The power of the well-chosen word Article icon

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that when it comes to signing up for financial products, most customers’ eyes will glaze over as they tick ‘yes’ in the ‘Have you read the terms and conditions?’ box in order to get a speedy decision.

With some terms and conditions documents stretching to 26,000 words, or roughly one third of the length of a standard novel, complete with unintelligible phraseology and confusing acronyms, it is hard to blame them.

But with the fines and compensation payments for past misspelling of financial products still rising – PPI claims alone currently stand in excess of £18.8 billion – some banks are taking action to strip out the misleading misnomers to concentrate on clarity.

And now Lloyds Banking Group has taken that clarity even further with the launch of an animated infographic to highlight the key terms and conditions of which customers of its online banking need to be aware in an easy to understand format.

Customers simply click on a two minute infographic that uses graphics, audio and the most succinct of language to convey the most important issues.

Forget endless sentences interlaced with confusing sub-clauses. The longest sentence found here is Beware of data and service charges or Mislaid your details?, followed on the next screen by Just give us a call. The text is designed to emphasise the important points of the voice-over, with which it is perfectly synchronised.

The traditional terms and conditions document, which runs to 26 pages, is still available online, as is an abbreviated version that has received a ‘Clear English Standard’ badge from the Plain Language Commission. But the infographic simplifies these even further.

‘We’re always looking at new and innovative ways of simplifying things for our customers, and this idea came from a Pop Up Lab programme… which allows our teams to test and re-test innovation with customers before a proposition is made live,’ says Adrian Bryant, director of digital at Lloyds Bank.

Pop Up Labs take a small selection of Lloyds Banking Group colleagues on a journey from idea generation through to proposition development – or they can also be used for research-based projects. The animated infographic idea came out of the first ever Pop Up Lab, which ran for nine weeks last June, to research possibilities in social banking.

‘In total the team developed over 100 ideas during their time in the Lab and one of these ideas was the animated infographic,’ says Bryant. ‘Ideas taken forward are those that are feasible, sustainable and engaging for our customers.’

It took ten months to develop the animated infographic, during which the idea was tested with customers and refined. Last October, the project delivered a visual version of the T&Cs, and the animated infographic was developed this spring.

‘During development, consideration was given to the fundamentally important sections required by the business, with input from legal and risk teams, and then we designed a visual solution in conjunction with a design agency, flexing existing brand guidelines to bring the content to life,’ he adds.

Work on the infographic combined various business areas and also input from customers, to ensure that the outcome was right for them.

Customers were significantly better able to recall the key terms and conditions of the bank’s online banking after having watched the infographic, when compared with traditional written terms and conditions. ‘We tested other forms of media, but the dynamic nature of the infographic and the ability to include visual content and words worked well,’ says Bryant.

By making terms and conditions clearer to understand and remember, the bank hopes to develop stronger long-term relationships with customers. ‘Once our customers trust us and are engaged with the way we communicate, they’re more likely to then engage with us on other new ideas in future,’ says Bryant.

But this is just the latest step on a simplification programme that Lloyds Banking Group is keen to take further. ‘Our first priority is to understand how the animated infographic is received by our customers, and then understand where we can best use our resources to improve our communication of financial information in future,’ says Bryant. ‘We also have a working group investigating the best ways to roll out our ideas on simplifying things like this across all areas and products of Lloyds Bank.’

POSITIVE SIGNS: LANGUAGE AS A DIFFERENTIATOR

Lloyds Banking Group isn’t alone in taking its use of language seriously. Liam Reddington, a spokesperson for the Plain English Campaign, thinks that the banking world still produces documents that are confusing, misleading or completely out of touch with the audience they are intended for. ‘Some of it is quite deliberate too,’ he says. ‘Clever language can veil the meaning of facts, and information is lost in a fog of jargon and gobbledegook.’

But he is seeing another side to this too. ‘More financial organisations are asking for our help with improving the way they communicate with the public and some are getting the prestigious Crystal Mark for their plain English speaking,’ he adds.

The Northern Ireland-based Progressive Building Society partnered with the Plain English Campaign to make its mortgage guides as simple and concise as possible after research from the Money Advice Service showed that 61 per cent of people have difficulty understanding common financial terms.

‘I know how stressful it is to apply for a mortgage,’ says Reddington. ‘But they have really addressed the clarity of their writing, the tone and the sentence construction, and turned a potential minefield into something straightforward.’ He describes the guide, which has been awarded the Plain English Campaign Crystal Mark, as the most concise ‘in terms of clarity, layout and language’ he has ever seen.

The success of Progressive’s efforts, along with other institutions’ attempts to simplify their language, helps to put paid to any lingering suggestions that financial products are too complicated to explain in words of one syllable. ‘If banks genuinely want their products to be understood, they will be,’ says Tony Langham, chief executive of Lansons Communications.

