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The Rights of the Reader

By Daniel Pennac, Illust. by Quentin Blake.

The other day I came across a link to this gem of a poster. It was linked from a well-known blog I follow called The Happiness Project, which mentioned the 1992 book of the same name (which I can’t wait to get my hands on as well!).

I love its simplicity and universal appeal — whether you’re a non-, weak, online, sometime, or voracious reader, you have these rights and likely recognize some of these behaviours in yourself.

And for those of us who make our living by communicating, I see this as a simple-yet-powerful communication tool: a Ten Commandments of Truths We Must Always Remember before we prepare something that we want (or need) people to read.

SPAM messages try hard to hook you ...

We’ve all gotten broadcast – or SPAM – messages from people claiming to be writing from a financial institution. Usually, they are of the URGENT variety, wanting us to, in a panic, respond instantly by clicking the link in the message and ‘correcting’ their personal information on a fake website pretending to belong to the bank.

(Really, they want the unwitting recipient to give them info about him or herself by going to the spammer’s website and entering their information.)

In arguing for why good writing is important to help a company seem credible and trustworthy, it’s often useful to look at the opposite of good writing – and SPAM messages are rife with this!

What’s interesting in the case of notices proporting to be from financial institutions is that it’s clear that the writers are using a voice that tries to sound very official and serious … just like they think a bank would sound. But the stand-out errors in them start to chip away at that vaneer pretty efficiently.

Even people who don’t edit people’s writing for a living will pick up on even minor gaffes and start to feel less invested in a message that was unsolicited to start with (and which may not even be from a bank we actually deal with).

To illustrate, here are three of the most odorous SPAM messages that have landed in my Inbox lately (well, of those I actually bothered to open and read …). Included are < my notes in carets > on just what makes them so pungent:

... but often the errors in them make them smell kind of fishy.


SPAM Message #1
This is an Alert to help manage your online banking access. < the alert is so important that they’ve capitalized it! >

Dear Bank Of Montreal customer < The bank must be important if they spell the word ‘of’ with a capital O >,

Bank Of Montreal Online Security has been receiving complaints from our customers for < complaints for? > unauthorised uses of Online Banking Accounts. As a result we are temporarily shutting down some selected Bank Of Montreal Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending till the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner < ‘pending till’? >. Bank Of Montreal is committed to ensure the safeguard of each customer personal information, making sure only authorised individuals have access to their accounts. <Whoa, you can tell this one was not written by an English speaker. >

As a first step to have Your < I must be divine, since they’ve used a capital Y >Bank Of Montreal Online Access reactivated please verify your identity by using the link provided below:

http://www.bmo.com/fraud.prevention/account/verificationThis link actually takes you to one starting with ‘amourtoujours.net’ >

These instructions are sent to and should be followed by all Bank Of Montreal clients,to avoid service deactivation after the verification is completed < ‘are sent to and should be followed’ – nice use of the passive, and those nice mega-nouns ‘deactivation’ and ‘reactivation’ all in one sentence! >. We apologise for any inconveniences and thank you for your cooperation. . < Oops, they’ve left an extra period here! And don’t we spell it ‘apologize’ in Canada? >

Thank you,
Customers Support Service. <Well, they do support multiple people … >


SPAM Message #2

Dear Bank Of Montreal Customer:

BMO Bank Of Montreal is hereby announcing the New Security Upgrade. < Sound the trumpets! They’ve announced the Upgrade! >

We’ve upgraded our new SSL servers to serve our customers for a better and secure internet banking service < Was it not secure before …? >.

It is very important that you update your account information  & other personal information < I’m not sure I’d give any personal info to someone using an ampersand to preface it >, please follow the link below to  update your account then ‘Sign In’ to submit your request.

Click Here To Update Your Account < When you hover your mouse, it shows the URL:  <http://autozap99.ru/&#8230; >

100% Online Banking Guarantee < also links to a bogus URL >

Bank Of Montreal

Security Advisor

© 2011 offered by BMO Bank Of Montreal, N.A.

 < Well, it must be a professional message if they’ve copyrighted it! >


SPAM Message #3

From:             C.I.B.C. – Accounting Services [anna.van@cibc.com]

Subject:    CIBC Business Banking – Statement Summary Report – ’03/01/2012′

< Don’t they know how to spell their own name? >

DEAR CIBC BUSINESS BANKING CUSTOMER < Great, now they’re shouting at me. >

Kindly download the attachment to view your new account summary and confirm recent transactions on your account. < Nothing about why would I do this …?>

CIBC Financial Services < Wait, I thought the message was from Accounting Services. >

Customer Service

As this e-mail is an automated message, do not reply to this email.

