The moment you realise your not speaking the same language as your customer...

My blog this week is about clear writing. And while I was thinking about what I was going to say about clear writing, I did a quick search of the word ‘jargon’. A word that has become known (cue Darth Vader entrance music) as the destroyer of plain English.

What I got back tickled me because as it turns out, the dictionary definition of the word jargon is, well, a bit on the heavy side.

 “Jargon is a literary term that is defined as the use of specific phrases and words in a particular situation, profession, or trade. These specialised terms are used to convey hidden meanings accepted and understood in that field. Jargon examples are found in literary and non-literary pieces of writing.

The use of jargon becomes essential in prose or verse or some technical pieces of writing, when the writer intends to convey something only to the readers who are aware of these terms. Therefore, jargon was taken in early times as a trade language, or as a language of a specific profession, as it is somewhat unintelligible for other people who do not belong to that profession. In fact, specific terms were developed to meet the needs of groups of people working within the same field or occupation.”

Blimey! Now Financial Services has a long history of using jargon and abbreviations. ‘WOC’ anyone? And back in the day my vocabulary also used to include words like ‘estoppel’ and ‘tortfeasor’. Seriously. It did. Thankfully over the years many of us have worked hard to kick these things out of anything we say to consumers.  

Yes, I see the odd bit of jargon still crop up in Final Response Letters, but it’s no longer the arch enemy of unclear writing.

There’s a science behind writing and how the person who is reading it takes what’s being said – both from the look of the content as much the words on the page.  

Overly long letters can give the impression that something is being fudged and covered over. Passive sentences can sound aggressive, distant and disinterested. Spelling mistakes suggest a lack of care and attention. Using a font size that’s too small comes across as untrustworthy.

Doing the opposite of all these things helps the reader to see what’s written – and gives a feel (and I use the word feel because complaints are usually peppered with emotion) for the integrity of the content.

Pretty deep stuff I know. Or to put it another way and in the words of Bananarama; “It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. And that’s what gets results”. Although, my spidey senses tell me they weren’t singing about Final Response Letters…

Clear writing also requires clear thinking. Do you know your stuff? Do you know what happened? Do you understand why? Do you really know how the customer feels about it? Can you feel the impact it’s had on them? Do you think the outcome is the right one? If you do, it makes the job a whole lot easier.

It is easy to overthink things when we write. And what comes out on screen doesn’t always sound or feel anything like us. It’s a common thing I see when I work with complaints handlers who are struggling with how to say something. “What do you want to say?”, I ask them. They tell me. And most of the time my advice is to write what they’ve just said because it’s simple, clear and meant.  

So apart from avoiding doing the things I talked about earlier, what else can complaints handlers do, to check that what’ve they’ve written will come across clearly to the customer?

First, use a readability statistics tool. I’m surprised at how many people don’t know about this tool or don’t use it. It’s great. It tells you how easy your content is to read and how many passive sentences you’ve written.

Second, ask a colleague to read out loud to you what you’ve written. Hearing somebody else read your words out loud helps you to hear it in a different way to how it sounds when you say the words in your head. Quick tip. Don’t have the text you’ve written in front of you when you do this because you’ll process what you see first before what you hear.

Clear thinking and clear writing go hand in hand when writing Final Response Letters. But a Final Response Letter to a customer is more than the sum of its parts. A Final Response Letter is one of those defining moments in time when a customer will see your business in a way that can’t be undone. And that’s why it’s so important to get it right.

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