to know is how do you look at what you do differently? Because there’s hardly a business or an industry out there that that’s alone. So assuming you have a competitor – and we all do – I want to understand how do you look at what you do differently than anybody else.

So I start with them and then we ask the ultimate question, “Who will love that?” What sector of the market that’s out there. Align the matches with that differentiator. Because when you pint out how you look at something different, if people share that view, they share that perspective, they’re far more apt to connect with you.

I just interviewed David Meerman Scott about his new book called, Fanocracy. And similarly, like when you put on display in the world what you’re fans of, people that are fans of that want to connect with you. Same thing with perspective. 

So then once we understand that and unpack the company, then we look at who would love that, what sectors of the market will appreciate that, and then we look at where they overlap. And then that helps us develop a lingo that resonates for them.

Rich: I know you go into much more detail in your book about this, but once we know who our ideal customer is, how do we identify the lingo? How did you go from I want to talk to affluent families to responsibility is their #1 concern?

Jeffrey: So for one, you have to do. You have to get in there and do and always observe. I think I’ve been able to create a shortcut method here, and that is actually what I teach in the book, which is a 5-step process. In all my years of studying this, I’ve deemed these 5 as the most effective emotional triggers.

I’ll tie back in my background here as a photographer because I think this is what gives me my unique perspective of what I do as a brand consultant. I don’t even know if there’s another brand consultant out there who is formerly a photographer. But I can tell you, being a photographer for 35 years trains you in observation in ways that other professions don’t.

So I came to understand human behavior as a photographer because I’ve been studying it for so many decades. And these 5 steps I have found to be the key. Number one is perspective. You can’t even begin to speak somebody’s language unless you understand their perspective. So that’s why you have to do that work of getting into their shoes.

Number two, which I think is actually the most powerful, is familiarity. Once you understand who you want to serve and build a business for, you want to understand what is familiar to them. Because it’s really hard to put people into an uncomfortable space. You want to understand what are already the feelings of familiarity they experience in the way that they do business now. And even brands that they interact with that have nothing to do with the industry that you’re in.

Next is style. What style of presentation resonates for them? Because we live in an era – digital age, digital marketing – that is all about first impressions. And style creates an instant first impression. We have very little time to grab someone’s attention, therefore you have to convey it in a style that resonates for them.

I was just chatting recently with a company that makes gun holsters. I could tell and I recited to them instantly who their ideal customer is just by looking at the style of the website. I knew the demographic, I knew the age, everything about them. Because I could tell the style by the website, that’s how well done it was.

After style you then have to understand the pricing psychology. Pricing psychology is completely subjective, that’s why I was able to randomly pick $10,000 as a price point. Because it’s subjective. But your pricing psychology needs to align with how that company sees themselves. Do they see themselves high end? Do they see themselves low end? Because they’re going to align with a company of similar position.

And then lastly are the words. Now you can actually speak their lingo. This is the mistake that so often happens is people are putting out all the messages they think will resonate, but they haven’t taken the time to figure out what really is the lingo of those that they’re trying to speak to.

Rich: And once we’ve done that, that’s the secret language that you discuss in the book. Correct?

Jeffrey: Correct.

Rich: So this is obviously a podcast about digital marketing. Can you give us some tips or strategies about how to implement these things into our websites, our blogs, our podcast, and social media?

Jeffrey: Absolutely. So I work primarily with websites. I’m not a web designer, I do the brand messaging. I work almost entirely on the homepage because that’s key. If you don’t capture their attention on the homepage, whatever interior pages you have aren’t likely to get a whole lot of attention.

Not to mention – by the way, you know this better than anyone – that 70% or more people visiting any of our marketing details and emails are on a mobile device. People on mobile devices don’t like to go to interior pages, they take too long to load. So if you haven’t given them sufficient content on the homepage, they’re never going to the interior pages, which is where most companies stock up their best information. But people aren’t seeing it. You have to compel them on the homepage.

