[Video Transcript for Liability Traps: Words to Avoid in Marketing & Business Development by Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM. Minor edits for clarity.]
Greetings everyone, I’m Scott Butcher and today we’re going to talk about liability traps – those words you need to avoid in marketing and business development.
Marketing and business development in the architecture, engineering, construction, and environmental industries is a tough gig. We’re not selling a tangible product – we’re selling the abstract, the invisible, the desired future state.
So the last thing we really need is any sort of virtual handcuffs when it comes to our ability to market or sell.
And yet this little thing called “liability” really forces us to choose our words carefully, lest we imply something or make promises we don’t mean to make.
Whether we’re writing an email or a cover letter, whether we’re developing a proposal or writing copy for a website, whether we’re standing in front of an audience giving a presentation or sitting across the table with the client, we have to be very careful with what we say, and there’s some words we need to strike from our vernacular.
Certainly context is everything; but if you train yourself to avoid using these words, you’ll be ahead of the game.
I’m going to share about 15 words with you today, but I’m sure if you reach out to your liability insurance carrier or your attorney, you’ll be able to get two to three times that amount of words that they want you to avoid.
So we’re going to start our list with the most obvious of words you want to avoid, and that is guarantee, which is the assurance for fulfillment of a condition.
Be careful not to guarantee anything. Don’t guarantee schedule, cost, or quality. Don’t guarantee client satisfaction. It’s tempting to do these things and, in fact, there are a few firms in our industry that do offer guarantees. They’re doing so at greater risk and they’re doing so to gain a competitive advantage.
Products with guarantees can be returned if they fail to live up to the claim. But how do you do that with a building or a bridge? How can you guarantee something that hasn’t even been created or performed yet?
There’s far too much unknown out there, yet if you innocently state in a proposal that you guarantee client satisfaction and you get to the end of the project and the client is unhappy, they’re going to turn around and say “You guaranteed my satisfaction and you failed!” How will the courts interpret that?
Closely related to guarantee is warranty, which is essentially a written guarantee or a binding covenant.
Your firm might provide a specific warranty for the project, or a component of the project, but outside of that specific context you want to avoid warrantying anything.
Strike that from your marketing message.
Don’t certify anything. That is, attesting authoritatively. We don’t want to certify anything in our marketing and business development because it can come back to haunt us.
Now we’re going to turn our attention to the trifecta of short words that you’re certainly going to want to strike from your vocabulary. These three words have different meanings and they’re often incorrectly used interchangeably.
So we have ensure – e-n – which means to make sure or to guarantee.
We have assure – a-s – which means to make certain or convince.
Finally we have insure, which means two things: one is to make the necessary precautions, and the other means to provide insurance for.
If you write a simple sentence that states “our integrated Building Information Model ensures there will be no conflicts in the field,” you’ve unequivocally stated that there will be no conflicts during construction – at least related to the design.
Is that really what you want to do? You’ve basically guaranteed it.
Don’t do that!
Here’s another one that has a very specific meaning in our industry: inspect.
Inspect means to examine efficiently and/or find every fault.
Many firms in our industry do offer some sort of inspection services. Marketing in that context is appropriate; using inspect or inspection outside of that context is something you want to avoid.
If you write in a proposal that you will “conduct a site inspection to determine existing conditions,” and you miss something, what happens when that comes to light? Are you going to go for a change order?
This could happen in the design phase. This could happen in the construction phase.
Well, the client can look back at your inspection and deny it (change order) and say “No, you said you were going to find every fault and you didn’t do that.”
The client could come back at the end of a project and file a claim against you because of this inspection that didn’t actually find everything.
We also need to avoid those words that imply 100%, which is typically unobtainable.
For instance, the word complete, which means total or absolute. Sure, we can talk about project completion, but don’t use phrases like “You can have complete confidence in our team,” or “The site superintendent will have complete control over the construction process.” One hundred percent is unobtainable.
So if we’re going to avoid using complete, let’s also avoid using total, which means comprehensive or absolute.
Strike those words from your vocabulary.
Eliminate is another one we want to avoid. Eliminate means to totally remove. Now, have you noticed these advertisements for household cleaners? You often hear that it “eliminates 99.9% of germs” or it “eliminates most household odors.”
They’re using qualifiers here because, again, eliminate basically means a hundred percent. You can’t eliminate 100% of germs; you can’t eliminate 100% of odors.
So we don’t want to use eliminate in our marketing and business development.
Maximum & Minimum
In that same vein, we also want to avoid maximum, or maximize, as well as minimum, or minimize.
The definition for maximum is the greatest quality or value obtainable.
Likewise, the definition for minimum is the least quantity possible.
We might want to say “Our technology maximizes the design,” or that “Our quality review process minimizes construction errors.” These are very strong claims, especially when you look at the true definitions for the terms.
If technology allows us to maximize the design, we’re stating that the design will achieve the greatest possible quality.
If we minimize construction errors, that means we’ll have the least possible errors. How will a court interpret this? Maybe zero errors.
We don’t want to make that claim.
Best & Best-In-Class
We also want to avoid the claims of superiority.
Here I’m talking about best, which means excelling all others, and best-in-class, which means superior to all competitors.
We want to think we’re the best and, in fact, I’d argue that the attitude of “being the best” is essential for successful marketing and business development. But thinking you’re the best and saying you’re the best are two very different things.
We don’t want to make the claim that we’re better than everybody else because that creates a liability trap; furthermore, many professional associations have ethics rules that prohibit using that type of wording that implies that you’re superior to all the other firms doing what you do.
Our final word to avoid is exact, which means complete accordance.
It’s pretty hard to be exact at anything, especially something has yet to be created, designed, or constructed.
We’re setting ourselves up for potential liability down the road when we use that terminology.
When you strike 15, 25, or even 50 words from your vocabulary, it changes the way you say and write things. It forces you to be more creative.
So don’t inspect the site; observe the site conditions.
Don’t state that your quality program ensures project success; state that your program enhances quality.
Don’t state that you eliminate errors; state that you reduce them.
Remember, in our industry design many construction firms are held to Standards of Care. Don’t state anything that implies that you go above and beyond that Standard of Care.
And so my final word to you is that I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice; just sound marketing advice to reduce the odds that your firm will get sued down the road because of something that was said or written in marketing and business development.
Notice how I didn’t say eliminate or minimize? I said reduce!
I’m Scott Butcher and I help design and construction firms improve their marketing and business development acumen through consulting, training, and facilitation.
Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to seeing you again soon.
[End of Transcript]
Looking to improve your marketing and business development approach? Contact Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at 717.891.1393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.