Niki Wheeler, director at Launch PR, has worked with a number of financial services clients, and considers Metro Bank (alongside First Direct) as ‘a very positive influence on jargon-free, customer-friendly high street banking since they launched their first branch to the public five years ago’. In particular, she says, it recently commissioned research which championed the importance of letting savings customers know personally of every rate change and informing them of any available products that were better suited to them.

‘Our approach to banking revolves around making the experience as convenient, clear and simple as possible for our customers, whilst making every effort to remove all stupid bank rules from our day to day services. We want to build personal relationships with our customers, so we place significant importance on how we communicate,’ says Paul Riseborough, managing director for customer propositions at Metro Bank.

Other initiatives include giving their banking staff tablets that customers can use to electronically sign documents. Account paperwork is then emailed directly to them – unless they prefer paper copies. Debit and credit cards are printed in store, so that customers can have a fully working account and debit card within about 20 minutes. ‘Our colleagues also undergo regular and thorough training and are taught how to avoid confusing and meaningless jargon, and communicate in a simple and effective manner, to ensure our customers fully understand and feel comfortable with our products and services.’

Research conducted by Fairer Finance in 2014 named Metro Bank as one of a number of banks with unreasonably long account terms and conditions. But the bank says it is in the process of simplifying the information to make it as clear and concise as possible. ‘Our aim is to make [reading through T&Cs] as painless as possible by communicating plainly and doing away with unnecessary jargon, whilst continuing to provide all of the necessary information that will enable our customers to make informed choices that best suit their needs,’ says Riseborough. ‘Where possible, we also avoid cross referencing, and logically structure information under clearly defined headings so that customers can easily find specific areas of interest.’

It helps too that every customer receives an Important Information Summary (IIS) alongside the T&Cs when opening an account. This provides a one page overview of the account and summarises the key product information.

‘As an organisation with no legacy issues, we’ve been able to design our services with our customers in mind, and are small and nimble enough to be able to implement changes quickly and effectively,’ Riseborough adds.

This is an advantage TSB also has. As the bank builds its identity, following its demerger from Lloyds in 2013 and subsequent sale to Spain’s Sabadell, it has made clarity of language a central plank to achieving its ambition to be seen as a genuine local business and challenger to the big banks. ‘Our brand is built on being straightforward and transparent and a key way we demonstrate this is how we communicate with customers,’ says Charlotte Sjoberg, head of media relations at TSB.

It follows then, that the bank’s brand and marketing team has rewritten more than 100 letters and leaflets, banning jargon and acronyms, and making it clear when customers are being asked to take action and when they are just receiving an information update.

It has also developed a Truth and Banking hub on its website, which includes a series of animations to help people understand exactly how a bank operates and makes money.

‘We know it’s not always obvious what goes on in banks and other banks don’t, or don’t want to, make it easy for people to understand how they’re using their money. At TSB we believe customers have a right to know,’ says Sjoberg.

A QUESTION OF REPUTATION AND GROWTH

The language banks use with customers must be central to any bank’s reputation and growth strategy.

The failure to convey clearly to customers critical financial information has plagued the retail side of the banking industry – and will continue to do so as long as some banks fail to give this issue proper attention.

Sjoberg says: ‘We’ve seen in the past how things can go wrong when banks have not communicated adequately.’

Meanwhile, others, and particularly new entrants on the banking scene, are discovering the strong role the right language can play in building a brand that stands out from the communication mistakes of the older crowd.

This doesn’t mean, though, that banks can just invest in a good copywriter. ‘Language can be part of differentiation, but it’s honesty that makes the real difference,’ says Langham. ‘When banks actually do what they say they do, and do that for a number of years, their reputation will recover.’

Wheeler agrees. ‘The comms challenge [for the banking industry] isn’t about gimmicks or quick wins, but in-house communicators and their agencies working alongside their boards to do what is right,’ she says.

In other words, if banks say that they are customer-centric, they better ensure they do a whole lot more than send a few well-worded letters or an infographic or two. But there is hope here too.

‘Actions speak louder than words and that’s one of the reasons we have taken sales targets out of our branches,’ says Sjoberg. ‘Our partners’ performance is measured on customer service metrics and not on sales targets so they are free to focus on meeting our customers’ needs and nothing else.’

Such efforts support a more virtuous circle, making it easier for staff to be honest across all their communications and helping banks to do what they say on the tin.

Whether it will be enough to restore consumer faith in banks remains to be seen. Amending a letter here, or some terms and conditions there, is tinkering around the edges. But at the same time, this communication is critical. It is the lynchpin around which the customer relationship thrives or dies. For a banking industry that is short on trust, the right words, expressing clear and genuine intent, could be a powerful force for good.