Customer calling – is anybody listening?

I tried a new way of getting help from my energy supplier this week, but ran into familiar hassles. I wanted to move from a standard tariff to a fixed tariff. Not so difficult, surely? I thought I’d try having a webchat. I found it a touch irritating that every other sentence was answered with “that’s fantastic, Fiona!” but a bigger problem lay ahead.

Absolutely no one could grasp the fact that my house used to go by a different address. It is still the same house, but its identity has changed. My chatmate gave up, and passed the buck. “I suggest you call customer services and explain your problem Fiona.” Could they call me, perhaps? “No Fiona I’m afraid not, they cannot make outbound calls.” OK, so the webchat was a waste of time. I continued my quest via email. Emails punctuated with “good news!” and the inevitable “bear with me” just went round in circles as the query was passed from assistant to assistant, with each new agent asking questions that had been answered earlier in the email trail. If the webchat was purgatory, the emails were surely customer-service hell.

Where’s the Customer Relations?

It grated because, in a previous life as a customer service agent, I enjoyed dealing with unusual queries, which I usually found myself able to solve. So why couldn’t anyone think outside the fusebox, and try to work with me, the customer? Eventually someone did have a brainwave (albeit to gain information I had already given) and the mystery address was ascertained. Now we can all move on and choose a better value tariff. Hooray! But why make it so hard for us?

It happens like this all the time. A while ago, when a package was lost (delivered to the wrong address, and then signed for) the courier, credit-card company and merchant all refused to accept responsibility. I didn’t get my package, or a refund, or an apology from anyone.

I’ve also met the webchat robot before. I once tried to cancel a subscription continued in error. Almost everything I typed was met with “that’s great!” even when I said things like, “Don’t you understand? This subscription should have been cancelled.”

Good complaint handling makes all the difference

If organisations did their research, they would discover that the three things that matter most to customers are that someone listens to their complaint, that someone takes responsibility, and that they make a genuine effort to solve the problem. Most of us aren’t after money.

Based on my recent experiences, I can give energy suppliers and other organisations a few simple tips:

1. Listen. Far too many customer-service agents seem only to read from scripts, and simply can’t give an honest reaction to a genuine query.

2. Don’t allow more than one agent to share an email account; this just causes duplication and frustration for the customer.

3. Don’t put people on the job whose English isn’t good enough. Some of our problems are hard enough to explain anyway.

4. Don’t use stock phrases. We can smell them a mile off, and we know they have nothing to do with our complaint.

If you value your corporate reputation, you can’t afford to make these elementary errors. We customers will tweet about you, we will tell our friends, we will tell the regulators; and one day we will destroy you.

Listen to us. And if you want to learn to use customer-friendly language, try talking to my colleagues at Clarity.

The truth about complaint handling

Can energy companies really improve their complaint handling? Currently, customers typically have to contact their supplier six times before their issue can be resolved. With Ofgem breathing down their necks, Energy UK, which represents the industry, insists:

“Handling complaints well is a must. Suppliers are committed to improving and a programme of change is under way.”

I wonder. Having worked with complaint handlers at many different organisations, including one energy company, I can reveal where the main problem lies. It’s not with the complaint handlers, overwhelmingly conscientious and decent people who will do the right thing nine times out of ten, given a chance.

The problems start at the top. Company bosses find it almost impossible to empathise with their customers. This is hardly surprising, given their preoccupation with brand identity, reputation management and, of course, the bottom line: all of which they view from a corporate perspective.

But reputation management begins with the understanding that your reputation is not in your hands; it is in your customers’ hands. So listen to those customers, understand their complaints, work out what you can do that might satisfy them, and respond accordingly.

Very few organisations do this. Instead, they establish complaints procedures, risk management policies, and work out what to do from there. Aggrieved customers are then told about policies and procedures that have nothing to do with their complaint. I recently worked with a bank where the unfortunate complaint handlers were so weighed down with cut-and-paste material of this kind that they would waffle for six or seven paragraphs before telling the customer whether they had upheld or rejected their complaint.

