6 tips for using language to improve customer experience

Back in July 2020, we held a virtual session with Dan Gingiss to explore the role of language in customer experience. As customer experience expert, Dan has vast experience in the corporate world. He’s worked with organizations such as health insurance firm Humana and credit card company Discover. He’s a strong advocate for the use of plain language throughout the customer’s journey.
Evelyn Wolf
4 min read
A female smiling while looking at a piece of paper in her hand.

Dan took us through why he believes that language is key to boosting a brand’s customer experience.

Why customer experience is now firms’ biggest differentiator

Dan explained that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for firms to compete on price and product. Competing on price is a loser’s game. It just serves to drive costs down. And competing on product is becoming more difficult when another company can just copy what you do. You’re unique by definition because of the unique individuals that work within your organization. Right now, customer experience offers the best opportunity for brands to stand out.

Research from Sitel Group shows that only one-third of customers who have a bad experience leaves a negative review. Whereas almost 50% of customers who have a great experience want to leave a positive review. People are more inclined to share good experiences than bad ones. The problem is that most consumers don’t have positive sentiments about the brands they use. So there’s a huge opportunity for firms and federal agencies to create positive experiences that people want to share.

What can we do to improve customer experience?

So we know that companies can set themselves apart by focusing on customer experience. We also know that great customer experience leads to happy customers who stay loyal. The question is – what can firms do to get better at customer experience?

Dan advises looking at language. He gave an example of the legal words used in terms and conditions. Dan says: “[…]we want customers to understand them. That’s the goal. So why do we use complex language that will only confuse them?”

Let’s say a health insurance member fails to understand a clause in her policy. She later has her claim rejected because of that misunderstanding. This leads to a poor customer experience. When it comes around to renewing her policy, she’s more likely to churn. And it’s a well-known fact that it’s more expensive to attract new customers than retain the ones you have. Confused customers are not good for business. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize plain language.

Dan shared his key tips for using language to improve customer experience.

Dan’s 6 tips for using language to improve customer experience

1. Look at every communication channel

Previously, customer communications were the domain of marketing and communications departments. Not any more. Nowadays, almost everyone in your organization creates customer content. Whether it’s terms and conditions, service descriptions, compliance documentation or claims letters. And this overwhelming content volume from different sources can lead to the loss of your single tone of voice.

Dan, therefore, advises considering every single content piece. Managing Customer Experience effectively across the whole customer journey is crucial. And so it’s important to pay attention to your language across all of these touchpoints.

2. Write in plain language

Here at VisibleThread, we speak often about the ways in which complexity kills your customer experience. Dan agrees that using plain language is best for getting your messages across. He recommends avoiding long sentences and complex terms.

Dan talked about a health insurance study by Policy Genius. 2,000 average U.S. citizens were asked how well they understood a series of insurance terms. 75% of them said they understood the meaning of phrases such as out of pocket” and “deductible.” In reality, only 4% of them could correctly define these terms.

Even if you think your customers know your industry terms, using plain language will help everyone understand your messages. 

3. Avoid acronyms and jargon

Dan spoke about working with organizations that use insider jargon and acronyms. There are a couple of different cases here:

  • When you’re sure your audience will understand

There are instances when you know that your customers will understand your acronyms and jargon. Perhaps your customer base is technical. In those cases, you might feel confident using jargon and acronyms. Even so, you could consider explaining an acronym if it will end up making the communication simpler. And you should never use internal jargon that people who work outside of your organization wouldn’t understand. Dan’s advice for avoiding “insider speak” in communications? “Stop using those words with your colleagues. Then they’re less likely to leak into your customer content.”

  • When you’re obliged to use acronyms or jargon

Sometimes, you might need to use words that your customers may not understand. Dan gave the example of a legal team insisting on including the word “disseminate” in a contract. In such cases, Dan suggests defining these words or linking to more information. Dan wrote about this very issue for Forbes last year.

When Dan worked with Discover, they hyperlinked from every complex word or acronym used, to offer the reader more information. Let’s take the term “APR”. If you work in finance, you probably know what this means – Annual Percentage Rate. There are many customers who won’t. Dan and his colleagues spelled out what the acronym meant for customers. And they also linked to more information about what APRs are and how they’re calculated.

Dan recommends that you question your use of jargon at each customer touchpoint. We’ve gathered some more thoughts on replacing insider jargon in this blog. And as Dan says, “if you’re not sure if your customers understand certain words, just ask them”.

4. Have a creative person review all communications

Communications are human-to-human. Dan suggests that you make sure someone with an empathetic eye reviews everything that goes out. Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes ensures that you’re always creating empathetic communications. That’s extra important in emotional industries such as healthcare. And especially in times of COVID.

5. Read everything out loud

As Dan says, there’s a reason your English teacher may have told you to do this. When reading aloud, you quickly identify potential issues for your reader. If you have trouble pronouncing a word, it probably means it’s too complex. Replace it with a simpler one. If you find yourself struggling with a long sentence full of lots of thoughts, then split the sentence out.

6. Use VisibleThread to ensure language is at an appropriate grade level

Dan recommends using VisibleThread’s Language Analysis Platform to gain an objective view of your content’s readability. Everyone is a writer, but not everyone writes in an accessible way. Benchmarking the grade level of your organization’s content helps you see where you are, and where you can improve.

Dan’s Bonus Tip – write as you speak

Dan shared a bonus tip with the audience of our Virtual Session. He recommends writing how you speak. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it. It’s the best way to simplify your language, make your communications more human, and improve customer experience.


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