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November 21, 2012updated 04 Apr 2017 1:04pm

How to improve customer service ratings through writing – can regulatory teams help?

Nick Parker, creative director, The Writer, elaborates on three things that legal and regulatory teams can do to help customer service teams improve their communication skills

Nick Parker, creative director, The Writer, elaborates on three things that legal and regulatory teams can do to help customer service teams improve their communication skills


The FSA has released its figures breaking down exactly what’s been driving people mad about the financial services industry over the last six months. And while the slew of companies offering ‘help’ with PPI complaints has pushed selling and advertising to the top of the list, in second place (16% – just over half a million complaints) is customer service and admin.

It’s always high on the FSA’s list, despite the fact that realistically, no company wants to give poor customer service. But there’s one simple thing that most companies can do to instantly improve their customer service ratings, and reduce complaints. And that’s sharpen up the way they write to customers.

Nick Parker

One of the biggest changes most companies need to make is to simply change the tone of their letters – from formal and officious, to more normal and empathetic. At The Writer, we spend a lot of time helping brands and organisations do just this, and we see the clear benefits: one client recently saw an almost overnight 8% drop in repeat complaints, just by changing the tone of their letters. A more human tone makes customers less frustrated, and helps get across that you’ve really listened and are trying to help.

In many ways this is obvious. But in large companies, it can be surprisingly hard to implement. And one of the big reasons for that is that people often wrongly think that ‘the higher ups’ – the legal and regulatory department – will veto it. People think they’re powerless to change things, and blame you.

So, here are three things that legal and regulatory teams can do to help customer service teams improve their writing.

Help everyone talk about writing in a more constructive wayCustomer service teams often think that they have to say things in a certain way because specific wording’s been decreed by the legal department, or set in stone by a regulator. Almost every time we dig a bit deeper into this, we find that there might be specific messages that regulators need to include – such as mentioning a time period a customer can expect to get a response, or contact details if a customer wants to take a complaint further – but the wording is almost always up for discussion.

The way to avoid crossed wires is to break up any negotiation about a bit of writing into three separate parts: content (what you say), structure (the order you say it in) and tone (the way you say it.)

As lawyers and regulators, you might need to make sure that customer correspondence covers certain content, but the tone should be up to your writers and your brand’s tone of voice. (A lovely little example from a bit of O2 small print: they changed the statutory ‘tickets subject to availability’ to ‘Priority tickets: when they’re gone they’re gone’. Same message so lawyers happy, but a more distinctly O2 tone).

Go out of your way to show people you ‘get it’We find time and again that people are so certain that legal or regulatory teams will edit or censor anything that sounds human, that they’ll self-censor, and not even try to make changes to standard paragraphs or templates. You can do your organisation a huge favour by letting it be known that you understand that getting the tone right is important, and that you support your brand’s tone of voice.

One of our clients’ legal teams recently rewrote a particularly high-profile contract into really straightforward, natural language. And then they made a point of letting people know they’d done it. It helped change people’s perception of them from being the naysayers or the ‘police’.

Give ‘final sign-off’ to the people who really matter: your customersIn truth, this is something that most organisations need to be thinking about more. The final test of a customer letter, new template or new standard paragraph isn’t whether it gets the nod from legal. It’s whether it communicates clearly to your customers. If you’re not routinely getting feedback on your letters – or measuring changes in responses when you update things – then you’re only doing half the job. After all, the point of regulations is to protect consumers by giving them clear information. So check with them to make sure they’re getting what they need.

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