Musings, Writing

The curse of sounding professional.

A while ago, I was amazed to get a letter from my bank telling me I was in credit on my credit card.  I came across it in an old file today – and it’s just as I remembered.

It was from a real person – Paula Stevens from Card Operations.  But it didn’t really sound like she’d written it.  Instead, it had that slightly remote, finger-wagging, milk-monitorish tone that banks sometimes unintentionally adopt.

Not a very good letter

It was also a bit convoluted:

“You may be unaware the bank requests you do not place your account into credit; this is stated in our Terms.”

I particularly liked the capitalisation of “Terms” – they must be ever so important if they need a capital letter. I also liked the implication of “You may be unaware…” – it’s always good to call your customers ‘unaware’; goes down well.

Instead, how about something like this:

“We’ve noticed you’ve overpaid your credit card account. Please call us and we’ll transfer your money to your bank account – or you could use it to start a cash or equity ISA with us…”

Simple. Easy. Understandable. And even an attempt to sell the customer something. Hell, why not?

But it got better…

“Therefore would you please contact us, supplying a UK sterling bank code and account number, so we may return these funds to you.”

I’m sure that Paula Stevens from Card Operations doesn’t speak like this. I’ll bet she’s good fun, enjoys a laugh, uses the word “money” more often than “funds” and would never call a customer “unaware” (although I’ll bet she thinks a lot of us are utter morons – and fair game, we probably are).

Why sounding ‘professional’ is a disaster

It’s not Paula’s fault. Somewhere along the line, someone’s told her she needs to sound ‘professional’.  In most businesses, that means sounding a bit like a cross between a robot and a traffic policeman.  Replacing short, everyday words with long ones.  Using too many of them. Nailing them together in sentences that stretch off into the distance with more clauses than Santa’s family.

It’s the difference between being literate and actually communicating.  The whole ‘sounding professional’ thing is getting in the way of being understood.  It’s no good being literate but ending up with stuff that communicates about as well as a page of Linear B.

The corporate process doesn’t help either.  Paula drafts a letter and it all makes sense.  It goes to her manager, who changes a few things, rewrites a paragraph and sends it on to her manager in turn.  She does the same thing.  Then the letter goes to the Compliance and Risk department.  They add in the various bits of required FCA wording – word for word – and change a few more things.

How professional is it when the poor old customer has a gnat’s chance of understanding the end result?

I know enough customer services teams to know that they’re not like this.  They give a big fat damn about their customers and doing right by them.  The customer service advisors who’ve come in on Christmas Day – off shift – to fix problems.  The ones who’ve got into their own cars after work, driven forms to customers’ houses and helped them complete them – on their own time.  Most people go into customer services because they’re interested in helping customers.

So – here’s a challenge… There are so many brilliant customer services people behind the bars of that opaque, jargon-ridden, convolutedly structured, difficult language.  It’s time they escaped.  I’ve started the first tunnel – who’s with me?

 

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Musings, Writing

Dialogue or broadcast? Where’s democracy going?

The way we communicate has always changed. We’ve discovered and harnessed new media time and again – all the way from cuneiform to computers. But the newest change is possibly the most powerful and is already starting to change the way we’re governed, sold to and employed.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate – yet. What the ‘social revolution’ has done is move communication from a broadcast, monologue process to much more of an obvious dialogue.  At least, in some places.  It seems that this council in the Prime Minister’s constituency has just about moved on from employing a town crier with a bell.  “Oh yez! oh yez! Hear ye!”

Encouraging local democracy?

Encouraging local democracy?

Communication between organisations, governments and businesses and those they serve has nearly always been on a broadcast basis. The politician has spoken, unchallenged apart from perhaps an interviewer, and people have listened. Or not.  The business has advertised and people have bought. The only ‘dialogue’ has been at the ballot box or the cash till.

Broadcast vs Dialogue

It’s all been about broadcast – the sender of the message simply sends and the grateful public receive. And broadcast is fine. There are times when it’s essential. But some of us have been talking for years about how broadcast has insulated those who govern and sell to us about how they really need to communicate.

