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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. I’m the CEO of a legal tech startup with a breakthrough AI product, Fortune 500 clients, and backing from leading venture capitalists and Microsoft. We’re the exact portrait of a “disruptive” Silicon Valley company — and that’s the one word our sales team is never allowed to use.
To be blunt, it’s tone-deaf. The last thing a seasoned executive who’s dedicated her life to the legal industry wants to hear is that some flashy startup thinks they should disrupt what she’s built and worked on.
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That’s not to say the legal world is change-averse. Like other well-established industries, such as financial services and healthcare, legal is just cautious — and for good reason. When you’re trained to take care of the law, money, and people’s lives, of course, you’ll be guarded when a startup comes along with a solution to decades-old problems… even if that help could go a long way.
So how can fast-growing companies earn the opportunity to partner with players in these industries which need innovation the most? I’ve found that language and empathy play a big role. New tech founders, please take note: if you’re trying to innovate in a more traditional industry, don’t say these words.
When I read thought leadership articles by founders talking about how they’re “disrupting” such and such “legacy” industry, I always think about their clients reading that article and feeling alienated and misunderstood.
The hard truth is, bringing about systematic change in an enterprise involves much more than just a product. A few lines of code by themselves can’t fix deeply ingrained corporate politics, prior sunk technology investments, and competing management agendas.
Traditional industries face the complex challenge of balancing the old with the new. Enterprise tech buyers are looking for solutions, but more so, they’re looking for partners to help them innovate on their terms and align with their culture.
In other words, the disruptor-savior complex just doesn’t fly anymore. The purpose of bringing a new product into a traditional industry should not be for the “innovator-centered” disruption. It should be for the “customer-centered” ROI of technology investments.
How can new founders easily understand the distinction? With innovation, both sides of the relationship get a win. Instead of introducing yourself as the disruptor impacting change on your customers, position yourself as the enabler, helping them to drive change and allowing your champions to be the hero.
I learned this one the hard way. A few years ago I was talking with a mentor and potential customer at a Fortune 100 company. As we were chatting I said, “Well, you know what, we’re gonna hack this together.” Back then I was working closely with engineers who used “hack” to describe the process of quickly testing and building products.
He gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: “Hey, Jerry, don’t use that word when you speak to people in my position. We don’t like being hacked.”
Point well taken. Corporations like his spend millions of dollars a year to prevent themselves from data breaches, exposure of sensitive information, and vulnerabilities. No wonder they don’t want to hear that term — even if it’s in a totally different and innocent context.
Related: 8 Commonly Misunderstood Words
In enterprise tech, the popular consumer technology phrase “move fast and break things” rarely resonates. For example, in the payment space, if a server went down for even a millisecond, millions of dollars could be lost for credit card companies. Don’t confuse what worked for consumer companies ten years ago with what works today in enterprise IT.
When you use the word “automate” with engineers and project managers, they understand you’re talking about technology to make tedious work instantaneous. But when you use the word “automate” with a potential customer, they might think you’re talking about their colleague’s job of 20 years.
Be very aware of a prospect’s attitudes and knowledge around automation if you must use it in conversation. To avoid setting off any alarm bells, remember this golden rule: tasks get automated, not jobs and people.
You might also make the buyer more comfortable by explaining why you’ve built automation into the product. For me, it helps to tell my personal story.
Related: 13 Must-Have Words to Include In Your Resume
A few months into law school, I realized I probably didn’t actually want to be a lawyer. Instead of helping clients, I learned that most of my nights would be dedicated to organizing, tracking, and manually reading through thousands of legal documents. Rather than dropping out (which I considered numerous times), I spent the rest of my law school career building an AI company, Evisort, to streamline the part of being a lawyer that my peers and I lost countless hours on: document review.
I launched Evisort to help my lawyer friends by automating the tasks that drained so much time and energy from their day-to-day. The goal of automation isn’t about stamping out jobs — far from that. It’s about making work more enjoyable and making colleagues even more strategic in their roles.
Above all, the key is to be empathetic to the people you’re trying to help. If you’re lucky enough to catch the attention of a seasoned industry pro, take the opportunity to learn from someone with decades of domain expertise. You’ll get a lot farther when you really listen — and you’ll keep your foot out of your mouth.