A word to the bosses, then. Ditch the corporate claptrap. Don’t let your lawyers hobble you with caveats. Start with the customer, and give your complaint handlers the training and support to do the job they are longing to do.

Pathetic puns

So some writers love puns. They think it’s clever to make a sneaky little play on words for their readers to appreciate. There is a good example with the new ‘Walkie Talkie’ skyscraper in London. It was in the news over the summer for acting as a giant parabolic mirror and focusing the sun’s rays to melt cars. The British press promptly redubbed the building the ‘Walkie Scorchie’. Now, that’s quite a good pun but I’m ambivalent about it. There’s a part of me that really loves a good pun, and another part that wants to punch the first part in the face.

Anyway, Land Securities, the people behind the skyscraper, released a pun-tastic statement to shareholders this morning:

“At 20 Fenchurch Street, our landmark tower in the City, we have continued to attract new tenants and the building is now 56% pre-let, with a further 20% in solicitors’ hands. Despite the solar glare issue of the summer, occupiers have not been blinded to the efficiency and location of the building.”

(bold mine)

This time I was not ambivalent. It made me wish that the writer would fall down a hole. I think that’s because 1) it’s really, really weak and forced and 2) I expect puns from newspapers, but not from statements to investors. A serious subject requires a serious tone.

That said, in spite of its other problems the “Kick It Out” campaign against racism in football shows you can combine a pun with a serious message. It works well in this case because the dynamism of the phrase reflects the dynamism of the game. The lesson is to keep puns out of your writing unless they are actually funny and appropriate.

I’ll end with some highbrow Latin puns. There’s a great selection from Pope Gregory I on Wikipedia. “Non Angli sed angeli” comparing the beauty of Angles to angels is truly cringeworthy.

Mind you, that’s not as bad as the time I put nearly a dozen entries in for a pun competition. I was hoping one would win, but no pun in ten did.

Lack of clarity masks incompetence

I’ve just had a most revealing exchange with my electricity company. They wrote asking me to read my own meter. In the block of flats where I live, this meant I would have to arrange for the managing agent to let me in to a locked room.

One sentence in the company’s letter puzzled me. It said: “We may also have a meter reader in your area that could call to do this for you”.

If they had someone who could read a meter, why were they asking me to read it and why did the letter say he or she “may” be in my area? Didn’t they know?

It turned out they didn’t know, because they had sub-contracted the meter-reading to another company. I discovered this after hanging on to the telephone for quite a long time to speak to an adviser. The automated system had rejected my reading because the agent had misread it, but that’s beside the point.

The last straw was that the meter reader had indeed been in my area, so neither the agent nor I need have bothered to do anything at all.

Yet another example of an organisation saving itself money and wasting our time instead. And yet another example of woolly writing that blurred the issue but in the end revealed the incompetence of those involved.

The language of procurement

What is it with procurement? It’s an art, or a science, that aims to keep costs down and profit margins healthy. It smoothes relationships between buyers and suppliers which, in turn, keep the show on the road – whether you’re building bridges, packaging food or running the country. Buying the best at keen prices, keeping supplies running, then selling finished goods or providing services efficiently – that’s a chain whose parts and links need constant vigilance.

So three cheers for the UK’s Government Procurement Service which has centralised central and local government departments’ procurement. Herding the many buying processes used by government departments through a single electronic portal makes sense. When it helps the Home Office save £650,000 on printer cartridges, we must acknowledge that perhaps, for once, a government system is working well. Procurement is simple, common sense. We get it.

Why then is procurement’s language so tongue-tied? Why are we, suppliers or buyers, forced through linguistic obstacle courses? Civil Service Learning, which now funnels all the learning and development (L&D) in the Civil Service (and is run, of course, by Capita), describes each tender as an “event”. A recently simplified system, Sid4Gov, promises further improvements, in a sentence that is anything but simple:

“The future vision is to create a single supplier registration portal that will provide one place for suppliers to register and provide information for procurement in support of management information requirements and responses to tenders across the public sector.”