Communication needs to be about dialogue. But one side of that dialogue – the reader’s – has been silent – until recently. That means corporations and governments have been able to speak and write almost as they liked. Today, corporates, organisations and local authorities and governments are still struggling with the democratisation of communication.

Out of their depth

It’s tragic watching them on Facebook; businesses shouting to an empty room about how great they are. Baffled MPs and councillors ducking under Twitter onslaughts. Local authorities wondering why they get social media abuse, not involvement from people in their areas.

People are interested – so how do we engage them?

It’s not that people aren’t interested. The growth in single-issue and local pressure groups shows that, in fact, people are MORE interested in politics, business, government and society. But they’re turned off by the way these organisations communicate with them. Just listen to almost any politician trying to defend herself on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. It’s not dialogue – it’s blocking monologue. It’s not communication, it’s communication’s antithesis.

And it is rooted in a past where those in authority knew best. Now, those governed are as likely to know just as much as those governing. And they’re becoming much less shy about telling them so.

So, for the first time, communication really IS about dialogue. And the dialogue is showing that people aren’t interested in the big issues that the politicians are – they’re interested in the local issues that affect and hurt them. And they want to get involved.

Harnessing the power of dialogue for society

There aren’t easy answers about how government and business can involve these newly-articulate stakeholders, but, imagine the knowledge, information, wisdom, perspective and depth they’d tap into if they could harness social media’s potential for dialogue and did. And, bluntly, to achieve any sort of inclusive, progressive politics and commerce, they need to.

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Musings, Writing

Aristotle, the web and modern citizenship

In early August 2011, the UK’s citizens got involved in politics in a very practical way.  They looted, burned and rioted their way across London, Salford, Manchester and Birmingham. Commentators will debate the reasons – and the ethics –  for years to come, but its clear that these were people who are not usually politically active.  We need to understand why and, at the same time, find ways to encourage them to be.  Without it, that August will not stand alone.

London riots, people in streets with burning cars and buildings in background.

Practical politics?

For Aristotle, being a Citizen is all about involvement.  Involvement in government, in decision-making, in the State.  Without active involvement in the decisions of the State, one was not a Citizen.

Modern thinkers, like Prof. Bruno S. Frey of the University of Zurich Department of Economics, agree.  Writing in Demokratische Wirtschaftspolitik, he says “We find that direct democracy is not only more efficient but it also makes people happier than in other countries.”  At the core of direct democracy is the concept of involvement.

Most of us cannot be involved, as Aristotle advocated, full-time in the State, so we  have delegated much of its running to civil servants and politicians.  But, as the decisions made at national and even local level become increasingly remote from us, we need to become involved again.  To take back the mantle of Citizenship.

We may believe we have chosen to delegate our Citizen roles, but in reality, many of us have simply abdicated them.  This leaves us disempowered, dispossessed and dissociated on the sidelines.  Once we’ve become sufficiently remote from any idea of civic life and Citizenship, what have we to lose by smashing a few windows, stealing a few TVs?

We now have the chance to get those roles back.  We need to, too. Because it’s only when we’re involved in the complexity of civic decision making that we understand it. We MUST become practically engaged in the decisions of Government again.We are better educated, more literate, more enabled through the internet than ever before.  So we have huge potential to be involved practically as Citizens.  Not through the binary, single issue protest of e-petitions and polls but with access to information and decision-making itself.

At the same time, rather than keeping us out, or fending us off, the State needs to use the internet to find new ways to let us in.  Practical, local, electronic democracy.

Imagine the power of the thought, initiative and ideas of 36 million citizens.  Imagine the innovations that are waiting to be unleashed at local level to resolve problems and remove controls.  All it takes is for the State to throw the switch from “broadcast” to “receive”.Through the internet we don’t just have access to information and a voice, we have the facility to once more become Citizens.  It will take a brave government – and a patient one – to harness that facility.  But the benefits for the party that chooses to change the way we are governed in this way are untold.

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