————————————————–

No virus found in this message.

Checked by AVG – www.avg.com

Version: 2012.0.1901 / Virus Database: 2109/4742 – Release Date…

< Well, nice to know they’ve gone through the trouble of scanning this message before sending it. They must be trustworthy – look at all that technical info! >


So what’s my point?

We all have laughed about the awful SPAMs we’ve received. But they hold some very good lessons about how we can miss with our own customers if we’re not careful: with inconsistent spellings, bad punctuation, incomplete or uneven information, a tone and flow that  doesn’t sound natural . . . the list goes on.

It’s something to think about the next time you’re writing an important message on behalf of your business.

Disclaimer

While the above examples use the names of two major Canadian banks, I only leave them in because some of the errors have to do with using those brand names incorrectly or inconsistently.

Had those messages actually come from actual financial institutions (FIs), they would no doubt have been much better-written. And as fraud-prevention folks always say, a legitimate FI won’t contact its customers by broadcast email anyway.

Our last post showed one of the hall-of-fame worst sets of instructions I’ve seen, in terms of their design.

A few days later, I picked up a set that had quite the opposite effect. So it seems only fair to share a really good one, too, especially since it’s likely to be read by the same audience: parents of children ages 7+.

What makes these so helpful?

While they still come in a pretty small package, these ones

  • are easy to read and navigate,  due to the clean typeface and large-enough type
  • have clear visuals to help you picture what playing the game looks like, and
  • use good subheads that help you recognize natural changes in topic, some of which contain more engaging calls to action (‘Let’s play,’ ‘You should have:’).

You can tell that this company takes the effort to ensure that their instructions make sense to befuddled parents like me, who can only get the straight dope on how to play without cheating if they read the instructions. You see, my daughter has her own version of some games, with rules that seem to evolve as she begins to fare worse in the game.

But then, you’ve got to watch out for those times she gets a hold of the instructions themselves. Despite how well-written this little booklet is, I’m still not completely sure I am playing correctly, since she’s clearly following in her mom’s editor footsteps … see for yourself:

Dark purple marker is NOT see-through!

Maybe she thought she was highlighting them?

The instructions below came with an mp3 player my daughter received for Christmas.

Look at the words in relation to my hand. How close to your face do you think you’d need to hold this, to be able to read it?

I think this is 4-point type

The designers might be thinking that only people under 20 need to read instructions for these products. Or, maybe their priority was getting them to fit into the tiny package the player came in.

Either way, they’ve clearly forgotten that most of their customers are probably grandparents or parents of younger kids (who got the cheaper model ’cause they were worried the kids would break the higher-end one).

My poor mom.

She just bought a brand-new laptop, and while you’d think that it being brand-new would mean it was easier for her to use, this is not at all the case.

It’s got all the bells ‘n’ whistles: Windows 7, built-in Webcam and mic for Skyping, a gorgeous 17″ screen…you name it, it’s got it. And because she lives in a condo, she’s got the plug-and-play hi-speed cable connection. Heck, the workhorse I use for my work doesn’t do half of what hers does, and all she wants it for is to get her e-mails and print the odd photo.

But with all that sexy stuff comes the complication of having to understand why all the dialog boxes keep popping up, asking whether she wants to update this or load that.

My husband – who knows a lot about such things – actually recommended she buy this computer because it will take her into the future, even if she doesn’t at present feel that she wants to go there. And knowing that her computer literacy was limited, he went through and installed a virus checker and turned off some of the applications that require regular user intervention, before she started using it; he knew she wouldn’t use those, and that it would just intimidate and confuse her to see all these dialog boxes popping up or have apps running that she didn’t need. She already feels intimidated when she has to so much as unplug the thing, thinking that something will go wrong and she won’t be able to fix it.

But still, she phones us once in awhile to say she got a message and doesn’t know what to do with it: Mozilla is asking her if she wants the newest Firefox; she needs to download the newest Windows update; her printer software is warning her that it will only operate for free 24 more times, then she’ll have to buy a copy. It’s got her flustered, to say the least.

This with a very stripped-down system set-up.

At one point, my husband asked for the original Windows disks while he was setting up her system. She didn’t have them. “The computer comes with Windows installed,” she informed him. So no disks. If she wants those, she’ll have to pay more. And if she ever has a problem with Windows, she’ll be stuck without those disks. But no-one at the store told her that.

