SME Operators are distrustful of ‘verbal fluff’ and jargon. The first sniff of corporate-speak will lose them. They are too hard-nosed, pragmatic and earthy for jargon. In fact they find it a huge turn-off.
In this newsletter we cover three key issues. Firstly we look at the types of words to avoid with SMEs. We then consider how this can vary by size of the business. Finally we reflect on some SME comments in relation to words they loathe.
Avoid projecting big-business values onto SMEs. In particular avoid phrases like ‘helping you to grow’. SME comms is littered with phrases such as this. They make the business owner feel even more distant from the organisation trying to talk to them than they did before. The big-business may want to grow but that’s not necessarily the case for the SME.
Avoid anything that paints a picture that is divorced from their world. This is more about the images that accompany SME comms, some of which are dreadful. The use of 'beautiful people’ in advertising is a killer. Business owners can spot ‘talent’ from 100 paces. It screams out a lack of credibility and a lack of authenticity.
Size of business has an impact on words to use
Owners of smaller businesses generally see their business as an extension of themselves. This especially applies to those with less than, say, 10 FTEs (this being the overwhelming majority of Australian businesses). The language and images that engage them are those that are more personal in nature. Notions of increasing leisure time or work flexibility (and reducing stress) … increasing control over their business and life (and therefore reducing stress!!) … and improving cash flow (and therefore reducing stress!!!) are key. The point is that most see their business as a vehicle to fund their lifestyle, not the other way around.
Owners of mid-size businesses (say employing 50-500 FTEs) can be quite different. The words and images that appeal to such owners aren’t so ‘personal’, and tend to be more professional and corporate. So terms such as productivity, efficiency, scale, expansion, growth, quality can be used with them. They aren’t ‘fully corporate’ though, so there still needs to be a flavour of pragmatism and earthiness that strongly underpins all comms with business owners ... but it needs to be balanced by a more professional perspective.
Businesses that fall between the two categories discussed above – that is businesses with roughly 10-50 FTEs – are stuck in the middle and the images and words that engage them vary. Some fall into the ‘small business’ camp and some into the ‘mid-market business’ category.
It is self-evident how important it is to understand exactly what size of business is being targeted in a comms campaign. Once you have your comms piece developed it is important to run it through a filter for testing its credibility and suitability.
SME comments on words to avoid
In our most recent wave of SME interviews, business owners provided plenty of examples of words that they do not like to see in their comms from suppliers and other organisations. Many of these comments are quite negative, in part reflecting the nature of the question, but in part borne by exasperation at the disconnect between SMEs and corporates …
“I can’t stand the word ‘vision’ – as if as SMEs we have some incredible idea or light-bulb moment. I hate the word. In fact I hate the images that go with SME advertising because they basically imply that everyone has some biblical-like vision.” (Entrepreneur - International Business, 4 FTEs)
“I think that the cult of start-up at the moment is fairly offensive to people who actually know how to start a business because you’d be led to believe that you have to plug into an ecosystem, you need to be connected with thought leaders and you need to be nimble about the way you go about things and you’ve got to be ready to pivot on the spot, and all this sort of crap. That is absolutely misleading in terms of what starting a business is. Starting a business is a fairly lonely, isolating, insecure experience that relies on dogged determination – yes a willingness to change your mind and learn as you’re going along – but that term ‘pivot’ is just one of the laziest terms for acknowledging your mistakes, learning from them and adjusting to set a new path forward.” (Entrepreneur - business services, 6 FTEs)
“‘Big data’. People talk it up too much. ‘Blockchain’. The hype! These things get hyped so much. ‘OmniChannel’ Omni anything! Uber anything! And I’m not referring to Uber Taxis but Uber anything.” (IT, 320 FTEs)
“‘Sustainable’ would be a classic to me. What the hell’s that even mean? Business is sustainable if it makes money, it’s unsustainable if it doesn’t isn’t it? Everything else is rubbish. That just seems to be a meaningless word to me.” (Printing/Publishing, 90 FTEs)
“I hate the word ‘journey’. Everyone’s on a fricking ‘journey’ these days, and they’re ‘enjoying their journey’.” (Home loans, 12 FTEs)
“I’ve seen so many businesses that are up and coming and they say ‘oh we’re the Uber of Real Estate’ or ‘the Uber of this and that’. I think that’s a loosely thrown around term … It’s almost like you’re trying to lever off another brand and Uber’s a really good brand. To really shake up an industry like they’ve done, you need to earn that word.” (Agency, 8 FTEs)
“If I see the word ‘unique’ I’m going to puke. I’m half way through ‘unique’ and I hit ‘delete’. If I see ‘opportunity’, I’ll get to the ‘opp’ (ie the first 3 letters of ‘opportunity’) and delete!” (Physio, 45 FTEs)
“‘Business is tough’. Get the eff out if business is tough. Life is tough. People are tough. But that’s the challenge, that’s why you get into business. I don’t like being around people that say ‘business is tough’. Get on with it, get out there and get into it … Some people have an optimistic mindset and I think that’s what you’ve got to have … We want to be around happy, energetic, passionate, significant people.” (Not for Profit, 5 FTEs)
“(Avoid words like …) Tailored. Customised. Value-add. Service-driven. We understand. I don’t think a corporate employee CAN understand small business.” (Entrepreneur – business services, 90 FTEs)
Business owners are pragmatists who don’t like being talked down to. At the first hint of being patronised or of dealing with corp-speak they will be turned off. This particularly applies to those running smaller businesses who have almost no tolerance for waffle and jargon. Got something to say? Then get to the point succinctly and honestly … but don’t project your perception of what their success should look like. They are the boss of their business.