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issue 41

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Training Bulletin Issue 41

How not to annoy your customers

I’m sure you feel that this doesn’t apply to you. Who in their right mind would annoy their customers? You need them, right?

Press stories in the last couple of weeks have revealed that some rail providers don’t think like you do. They have managed to really annoy their customers by having ticket machines that don’t speak the customers’ language. Passengers find ticket machines bewildering and confusing because of their jargon and irrelevant or incomplete information. People would rather queue to deal with a human being – and may miss their trains because everyone else is doing the same thing. And while they do this, the automatic ticket-selling machines, installed at vast expense, stand forlorn and unused.

So how do you know if YOU are annoying your customers? Read on for some ideas about how to talk to customers in their language, not yours.

How to annoy rail passengers

Passenger Focus is the UK’s independent watchdog for passengers. (No, until the other week, I didn’t know we had one either.) As part of their objective of tackling poor service, they recently carried out a survey which was widely reported in the press. It found that ticket machines really only worked well for people who were familiar with them and who were buying tickets for journeys they frequently made.

Once they had to carry out an unfamiliar or more complex transaction, they received “bewildering jargon, a barrage of information and choices as well as incomplete information about ticket restrictions.” If they persisted with the machines, customers often were not able to locate the cheapest options and ended up paying more than they should have for their journeys.

Little wonder passengers would rather join long queues for increasingly under-staffed ticketing offices.

Let’s look at those problems one by one and see if you risk giving your customers the same experience.

Bewildering jargon

What do you call your services or products? You may have a lovely name, created by a creative consultant to give all the right connotations, but is it what your clients call it? I once worked for a company marketing a database named after a Roman goddess, very nice.

All our clients just referred to it by our company name, and strongly resisted our attempts to insist on the correct term. Confused? You bet they were. And annoyed, especially when things were going wrong.

Look out for your internal jargon. You may request the CRD (Customer Requirements Document) but be prepared to accept their techspec (Technical Specification).

This applies to business terms as well as product names. A service provider now sends out bills with the wording, ‘Please pay us £XX’ rather than ‘The amount below is outstanding’. Coo, yes, their customers must have been saying. Stands out rather well, doesn’t it?

Barrage of information and choices

Look at the process your customer is trying to complete. Are you providing just the things they need to do to complete it? Or are you trying to take the opportunity to offer them ‘value-added’ products and services that they don’t want?

A web-hosting company, which will remain nameless, is notorious for having one of the most convoluted and time-consuming check out processes on the net. It insists on trying to convince customers to buy add-on products and services when all they want to do is pay for the one they’ve chosen.

If you can’t resist the lure of a captive customer, at least have mercy and only offer them one or two of your most popular options, rather than dredging up every last thing you can think of before you let them complete their transaction.

Incomplete information

In the case of the ticketing machines, this related to restrictions on certain types of tickets. If someone is buying an off-peak ticket, you’d think that would be the logical time to tell them when they could or could not travel with it. The rail companies didn't think it was worth mentioning how they defined ‘off-peak’.

If you click on a website and go to the page describing where to find a company, you’d quite like to know at that point if their postcode doesn’t work for satnavs or common site mapping software.

Test your own processes by having someone unfamiliar with them go through the instructions. Have them talk you through what they are thinking or asking themselves at each step, and note the assumptions they seem to be making.

Put the customer first

This is what most businesses claim to do, but as the Passenger Focus survey shows, quite often it’s lip service only. Too many companies put themselves first – it’s all about what they want to tell you, not what you want to know.

No matter what kind of business writing you are producing, putting the reader first can answer a lot of questions – what sort of language should I use? What do I need to tell them? How should I structure it?

Knowing the right questions to ask will make it easier for you to give people what they want and this is something we cover in nearly all of our writing courses. We also discuss it in our free Business Writing Essentials webinar.

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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