Saturday, 6 June 2009

Please Speak Clearly After the Tone

I had a conversation with a group at work the other day, about companies and how they use their own internal terminology and special trade-related terms, when they talk to their customers.

Have you ever phoned a bank or an insurance company and had them speak gobbledegook down the line at you. They talk to you as if they are talking to one of their colleagues, using all the jargon of their trade.

When you don't understand because you don't deal in their line of business every day and ask them to slow down and clarify certain words, you can sense their impatience - they almost sigh and tut at you.

Banks and insurers are not the only culprits. My original discussion was sparked off by technical support people talking to some of my customers in part numbers.

I caught them doing it and challenged them. 

I would say that 9 times out of 10, they don't even realise they are doing it.

Office-based staff are so used to communicating like this, they just naturally assume that people outside of their work environment, will follow their conversation.

This inability to empathise is one of the biggest enemies of industry.

It's not confined to verbal communication either.

I received my new American Express credit card the other day (the cheap green one, not the gold or platinum one !!)

There was a little white sticker on the new credit card telling me to go to their website and activate now.

So, being the good, obedient little boy that I am, I did.

I dutifully filled in all the online card numbers and passwords to get through their security protection. It then asked me to enter the 4-digit identification number.

This confused me as I wasn't sure what number they meant.

I tried the number on the card after the account number - didn't like it

I tried my password number - didn't like it

I tried another number that might fit - didn't like it

I got locked out, for my own protection, of course.

Frustrated, I tore the stupid bit of white paper off the card and lo and behold, beneath it, was a little, barely visible, 4-digit number that I'd never seen on the old card before.

I tried to enter that, but the website very clearly and positively said that I had been locked out and should phone them up instead.

I called...

and spoke to a machine.

I dutifully keyed in my account number and a few other things that it asked for.

Eventually, the recorded voice in a pleasant Edinburgh accent, told me to call back when my old card had expired (another 3 weeks away).

What a complete waste of 30 minutes.

Ironically, the bill came the next day, asking me to pay them another £37.50

Now, it was quite clear to me that the person(s) who had written those instructions, had never actually tried to follow them with the knowledge base of a typical customer.

Of course, THEY, would know where the mystery 4-digit number was hiding.

It could all be avoided with a little bit of empathy. 

An old friend of mine used to write instruction manuals for the Marconi company.

In my opinion, Marconi manuals were one of the most concise and clearly written instruction books of all time.

His secret ?

When he had written a section, he used to get somebody like his long suffering wife, to read what he had written and see if there was any room for confusion or misunderstanding.

I pull an example of how not to do it, from the handbook for my new Blackberry:

Question. How to turn on the Speakerphone

Answer. During a call, press the Speakerphone key   

Thank goodness for that, I'd never have guessed.

It took me a full five minutes to find a key that passed for the speakerphone key (it had a little red speaker as a secondary function on the top of the tiny key cap)..

Speaking clearly is big business.

Companies have been formed to teach clear English to other companies.

The Plain Language Commission say:

"Every organization knows that customers and service users value clarity. So if you are making the effort to write your leaflets, forms, sales brochures and legal agreements in plain English, why not tell people?

Displaying the Clear English Standard helps you do this. It shows customers that your documents have passed a rigorous check of clarity, grammar and layout by experts in the field.

The Clear English Standard also gives you a competitive edge and a public-relations boost by reassuring customers that you've taken extra care to be clear.

Some of our accredited documents have gone to ten million UK households — probably the widest distribution of such material anywhere in the world. More than 10,000 documents bear the mark, so it probably appears on about 100 million printed items.

For many organizations, gaining the Clear English Standard for all their major public documents has become an essential part of customer care.

Its users include Standard Life, Financial Services Authority, Places For People, Companies House, The Insolvency Service, Zurich Financial Services, Birmingham City Council, Scottish Court Service, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office".

Interesting, Standard Life and Zurich - both insurance companies..

Remember this the next time you need to make a claim.... 


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