A procurement leaders blog said recently that the crucial developments in procurement had happened in the past thirty years and then looked forward:

“the golden age is probably still to come, with procurement taking up responsibility for bringing-in innovation in companies with ever decreasing own value-creation depth.”

If that is how they describe it, it’s not a golden age we look forward to. It’s time for procurement to take down the language barriers it has thrown up along its own supply chain.

Phone + tablet = ?

If you love using your tablet, but you wish it were a phone too, you are probably the target market for the latest addition to the mobile device family: the phablet.

Yes, we have smartphones, and large tablets and mini tablets, so it was only a matter of time before someone developed the obvious portmanteau for “small tablet you can make phone calls on”. Look how earnestly Techcrunch use the word in this article*:

Why don’t I like it? It doesn’t sound enough like a phone. A “fablet” (which is what you’d say out loud) might be some sort of “fun tablet” or a “fake tablet” or any number of other things. It’s not immediately clear what a phablet is. Beyond that, it’s a pretty ugly word – “phab” is not an attractive collection of letters. It seems that companies are desperately keen to carve their own niches in the mobile device market, and will use neologisms, suffixes and any other weapons they can to do that.

So let’s take this to its logical conclusion, shall we? If there are netbooks – how about one that stores everything online? A “cloudbook”**? If we have laptops something half the size would be a “thightop”. A netbook you can make calls on would have to be a “netphone” (after all, “phonebook” is taken). And a fax machine for your lap would be the “lapfax”. How about a netbook without internet access? We could call it just a “book”.

What’s my point? Much as I like new words, there are things that have been coined that really never needed to be. “Phablet” may yet take off, but the word sounds about as awkward as holding up a 7″ tablet to your face and talking into it.

*To be fair to the author, she does express misgivings about the word before using it repeatedly.

**I’m aware that I have basically just described a Chromebook – maybe a ChromebookMini?

Abbreviations can make things longer

Everything Everywhere is the name for the joint venture between Orange and T-Mobile, but that’s about to change. It’s going to become EE, following other companies in ditching words in favour of letters. PricewaterhouseCoopers would rather you thought of it as PwC and Marks & Spencer is slowly moving to become M&S. Even BT hasn’t been British Telecom for more than 20 years, but I’m sure some people still think of it as that.

Unlike EE, the abbreviations for those other companies were all being used by their customers and the media before they were adopted. Everything Everywhere is so new that barely anyone knows what it is and it’ll be gone before they can learn. So EE (can you say it?) will be a terrible abbreviation for what many people have criticised as a terrible name, hence the rebranding.

At Clarity we often see writing in which abbreviations are used thoughtlessly. Unless you’re certain your audience will know what you mean, you should always give the full name when you first mention it and put the abbreviation in brackets afterwards, for example “The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy was written by …”

Like Aviva (formerly Norwich Union) before it, EE can expect to be followed by its former name in explanatory brackets for a while at least. Or maybe the even more awkward construction: “EE (formerly Everything Everywhere, the company formed by the merger of Orange and T-Mobile)”. Awkward and annoying. No wonder Prince went back to his old name.

What does “unticketed” mean to you?

Quite a few people turned up at Lord’s cricket ground today hoping to see the early rounds of the Olympic archery competition. The event had been described as “unticketed” and they assumed that meant they didn’t need a ticket to get in.

Apparently not. There were no tickets for the event because there were to be no spectators. The message should have been something along the lines of “Closed to the public”.

Confusion reigns when organisations use words that make sense to them without thinking how those words will be understood by the people who read them.

At Clarity, we start our writing training with a session called “Connecting with the reader”, because no one should ever forget that their writing is only as good as their readers’ understanding.

