Lost in translation: listen and speak in your customer’s language

Entrepreneurs in sectors ranging from SLED (state, local, education) market providers to residential and commercial developers are faced with a unique challenge: The language used by the public sector and how it differs from the private sector.

In the mid-twentieth century, University of Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously speculated that, “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”

Small and medium-sized firms often experience that words themselves don’t convey meaning, but express the intent of the situation. This issue is amplified when working with different levels of government across multiple regions as standards, needs and requirements often change based on the state, province and country you work in.

To put it another way, understanding context is everything.

For the thinkers at Cambridge, lions with the ability to speak English would still be indecipherable to most people. Their shared experiences and cultural references would be totally alien. It could be said the same is true of government procurement. Context is everything, and a shared world or common understanding can be hard to find.

Translating bureaucratese

Understanding the needs of your government customer is a major step in preparing a successful bid or RFP. But how can firms build that understanding, quickly, in a rapidly changing marketplace? Building relationships. Firms build relationships with local and state authorities over time. Through engagement in bids, RFPs and by staying aware of the latest developments on local councils and budget cycles. Knowing the language of councils will help develop those key relationships even further.

Obstacles can emerge when customers search for terms which fit their own understanding of specialized systems and tools of their industry. State or local government agencies often use a broader approach to problem-solving or their own established terminology. Knowing your audience, the dialect they speak and their needs is crucial to securing wins on RFPs.

Technology can help bridge the gap between the public and private sectors.

Data science and machine learning can instantly analyze thousands of pages of meeting transcripts, agendas and budget documents to identify and analyze the language used by governments and SLED market insiders.

Examples of these translational obstacles can be found in any sector. While libraries and educational institutions often share a common language or understanding, infrastructure and engineering firms may not.

Water treatment and water retention are two large areas of local or regional government responsibility. For private sector providers looking to expand from one to the other, a distinct understanding of the language of both needs to be established.

Surface water retention, as an example, involves the collection and organized disbursement of water from rain or other natural environments, such as annual spring flooding and meltwater. Municipalities and local government authorities have a number of different ways to address surface water retention. Some through combined surface water sewer water networks, others through separate surface water retention networks and drainage ponds. Other municipalities rely on culverts to get surface water back to rivers and other bodies of water.

When talking about water treatment, county and local governments tend to speak about the terms above in a similar way. The larger and more saturated the bobbles are the more “related or similar” the discussions are.

Water treatment and water collection are the systems by which local authorities collect and treat water for delivery to homes. Many systems are involved in water treatment, with water quality an important factor.

Water quality could be described as the natural mineral content of the water at the source. This includes the types and amounts of natural total dissolved solids in the water. It can also describe the end result of the treatment process, describing the artificial quality of the water. Both descriptions can impact the taste and smell of water and could be used to address issues or breaks at any point of the water treatment and distribution system.

Understanding the glossary of technical terms used by local and municipal authorities and the context in which they are used is essential for firms looking to win more bids in new jurisdictions.

While public sector experts speak on their own terms, private sector firms must adapt their vocabularies to engage on even ground. Otherwise, they may find themselves trying to translate a conversation between lions in a bureaucratic world. 

Our advisors help all new customers get set up with opportunity alerts built around how your customers talk about the problems you solve. We use advanced AI to translate and find terms so that you will receive alerts about opportunities that matter to you. Check out our solutions page for more information or book a demo learn more!

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