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Most people would agree with the value of speaking and writing plainly and clearly, but so many of the communications we receive from our financial, health and insurance providers are confusing and frustrating to understand. If you are tasked with writing or approving materials that involve customer communications (e.g., insurance policies, application forms, health benefits or even ad hoc correspondence), from my experience, staying away from legalese or jargon and moving to what is known as “plain language” is going to provide a better overall customer experience.
With communications that have a legacy of complexity, moving from cumbersome vocabulary to words that recipients are more familiar with may seem like a time-consuming, daunting task. However, it is not as difficult as you might think.
What really is plain language?
Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a community of federal employees that provides guidance to government agencies on clear communication, defines plain language this way:
“Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. No one technique defines plain language. Rather, plain language is defined by results—it is easy to read, understand, and use.”
Put simply, writing in a plain language format accomplishes the following:
- Helps readers of all levels understand your information
- Avoids misunderstandings and errors that result in calls to the call center or, worse, churn
- Saves time for everyone
Every communications project should begin with a thorough assessment to discover where you can streamline, rewrite and redesign. A design scorecard can be created that will measure how effective your existing documents are across three important dimensions: brand integration, design and messaging. Then, a meeting with your project stakeholders will further uncover the issues you are trying to resolve.
Finally, initiating a usability test with a group of trusted customers will help identify first-hand what they find confusing and where the potential lies for improving your communications to meet their individual needs. Incorporating what you learn from these steps will make it easier to apply plain language writing and proven information design principles to create communications that are functional, clear and relevant and even transform complex documents into powerful marketing and retention tools.
Studies show that 89% of customers switch to a competitor because of poor customer service.
Organizations often struggle with simplifying their messaging because of the current state of their customer communications systems. Making even the smallest change on an account statement, for example, can take weeks and, too often, requires specialized systems programming. However, a company can no longer continue to rely on complex and arcane systems if it hopes to survive. Studies show that 89% of customers switch to a competitor because of poor customer service.
Because of that, it is important to take the time to develop an internal system—or work with an outsourced partner—to make it possible to create content once for use across your multiple channels using plain business language. It won’t “dumb down” or oversimplify your messages. What it will do is improve the customer experience and show your customers that you have their interests in mind. You invest a great deal of time, money and effort to create even the smallest of customer communications. You want to make sure they are read—and understood.
Nick Romano specializes in business process reengineering for enterprises migrating to new document delivery solutions. His primary expertise is on implementing messaging and personalization strategies, workflows and ROI tracking. He is a popular international speaker on the implementation of successful document solutions, with topics ranging from design, messaging and personalization to shop floor automation and advances in document delivery. He is a graduate of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario with a bachelor's degree in engineering and management.