An elderly woman in a faded pink track suit recently reminded me why what we do is so important. "Susan" wanted to know if we could make her hospital bill show how much of her treatment would be covered by Medicare and what other bills she might receive in connection with her hospital stay so that she could manage her tight monthly budget. Susan is the human face of why clear documents are so important.

I met Susan while testing a new hospital bill design with patients and their families. She reinforced how important it is to her that she be able to understand the complex financial information the hospital sends her. The decisions she makes with that information have a direct impact on both her physical and financial health, so understanding it clearly is crucial for her.

As we questioned participants on their understanding of summary sections and the value of personalized messaging areas, their comments back to us showed how profoundly the hospital's billing documents reflected on the organization's overall brand in the minds of its most important stakeholders: its patients. Their comments at the end of the sessions also showed us how much they notice and appreciate it when an organization takes the time and makes the investment in helping them understand information that is crucially important but often confusing.

An organization's brand is not built and maintained with a single big event or campaign, but with the thousands of one-on-one interactions that people have with those brands as part of their daily lives. Billing documents are clearly one of those important interactions, and as I was reminded by our group of patients and their families, people are rarely indifferent about the documents organizations send them. They always have an opinion about the documents they receive. They can tell who has made an effort to help them understand the business aspects of their lives, as well as who is indifferent to the fact that their customers need to clearly understand the often complicated information we send them.

With the pressure of production deadlines and the frenetic pace of getting the print run into the mail on time, it can be easy to forget who all of that effort is ultimately for. It's not for the bank's operations division or the utility company's billing department; it's for Susan, sitting at her kitchen table, looking for information to help her decide how best to manage her finances.

Of course, production speed and efficiency are vitally important, but we can't lose sight of the fact that the reason for all of that technology is ultimately to put a document into the reader's hands that will help them understand whether they're likely to have enough money to retire on, or whether their health insurance will cover their medical treatment. The key to winning Susan's long-term brand loyalty doesn't lie in flashy campaigns or special offers; it lies in making the effort to give her the information she needs in a way that's easy for her to understand and use, and treats her as an individual.

Scott Watkinson is a senior communications consultant specializing in the writing and design of customer-focused business documents. Send your comments to

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