So one thing you want to do is, in my work as a consultant I’ve actually created what I refer to as an “emotional journey website map”. So it goes something like this. Step 1: when that website opens up it’s the opening scene. And in that opening scene, your ideal customer needs to immediately feel that they’re in the right place. So there has to be an instant resonance and they have to immediately feel like you’re speaking to them. So there has to be a really compelling headline, if you will, I call it a “standout statement”. It needs to stand out, it’s not just a headline. So opening scene you let them know they’re in the right place and that you’re speaking to them because the headline is compelling.

Step 2: You’ve gotten enough of their attention that they’re willing to use their thumb a little bit so then they’re moving on. Now you’re going to create what I refer to as the “self-identifying section”. So this is where they’re going to read enough content it’s going to feel like you’re talking to them. Like you know their pains so well. You know their dreams, their pains. You know them so well that you can speak to them and they read it and think, “Gosh, it’s like you’re in my head. This business knows me.” They’re hooked at that point.

Then they want to go on a little further and then now you’ve got to explain the benefits. I look at benefits two-fold. What’s the benefit of your industry, and then second to that, what’s the benefit of choosing you?

And then after that they want to see just a bit about your process, because they just want to know this is not your first rodeo and you know what you’re doing. And you wrap it up by credibility at the end. Which is this idea that when they read that they feel like it’s no wonder it’s your area of expertise and what you do best.

I did a video called, “End with Why”. Love Simon Sinek, love the idea of “Start with Why”, but from a marketing perspective I believe you should end with “why”, because it should be all about them first and it should end with you. The problem with the whole “start with why” mentality is a lot of people are just talking about themselves. And actually to be effective in online marketing, it has to be about the person visiting it before it’s ever about you.

Rich: I completely agree, although it’s funny, I’m actually listening to the audio book, “Start with Why” right now. And I feel like I do think a lot of people need to get back to why we’re doing it. But I think for me, whenever I talk about writing copy on my website, it’s always about the other person. Everybody is tuned into WIIFM, “what’s in it for me”. In an age of Spotify, I wonder how many more times I can use that and people still understand what FM radio is.

I notice in the book that you have 6 essential daily practices. I’m wondering if you can share one with us today that we can put into practice right away?

Jeffrey: Absolutely, sure. When I think of the most powerful one, which is my primary daily practice, it’s called a “What’s Going Right Journal”. Here’s the science behind it. I always say I can get as woo woo as everybody, but at the end of the day I like data, I like statistics, and I like proof. There’s a lot of metaphysical things that we can do in the world that are nice to do, but I need to see results. And for me, writing into a journal is one of those things that sounds sweet and great, but it doesn’t bring me results by me listing things I’m grateful for. Because honestly, I’m pretty grateful for waking up and it being a nice day.

I wanted something more action oriented so I created what I call a “What’s Going Right Journal.” Every morning you’re just journaling what is going right. It forces me to look at what’s going right in life. Because you know, psychological just as humans we are built to see the negative, built to see our problems, our challenges, that’s what we’re built for for survival. And we often overlook the really positive things that are going on; somebody introduced you to somebody that could be influential, a new client, I gained clarity on something. You just want to pay more attention to what’s going right, because what we know from science is that what you focus on, you get more of.

So when I have seen proven results for this practice is when I journal on what’s going right, I can’t help but see more of what’s going right, which then creates more of what’s going right. And I think this is essential because it really just reverses our brain’s natural inclination towards the negative, which is why we can hear 9 compliments and 1 insult, and the only thing we focus on is the insult. How do we reverse that? So we’re actually maximizing our productivity. And for me the “What’s Going Right Journal” has done just that.

Rich: That’s great. Now I mentioned your book that’s available at Amazon. And I know you’ve got a podcast and information about your speaking services at jeffreyshaw.com. Anywhere else you’d like to send people so that they can connect with you?

Jeffrey: I think if you start at jeffreyshaw.com it’s going to funnel everywhere. I’m on all the socials, you’ll find me by my name. But jeffreyshaw.com is the place to start for the podcast, speaking, everything starts form there.

Rich: Fantastic. Jeffrey, thanks so much for coming today, I really enjoyed our conversation.

Jeffrey: Likewise, Rich. Thank you very much for having me, I appreciate it. 

Show Notes:

Jeff Shaw used his own experience to help other businesses find and use the proper lingo to win over customers. Check out his book on the topic, as well as his podcast.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing