Picture the scene. You manage the call center for an Asset Management firm. Your colleagues sent a letter to customers, describing changes to their terms and conditions. Except the letter is full of complex words, jargon, and legalese. Customer experience was not a concern. The call queue is spiking, customers calling panicked about their financial security. All asking similar questions about the changes. Assuming they get through. Many are giving up after being on hold. Your agents are frazzled.
Now imagine you’re a customer. You’re heading out the door to work, and you get this letter. Your mind is on your first meeting of the day. You know the letter is important because it’s about your money. But a quick scan makes you apprehensive. You read phrases like “Joint and several liability”. “Stewardship”. “Special warranty”. You’re concerned. How does this affect me? Is there a meaningful impact? Is the firm managing the fund trying to shift the goalposts? And all because they’re using complex language and “insider-speak”.
Cognitive load theory says that our brains have limited working memory to process information. Using complex language makes content harder to digest, and adds to customers’ cognitive load.
You’re already at capacity, preoccupied with your meeting. But you’re anxious. You call the helpline, hoping for some quick answers. You really don’t have time for this. But you’re on hold for 10 minutes. And end up giving up, exasperated. You’ve had a bad customer experience and resolve to consider other fund providers the next time you rebalance your portfolio.
Benefits of avoiding complex words
This example is surprisingly common. We analyzed 60 Asset Management companies. And found that complex word density was an issue for 59 of them.
Obviously, it doesn’t have to be this way. And a conscious effort to communicate in plain language, with simple words across all channels, pays dividends:
1. Your customers will understand your message first time
We know that simpler language is easier to understand. Why make your customers work harder to understand you?
2. Less demand on customer service teams
If customers understand your messages more easily, then you’ll see lower call center traffic. We recently spoke to Jack Nelson, former Executive Vice President of Operations for CVS Caremark. He told us that simplifying correspondence typically reduces call center demand by 10-30%. Great for your team’s morale, and also great for your bottom line.
3. Customer trust will improve
Many industries we work with are seeing a decline in customer trust. Healthcare, insurance and financial services are examples. Customer expectations have also never been higher. In the Age of the empowered consumer, she won’t think twice about jumping ship. So use clear, jargon-free copy in your content. It’s the simplest way to keep loyal and engaged customers.
4. Better compliance = less hassle
Prof Christopher R. Trudeau covered this. Chris is a recognized expert on clear legal communication. In our 2019 webinar with Chris, he explained how using plain language, and simple words leads to fewer legal cases. He cited the case of the Wells settlement. A Medicaid customer won a lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Health for failing to clearly explain the decision to partially deny her nursing services.
5. Increased top and bottom line revenue
If your customers are more engaged and loyal, and you’ve reduced the demand on your service teams. Then you’ll see:
- Lower acquisition costs
- Better compliance and protection against lawsuits
- Lower retention costs
- Lower operational costs in your service teams and call centers
All in all, you’re looking at a healthier top and bottom line.
How to avoid using complex words
Convinced of the benefits of simple language?
Great, so how do you start simplifying your communications? Here are some quick wins.
1.Know Your Reader
It’s really important that you understand who you are writing for.
Let’s assume you work for a financial institution and your firm offers an IRA (Individual Retirement Account). Naturally enough, interest in pensions increases as people approach retirement age. And many of those people have limited financial literacy. In this case, you need to explain concepts in simple, easily accessible terms. Now keep in mind that the average American reads at 8th grade level. Did you know you can score your content for complexity?
That’s right, you can measure whether the content will be hard to understand for your intended audience. See here for more on scoring for readability.
But what if you know that your audience is highly educated and “sophisticated”. Do you need to write easy-to-understand content? Absolutely yes! We wrote here about the fallacy of the sophisticated reader.
Don’t use complex language because you think it will impress. In reality, you’re forcing your reader to work hard. And nobody has time for that. Remember what we said about cognitive load theory, and how busy we all are.
2. Consider the context
As well as your audience, you need to think about the context of your message. Are you breaking bad news? In which case, your reader will feel more vulnerable. You’ll need to think even more carefully about the words you use. Be more empathetic.
3. Tap into resources and solutions available
There are plenty of resources to help you simplify your language.
- The US Plain Language provides guidance for avoiding jargon and abstract words as well as simplifying words.
- The UK’s Plain English campaign offers alternative everyday words.
- The Plain Language Thesaurus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- The SEC’s Plain English
But don’t forget that content creation is company-wide. It’s no longer the sole domain of your marketing and communications department. Your HR team creates communications, as well as Service, Product, Legal, Subject Matter Experts. It’s almost impossible to manage the language used by all teams across your business. Many of them will not be trained writers and may use complex words by default. People with expertise in a specific field (e.g. lawyers) may need extra help to pitch their content at a level everyone can understand.
This is where modern AI and NLP solutions like VT Insights (and VT Writer) help. They allow you to scan your online and offline content, flagging the complex words used. You can then review them on a case-by-case basis.
And what if you really can’t avoid using jargon, a complex word, or an acronym? Maybe for compliance reasons. In that case, explain them within the text itself. Or direct your reader elsewhere for more information.
Happy customers, healthy margins
In the webinar we mentioned earlier, Chris Trudeau spoke about an Accenture study. It examined how hospital patients’ satisfaction led to revenue. He cited the following quote:
“A superior customer experience doesn’t just strengthen patient engagement – it equated to 50% higher hospital margins.”
It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Words matter. Choose them wisely.