Thought leadership

The language you use makes a big difference to how customers feel, says Neil Taylor. A few years ago, I got talking to a guy called Michael Lenz. He was in charge of experience design at Cisco, and he told me about a big research project into Cisco’s customer experience that he’d commissioned.

He wasn’t expecting it, but a theme quickly emerged. Cisco had a language problem. And at crucial moments in their relationship, customers were confused. The brilliant benefits of Cisco’s groundbreaking tech were getting lost in a fog of jargon and business buzzwords. Michael was sure that the problem he’d tripped over was costing the firm big bucks: after all, if customers don’t get what you’re selling, why would they buy it? And if they don’t get what their account manager is saying, why would they stick around?

So even though he would never in a million years have called himself a ‘words guy’, he made it his mission to transform Cisco’s language from the inside out. But this was easier said than done. Cisco, like most businesses, communicates with its customers in a ton of different ways: websites, letters, emails, call centre scripts, presentations. To mention just a few.

Three years later though, Cisco’s language is now playing a positive role, keeping customers reading on their website longer, and helping them win multi-million dollar deals.

So why does language matter so much?

The three things customers care about

According to Ingrid Lindberg, of Chief Customer, who’s been one of the world’s few ‘chief customer experience officers’ (at US healthcare companies Cigna and Prime Therapeutics), ‘Most of the research into customer experience comes down to three things that really make a difference to a customer’s perception of the service they’re getting.’

First, they want ease of access. That means getting to the service they want within three steps – and looking up your company’s phone number is step one. 

Second, they want the communications to be understandable. This is where language comes in. When she joined both Cigna and Prime Therapeutics, Lindberg set about getting all their customer comms rewritten, and recommends writing to people as if they’ve got a Grade 5 reading level (so about that of a ten-year-old). 

Finally, people respond to how much they enjoy the experience. Now, if you’re dealing with a complaint, for example, ‘enjoyment’ might seem like a stretch. But it’s possible: there’s a famous stat about BMW drivers whose cars break down under warranty; they end up more loyal than customers whose Beemer never has a problem. Why? Because BMW take care of them so well when the worst happens.

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

That BMW story supports another research finding: that customers are much more likely to remember how a company made them feel than exactly what the company said or did. And it’s the tone of what you write that often has the biggest impact on how something feels. You can offer all the compensation in the world to an angry punter, but if your letter or email sounds grudging or officious, it’s much less likely to have the desired effect.

That finding has been borne out in our work at The Writer. We were working a little while ago with a big utility on how they handle serious complaints – the sort where the customer has got so fed up they’ve written straight to the CEO, for example. We spent a day training their team of senior complaint handlers in making their writing clearer and warmer. Within a few weeks, without changing any of their processes, or the amount of compensation they were paying out, they found it wasn’t just their own writing that had changed. The tenor of customers’ responses had changed, too. They started saying things like, ‘At last it feels as if our complaint is being dealt with.’ The word ‘feels’ is crucial there: a few subtle changes can transform customers’ perception of the experience.

Sadly though, most people who write communications to customers never get trained how to write to them. And those business that have trained their people usually concentrate on writing that’s technically correct, with all the apostrophes in the right place, rather than writing which is empathetic. And that’s what will really make the difference.

Why everything you think you know about language is wrong

So if language can push the needle of what customers understand and enjoy, why isn’t everyone in customer experience embarking on a language project?

The answer, we think, is that we’re all used to the causes of CX problems being unwieldy. They can require entirely new systems, new ways of working, new teams. All of which are costly and stressful to put in place.

But language is different. We rewrote a customer letter for one of our clients recently. It was a letter going to business customers, and needed a response from them. Our client said a typical letter would get a 2 to 3% response rate; they were hoping that with our help, they could get that up to 5%.

We rewrote the letter (pretty quickly, we have to confess; it was not a work of Shakespearian subtlety), and the response rate went up to 46%. Comparing the effort and the result, this was one of the quickest wins they’d ever had. And not only is it a great result, it also saves the knock-on effect of the bad result they expected: people in call centres chasing uninterested customers.

We’ve seen similar results again and again. Better user guides that cut calls from confused customers from 20% to 1.6%. And we’ve measured the return on investment: BT saved £500,000 in a year by making a call centre script clearer, and cutting the length of it in the process.

The start of the journey

So if you choose to take a look at the language your organisation uses with its customers, where do you begin?

Well, if you’re looking for quick wins, look to the numbers. Which bits of writing are seen most often? Which are most complained about? Which have the biggest financial impact?

If you can change those fast – and measure the results – you’ll quickly have the basis of a business case for a more thorough look at the problem.

The good news is that you probably already have the tools to analyse your customers’ ‘language experience’. If you’ve already mapped out the customer journey, and spotted the touchpoints and pain points along the way, then you just need to add another layer. That’s your customers’ ‘language journey’.

And just as many businesses have customer service standards, so you need language standards to measure these linguistic touchpoints against. For while most businesses could do with being clearer and more human, that’s only half the job. Really distinctive brands make distinctiveness a standard too, living up to their ‘brand voice’ even in the smallest nooks and crannies of their customer experiences.

Your linguistic pain points may or may not match with more general ones; if your processes are confused, chances are the language will be too. But sometimes a potentially positive moment for the customer is badly undermined by lacklustre language.

The bumps in the road

Of course, the fact that simple changes to your language can have big results doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing. One of the big problems in most organisations is that, just as no one owns the entire customer experience, so no one owns customer language. It can be the preserve of tens of different teams, or even hundreds of ‘content owners’ or subject matter experts. It might be subject to the whims of scary signer-offers like legal or compliance. It might be embedded in legacy systems that are costly to change. So language can seem too big, and difficult, and culturally ingrained to change easily.

But in practice, Cisco’s Michael Lenz found people internally were crying out for a new approach; they just didn’t know how to make it happen. His answer was a company-wide programme of training and rewriting which goes on to this day. But crucial to its success was the fact that it had big support from the very top of the organisation, which persuaded people in different functions and across business units that they needed to get with the programme – literally.

And it needs a person, or a team, with the hunger to take the lead in making the change. As with Michael Lenz, those people don’t need to be language nerds. Rather, they need to be brave, and inspiring, and willing to ruffle a few feathers to change the status quo. Some of our clients have even created ‘language leaders’ or ‘heads of brand language’ to lead the charge. And these people who are good at finding objective ways of measuring the benefits of a business-wide look at customers’ language journey – because they have to make sure they can justify their own roles long-term.

There aren’t many things that make customers happier, and employees, and can even put a smile on your finance director’s face. That’s why better language isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a forget-me-not.

Neil Taylor is creative partner at The Writer, the world’s largest language consultancy, and the author of Brilliant Business Writing.

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