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Miscommunication, misinterpretation and misfiring

The sign read, “It takes many ingredients to make our burgers great, but the secret ingredient is our people.”

I don’t know. That just didn’t sound too appetizing, so I had a hot dog. Hopefully, the manufacturing process for the frankfurters stuck to the usual deliciously nutritious combination of artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, maltodextrin and sodium nitrate and eschewed using any leftover employees’ parts that didn’t make the cut for burgers.

Clear and effective communication is the cornerstone of success in life, and nowhere is it more important than in the ancient and noble profession of sales. The good folks at the burger joint were trying to tell us that their employees took great care in preparing their burgers, but instead it sounded like something out of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

So a good rule to learn from my near-Donner Pass experience would be: What you say or write is who you are, so be careful or you’ll end up in the soup (literally).

Like I did last week.

We had pitched a prospect on joining one of our sales training classes and had scheduled an appointment for an evaluation and introduction to the process. A couple of days before that scheduled meeting, she sent us an email canceling and added she wasn’t interested at this time.

I wrote back in an attempt to show support and understanding, and leave the door open for a future sale. Unfortunately, the email I wrote elicited the exact opposite response from the prospect.

With my usual sensitive and empathic touch, and in an attempt to keep the mood light and friendly, I tried to make the email funny. I ended my message with the line, “If there is anything I can do to help you, please let me know. Maybe we can get you some coaching later on when you’re either more comfortable or more desperate. I’ll take either.”

I thought I had a rapport with her that I obviously misjudged, and even though the gag line would be funny to some people, it wasn’t to her. Goodbye future sale; hello another ill-conceived, poorly executed and recklessly sent electronic “mismissive.”


Add that one to the multitude of exponentially growing debacles resulting from instant, unfiltered and inexact contacts. A costly example happened to one of my clients who had finally made a large sale to a prospect he had been working on for some time.

He sent the paperwork to his assistant to place the order and get it immediately shipped out. Upon receiving his instructions, his assistant texted him: “OK, I’ll order immediately.”

Later in the day, the assistant checked her messages, and there was one from the salesman saying, “Kill order immediately.”

The following Monday, when the salesman showed up for the sales meeting, he stopped to ask his assistant if the order had shipped yet. A look of bewilderment came over her face as she told him he had canceled the order.

When the customer was notified it would be another week before delivery, he canceled. Nobody could figure out what had happened until, finally, the sales manager asked to see the assistant’s phone and checked her messages.

Unfortunately, the assistant, being of a certain age, learned an abbreviated, expedient way to write. She didn’t use capital letters or punctuation and sometimes used single letters instead of words.

Accordingly, the condensed message she had sent to the salesman confirming his order read, “kill order immediately.” When she checked her messages later that day, she actually read her own note and assumed it was from the salesman.


Besides the obvious, the real lesson here is that you’re in big trouble when your smartphone is smarter than you are. But miscommunication is not limited to computers and phones.

Long before the binary revolution, advertising took the science of stupid bloopers to an art form, especially when it tried to translate a marketing message to a foreign language.

One of my favorites was a Ford campaign for Pinto that it tried to take to Brazil. The campaign was a complete flop. When Ford investigated, it discovered that Pinto was Brazilian slang for tiny male genitals.

Another example is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Its slogan of “finger-lickin’ good,” when translated into Chinese, came out as eat your fingers off.

If you’re not careful, words can really mess you up. So to be safe, always remember the words of children’s books author Robert McCloskey: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Since my latest harrowing experience in the world of convoluted messaging, I taped that quote to the top of my computer screen, because when it comes to marginally erudite, semi-entertaining malaprops, whether you’re either comfortable or desperate, I’m your man.

Richard Plinke, author of “From The Jaws Of The Dragon” (available at www.fromthejawsofthedragon.com), is a sales consultant and professional speaker. He can be reached at rich@howtoselltheplague.com.

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