The write stuff

A great customer experience can be found in the quality of written artifacts, says Jon Picoult

More and more companies are working to enhance their customer experience. But they might be focusing on the wrong thing.

In their haste to make quick improvements, firms neglect to step back and truly understand the universe of touchpoints that comprise their total customer experience. Instead, they target the usual suspects, such as the physical design of a product, the soft skills of sales and service people, or the answering speed on a freephone line.

Those are all legitimate areas for attention. The problem, however, is that companies tend to overlook parts of their customer experience that appear unimportant and mundane, yet actually exert a meaningful influence on customer perceptions.

A great example of these oft-ignored interaction points are the static, written artifacts that accompany the customer experience. These include sales proposals, contracts, instruction sheets, correspondence, account statements, and invoices, just to name a few. Many companies view such documents as mere administrative details. From the customer’s perspective, however, these materials often are the experience – or at least a significant part of it.

The real experience

A classic example of this dynamic comes from the ‘explanation of benefits’ (EOB) statements sent out by US health insurers. Every time an insured customer receives medical care, an EOB is triggered.

In theory, EOBs are meant to explain what a practitioner charged, what insurance covered (and didn’t cover), how much the insured is responsible for paying and why. In practice, many EOBs are practically indecipherable – one was even recognized by the Center for Plain Language as one of the most confusing customer statements on the planet. The typography of such statements, the lack of white space, the absence of clear headings – all makes such documents visually unappealing and difficult to navigate.

EOBs are a great example of written experience artifacts that confound rather than clarify; that generate more questions than they answer. What’s fascinating, though, is that for most consumers the EOB is the face of their health insurer. The EOB is, by far, the most frequent touchpoint consumers have with the company that pays for their medical expenses. Yet few insurers treat it as such, and instead continue to issue EOBs that cement health insurers’ position at the bottom of most customer experience industry rankings.

For a contrasting example, consider Delta Airlines’ redesign of the passenger boarding pass back in 2012 – a change which, in part, has helped elevate Delta’s standing in airline customer experience rankings. Here, again, we have a physical document that largely fell under the radar in airlines’ passenger-experience improvement-efforts, despite being an important navigational tool during travel. If anything, it seemed that airlines were in a competition to create the most cryptic, perplexing boarding document that made it difficult for travellers to quickly find the information they needed (such as final destination, boarding gate and time).

Delta’s redesigned boarding pass exhibited a much cleaner design and organized information in a way that was much more relevant to their customers. For example, most boarding passes display the passenger’s origin and destination city in the same font size. What Delta realized is that people know what city they’re currently in. Of greater interest is to make sure they’re headed to the right place. So, Delta made the destination city – in name, not three-letter airport code – more prominent on the new pass. In addition, by eliminating clutter on the document, Delta was able to include information for multi-leg trips, obviating the need for passengers to keep track of multiple boarding documents.

Delta also emphasized information on the new pass that would be of value to its employees. The passenger name is printed in a larger font, and presented by first, then last name, thereby making it easier for Delta staff to address customers personally.

The ripple effect

Whether it’s an EOB, boarding pass, or any other customer experience artifact, the influence of these materials goes far beyond the creation of a pleasing aesthetic. Yes, their visual appeal does serve as an experience cue for the customer, shaping, for example, the brand traits that people associate with a business – simple versus complex, clear versus confusing, easy versus difficult. However, these artifacts also have a very tangible operational impact on the business.

If customers receive a health insurance EOB and can’t understand it, what will they do? They’ll call their insurer. That inflates call volumes, puts more stress on the firm’s operating infrastructure, and drives up cost. In addition, since that telephone call is born out of frustration, it means that customer interaction begins from a point of negative sentiment.

Similarly, there are operational consequences when airline passengers struggle with their boarding pass. People arrive at gates late, need help finding their seat, or ask an airline representative to issue a duplicate pass for one they lost. That drives expense, it could even delay flights, and it certainly consumes the time of airline staff unnecessarily.

The key point is that written artifacts not only affect the customer’s immediate experience, they also influence other downstream interaction points either positively or negatively.

How to capitalize

Here are a few tips to help ensure that written materials enhance your firm’s customer experience, rather than detract from it:

Pay attention to artifacts

Begin by making certain that seemingly mundane or administrative written materials are not disregarded in the course of your customer-experience improvement-efforts. Instead, consider the influence of these materials on the experience from the customer’s perspective.

Strive for simplicity

We get paralyzed when our brains are faced with complex, incomprehensible written documents – sales prospects sit on the sidelines, customers get disengaged. Aim for great visual appeal, readability, a clear storyline and simple vocabulary that elevate the experience instead of complicating it.

Preempt the next question

Deficiencies in static artifacts inevitably drive unnecessary, loyalty-sapping, expense-inflating customer inquiries – “I don’t understand this instruction sheet”; “I can’t figure out from this bill when my payment is due”; “What do you mean by this contractual term?” Construct written materials so they proactively answer, and therefore preempt, the customer’s next likely question. In this way, you’ll not only deliver a better and more effortless customer experience, you’ll likely do it at a
lower cost.

Business leaders are easily enamoured by customer-experience improvement-tactics that are garnering the latest buzz – predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, digital transformation – to name a few. As a result, less ‘glamorous’ initiatives – such as those that focus on the written word – struggle for attention and investment.

That’s a problem, because these static artifacts can represent one of the most frequent and prominent interaction points that companies have with their customers.

Treat these artifacts with the respect they deserve, because when it comes to customer experience differentiation, it’s wrong to ignore the write stuff. 

– Jon Picoult is founder and principal of customer experience advisory firm Watermark Consulting