In business communications, what your customers think you mean is far more important than what you think you said.

In the tourist-friendly communities of Southwest Florida we often see instances where good intentions give way to poor execution. To be certain your customers and clients get the messages you intend, use a common language, probe for motives as well as for facts, and don't assume anything. The following tips use examples from the travel and restaurant industry, but they apply everywhere.

First, use a common language. In the tourist industry, simple words can cause confusion because of differing perspectives. If tourists think they've been misled, they might be disappointed and never return.

For instance, when a tourist is reading a brochure, the words "see", "view" and "visit" might seem to mean the same thing. But to the travel agent, "see" means you'll get a look at the site as you drive past on the bus; "view" means the bus will stop briefly for a photo op; and "visit" means you'll get off the bus and have time to explore.

Likewise, the travel agent knows a "guide" will move you from place to place, but an "escort" will accompany you through every step of the site from start to finish. Big difference!

Second, probe for motives as well as for facts. Perhaps a new travel agent finishes booking a cruise for a couple when the man asks her, "Are children on this ship?"

She answers very enthusiastically, "Oh yes! There are lots of children and families. It's a great family atmosphere."

"Oh," says the man. "That's too bad. I can't stand being around kids." Her quick and enthusiastic answer created a tense situation. The agent will have to work hard and fast to save that booking.

A simple technique called a "probe" would have made the conversation much easier. When the man asks about children the agent should have answered, "Well, yes, there are children, but why do you ask?" In this case, she gave an honest answer followed by a request for more information before providing too many additional details.

Then when the man commented about his feelings toward children, she would have been able to focus on schedules, cabin locations and programs in a way that would enhance his cruise experience. The agent assumed something about the potential passenger's feelings, and she was wrong.

That brings us to tip No. 3: Don't assume. Don't presume to treat customers as friends. They are customers, and they deserve to be treated with respect. Employees in too many businesses today, especially in restaurants, have become overly friendly talking to customers by using the word "guy." Their intentions are good, but the resulting impression is poor.

For example, upon entering a restaurant a party is greeted with the question, "Hi. How are you guys this evening?"

After being seated, the waitress asks, "Can I offer you guys something to drink?" Later, "Would you guys like anything else?"

Finally, after paying the check, the customers hear, "I hope you guys will come back again soon."

The word "guys" familiarizes and trivializes the encounter, and that is no way to develop a positive business relationship.

Removing a single word, however, can change the relationship.

Look at the difference in each of the sentences when "guys" disappears.

"How are you this evening?"

"May I offer you something to drink?"

"Would you like anything else?"

"I hope you will come back again soon."

In every business relationship, what we say and how we say it leave lasting impressions. As our population fluctuates during the changing seasons, it is always important to create that favorable impression regardless of the business we represent.

Follow these three tips, and your business communication will get better and better.

Finally, remember this simple suggestion: Whatever you do, do it on purpose.

J. Robert Parkinson, Ph.D., is a communications consultant, author, adjunct professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a Siesta Key resident. He may be reached at [email protected] and www.jrparkinson.com.

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