Get to the point

I received a letter through my door last week. It was from Royal Mail, so you might have hoped they’d know a bit about letters. No such luck. Here it is. See if you can work out what it’s about.

“Dear Customer

Important information about changes to Royal Mail services in your area
I am the Royal Mail Delivery Manager for your area. I am making some changes to the way my team in Walthamstow deliver to your address. I want to explain why these changes are necessary and how they will affect you.

There may be a period of adjustment whilst my team and I get used to the new ways of working, I would like to thank you for your understanding.

Why we are making these changes

We are proud to provide one of the most comprehensive mail services in the world. Our postmen and women play a vital role in the Walthamstow area as well as across the rest of the UK, where we deliver to almost 29 million addresses, six days a week.

We need to modernise the way we operate in order to maintain services and to keep our prices as low as possible.

The way in which we communicate with each other has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, fewer letters are now posted every day. We need to organise our delivery routes to be as efficient as possible. We also deliver more larger items so we are investing in new equipment to carry these items to you even more securely. The new equipment also reduces the risk of injury to our postmen and women from carrying heavier mail bags.

What this means for you

  • We will continue to deliver in the morning and for a longer period during the day. Many customers will continue to get their mail by lunchtime.
  • The time you receive your mail will depend on where you are on the new delivery route. This may be later or possibly earlier than you are used to.
  • As I am sure you understand, when mail volumes vary, I may need to adjust delivery arrangements and times.

We are proud of the high regard in which our postmen and women are held in their communities. These changes may mean a different postman or woman from your local office will deliver to you. I am confident all of my local team will provide the reliable, friendly service you have come to expect from us over many years.

More information and help
I hope this information is useful. You can write to me using the address on this letter or find out more about how Royal Mail is modernising, including possible alternatives to standard delivery services at:

Here you can also send us an email or subscribe to updates including local service alerts online.

Finally, if you need to talk to us about these changes, I have a dedicated support team who can be contacted on: 08456 011 399.

Our deaf and hard of hearing customers can use our Textphone: 08456 000 606.

Yours faithfully,

[Name deleted]

Delivery Sector Manger for the Walthamstow area”

That’s 478 words. I’d say that about 90% of them are not needed. The main problem with it is that it doesn’t get to the point quickly enough. If you manage to read as far as the bullet points, you finally get some useful information – but not a lot! I read, write and edit things for a living, and I still had to read it twice to work out what the writer was trying to tell me.

It’s not that the language is too complicated or that the sentences are too long; it’s just that the letter gives you a lot of background information that obscures the message.

Here’s the message I think it’s trying to send: “We’re changing how we deliver your post. This may mean that you get fewer deliveries with more items or that your post is delivered later in the day. We’re doing this because fewer people are posting things. If you want more information call XXX or visit YYY.”

All that stuff about ’29 million addresses’ and ‘reducing the risk of injury’ is irrelevant to me. What’s more, the letter is so ambiguous about what’s going to happen to post on my road, it seems almost pointless to send it at all.

Feel free to dissect your least-favourite parts in the comments.

Sentences can be too simple

When we run training courses, we often say that sentences should be short and simple. As a rule, short, simple sentences are easier to read and understand than long, complicated ones. But sometimes simplifying can make a sentence less clear.

Here’s an example:

“People are eating more fruit and vegetables.”

It sounds simple enough, but it could mean several things:

  1. People are eating proportionally more fruit and veg – i.e. fruit and veg make up more of our food intake than they used to.
  2. People are eating a larger total volume of fruit and veg than in the past – possibly because there are more people on the planet or because people are eating more foods of all kinds than they used to.
  3. People are eating more kinds of fruit and veg – possibly because of better logistics, cross-cultural pollination or a desire to try new things.

I think this example shows it’s important to be clear when making a comparison. The reader must be able to answer the question “more than what?” If they can’t, you should add more information or rephrase the sentence.