Serious Corporations use "serious business language". They don't speak English

The problem with many startups and small businesses is that they want to be big... they want to sound big, because they believe that showing an image of a "big company" makes them more serious and trustworthy. While that can be the case in some situations, trying to imitate a big company can sometimes work against you... especially in the way you deal with your customers and language you use.


"We're sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused"

Big corporations use this language to "apologize" for a server downtime. Just read it again. "Any inconvenience"? Users can't get to their data, they are furious! "We're sorry"? Sorry doesn't mean anything - "apologize" means you really take the blame, how about this: "We truly apologize for the server downtime, we know you really need to get to your data and we're working hard to make sure we're up and running again and that this kind of error won't happen in the future. Please bear with us just another minute.". Take the blame, be apologetic, suck it up and be human. People understand if you talk their language.

The official online forms with lots of data and no sentences

Just because your "big" competitor has a signup form asking for a user's favorite color, doesn't mean you have to. Make the signup experience as simple and short as possible. When you sign up for Nozbe, I only ask for Name, Email and ... that's it. I ask for password only after you've confirmed your email address... and I ask for rest of the data on "as-needed" basis. Why ask for country or city? You can get this data from the users's IP address if you really need it. Don't make the barrier of entry too high for your startup!

Same with the lack of sentences - "Sign me up" looks a lot better on a signup button than "Save" or "Submit". Explain what you mean, speak English, not Corporate'ish.

The corporate way of treating people - bureaucratic customer support

Just have a look at how your mobile phone company is treating you. How your cable tv company is ignoring your requests. Look at these big companies and ask yourself, do I want my customers/users to be as upset as I am right now when this big company is sending me a letter I don't understand? A letter? In 21st century?

The other day I had a problem with incorrect invoices on my mobile phone bill, I called their call center and they said I had to write a formal letter to get this correction done (it's them who screwed up, and it's me who has to write the letter?)... so I wrote the letter. After 3 weeks they sent me a letter back saying, that in my letter I forgot to mention this and that data and I needed to send the letter again. Couldn't just they've called me? They know my number, after all they are my mobile phone company! Was this helpful? Was I upset? Is this the way to act if it's the company who makes mistake?

The Bottom line:

Don't be like big companies, use English language, take the blame even if it's not entirely yours. Just like Kennedy said: don't ask what your user/customer can do for you, ask what you can do for them.

Disclaimer: in the past I also admit I used some of the "corporate" phrases in my correspondence with my users... I apologize, this won't happen again, I will speak English.

Which of the companies you work with treat you well and with respect? What is there still to improve? How do you improve your company to server better your customers?

--> me I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Posted on Wednesday, January 20, 2010 (business,enterprise,startup)

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Jan 20, 2010 09:26
Fully agree with you my friend. Moreover, have you ever come across the "tech language" on web services? I call it "Terminator language". Why so many people think that sentence "Error type 11" is the best way to communicate something human.
Jan 20, 2010 10:08
Good post!
Michael Sliwinski
Jan 20, 2010 13:52
Real, honest English is the way to go. Just got tired of seeing corporate'ish lanugage on yet another startup's web site. We're now translating Nozbe to several languages so I'm reviewing the language we're using and in many cases I'm writing things all over again. Don't want to sound like the big guys - I want to sound like those nice guys. Better way to go.

Thanks for your comments Victormazur and Kodz!

Christine Banks
Jan 29, 2010 22:18
The "we truly apologize..." language is something that I will definitely use at my job (I manage a web communications support team) - thank you, it's brilliant! Would love to know how to get more examples of this sort of "language".
Michael Sliwinski
Jan 30, 2010 18:06
The whole idea is just to imagine you're standing in front of a real person and say from the heart what you need to say. That's it - make it real, make it genuine and show that you care. Like a real human, not a machine or better yet, not like a "corporate machine".

Now on the contrary look them in the eyes and tell them: "we're sorry for any inconvenience..." - they'd laugh in your face :-)

Christine, thanks for your comment and keep making it real and also let me know when you discover new examples for your communication.