Oh, but there is help. The HP Advisor box keeps popping up, too, cautioning my mom that if she wants X to happen, she’ll have to do Y. Only problem: she doesn’t have the knowledge to know what they mean when they refer to her ‘browser.’ And because the message is coming from the HP Advisor, it must be important and well-meaning, so she’s tempted to just accept everything it says; except she can’t understand what she’s being asked to do.

“I didn’t know what it meant,” she tells me, “so I just kept clicking ‘No'”

Why haven’t we figured this out yet? Does everyone who purchases a computer and doesn’t speak technocratese still have to put up with the confusion caused by unhelpful pop-ups and computer dealers who don’t tell you everything you need to know?

My take on it, and what I told my mom? It’s partly because people who are even semi-comfortable with technology assume we’ve all gotten past the point of not knowing what ‘installed’ and ‘browser’ means. And, it’s partly because there are still lots of more tech-savvy folks who stand to benefit financially – and perhaps feel better about themselves – each time a person like my mom doesn’t know why her computer is not doing what she wants it to.

Having been grappling with a working maternity leave and the time waste generated by some unhelpful, bureaucratic systems (and of course, it’s people that create these systems), I’ve not gotten as far as planned on my new series of posts about same.

So, while I play catch-up and hope for time to be more productive on this in future, here’s a quick example.

Today I called the office of my daughter’s stomach specialist, with whom my husband and I are working closely at present. I was greeted with an example of why people sometimes feel alienated by the health system.

This was my third time calling them since last week, as I needed to rebook my daughter’s appointment and knew that I’d need to call right away to reschedule something reasonably soon.

After informing me in the typical passively-voiced notice that “All referrals made to this clinic are required by a doctor,” the recording dutifully announced that their offices would be closed until August 3, and that callers were not to leave messages on this voicemail but rather should call back when their offices re-opened.

Except I was calling them on the fifth. And, I’d already left a message on the third, since no-one had answered then, either, and I had to somehow leave word that I would not be there on the fourth.

Let’s see how long it takes me to hear back from them now. And, let’s see if they also try to hit me with a cancellation charge for not having informed them on a timely basis. Groan…

My last post looked at how the word ‘user’ might be falling out of favour, being replaced in some

'user,' 'learner' or 'customer'?

'user,' 'learner' or 'customer'?

instances by the words ‘learner’ and ‘customer.’

I framed this as a positive move, but have since had reason to question this assertion after seeing the reactions of a few international colleagues who also work in the plain language biz. While at first it seems that dropping the word ‘user’ aims to humanize and respect people, it could indeed be that more manipulative intent is at play.

As Nigel Grant of Nigel Grant Training Ltd. asserts, the word ‘customer’ can have nefarious interpretations:

“Interpreting a relationship through a commercial idiom relegates rather than elevates both sides of the arrangement. I’m not a customer of my local council, except in the sense that I pay my council tax. The tax is a compulsory civic contribution, not an optional commercial contract…If I have to be a hospital patient, I’m not a customer, except that I’ve paid my taxes…”

He adds:

“Much of our world esteems commercial success above intangible social involvement and relationships. Let’s aim to use language that restores human and civic relationships to the top of our priorities. Commerce is necessary, but its language surely shouldn’t be a yardstick.”

And where do plain old people fit in?

Another colleague puts it more bluntly, saying that ‘person’ and ‘people’ is the most dignified way to describe those we serve without limiting their dimensions.

He adds that, no matter what label you choose, speaking  about someone in the third person is just plain demeaning; the imperative voice — which talks directly to the person or people in question — is preferable, in his view.

So how do we know if we’ve done the right thing by our readers?

It’s true that, no matter what term we choose, we will often get blowback from someone who feels that they’ve had a label slapped onto them. Often the best way to respect those about whom we write is to let them choose how we will identify them — with the caution that within any social group, there will still be people who disagree on the best term to use.

On the other hand, we cannot get so trapped in ‘analysis paralysis’ or the need to be politically correct that we end up with blandified language that means nothing to anybody — like the folks at the UK Professional Association of Teachers who are trying to ban the word ‘fail’ from school report cards. C’mon already!

In my view, the best path is to do our best to be respectful and positive, and be prepared to take responsibility if our choice of words offends anyone in our audience. We will never please everyone, but at least let’s be conscious that the words we use have power to influence people’s perception.

Following last week’s post on keeping our language positive, check out Changing Terminology: “User” versus “Customer” where Jennie Ruby from Maryland’s IconLogic Inc. reflects on the move from the word “user” to the more respectful “customer” or “learner.”

With the more intensive participation people now have in contributing to the content they view, she notes that, while the term “user” is still common, “customer” and “learner” take their role beyond just that of being the person that sits passively between the chair and the computer.

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