This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

While writing last week’s tip about my delightful interaction with Dave I had to sort out how best to refer to Dave. The language I chose was thanks to a tip I published in 2016. I’m reprising a variation of that tip here because I believe it contains lessons that bear repeating.

I wrote with fervor back in 2016 because I was so turned off by the title of an article shared by a well-respected sales training organization: “How to turn ‘suspects’ into ‘prospects’.” It unleashed my rant about the words we use, both casually and intentionally, to refer to clients in various stages.

I’m passionate about language because our words both reflect and shape the way we and others think about things and people—including the people we’re trying mightily to serve. Yet so many well-intended professionals use language every day that draws down on the trust they are trying so mightily to build.

I learned long ago from co-author Charlie Green to not only stop using the word “objections,” but to stop even thinking in terms of objections. Same goes for “closing.” I’m definitely adding “suspects” to the list, and for the record I’m not crazy about “prospects.” Let’s get “target” on there too for sure, which is a term I still hear all too often in big consulting firms.

Here are three general guidelines for the words you choose in a sales context or any context for that matter. Use language that:

  1. Refers to others in ways you yourself would like (or at least wouldn’t mind)
  2. Wouldn’t leave you feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable if they knew you were using it*
  3. Promotes and/or acknowledges people, rather than objectifying them.

I realize that annihilating “suspect”/”prospect” poses a challenge when you’re trying to communicate an early stage in your relationship. Fine, then how about “desired client”? Personally, I’d feel good if I knew I was being referred to that way, even if you weren’t a desired provider. Who doesn’t want to be desired?

If that’s too creepy, then how about “possible client”? I don’t mind being part of your possibility. (Hopefully that’s also true for the aforementioned Dave, because it’s what I landed on.)

Just please don’t ever make me a “suspect.”

And I definitely don’t want to be your “target.”

What other terms out there should we eradicate while we’re at it?

*Here’s my favorite litmus test for any kind of sales training or coaching you’re offering in your organization. Imagine one of your clients (or possible clients) being privy to everything that’s taught. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. All the materials, all the voiceovers. Does it make you cringe … or swell with pride?

Make It Real

This week, watch your words. Notice the terms you habitually use, even with the best of intentions, that could be negatively impacting either your mindset about relationship-building or your actual relationships or both.

Learn More

Learn why we should seriously reconsider value propositions while we’re at it, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on six reasons not to “always be closing” in Chapter 16 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

Rant over. At least for another five years.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).