Speak the same language as your customers – or face the backlash

I spent most of my commute this morning with my head buried in a legal contract, and the only thing I’m now sure of is this – I’d be the world’s worst lawyer. Legal contracts, to me, are in the same camp as books by Will Self. Just a bit too clever. Unless I have a dictionary next to me, there’s only ever going to be one outcome: frustration.

Do legal documents really need to be this complicated? Read a legal contract today and you’ll find yourself wrangling with a bewildering blend of old English, German, French and Latin. It’s been that way since time immemorial (see what I did there?).

Where did ‘legalese’ come from?

Great minds will tell you that legal wording was created to help clear a path between the many different languages and interpretations of right and wrong that existed centuries ago. They’ll also say that it was absolutely necessary to construct precise and uniform terminology that other lawyers would recognise – and adopt – instantly.

But the cynic in me feels that for much of the time, legal language is used as a means to exert power and status over those who the legal profession would prefer to keep in the dark, their paying clients.

It pays to be an ‘insider’

This mindset isn’t restricted to the legal profession. Accountants, financial services experts, doctors, even IT professionals see themselves as gatekeepers of information that others don’t have. This mentality changes the way they behave, as well as how they interact with their customers. They guard their information and knowledge very carefully and dish it out in very small doses, typically charging you lots of money for something they know but you don’t. Restricting this knowledge to ‘insiders’ has enabled them to build a protective barrier to entry around what they do.

Part of this protection comes in the form of specialist language that makes it more difficult for ordinary people to understand. Take financial services. How many investors understand what terms like short-selling, leverage, correlation, or hedging really mean? Yet that’s the language investment firms typically use when communicating with their customers. Whether they do this because it makes them sound clever, or because it lets them hide what’s really going on, doesn’t really matter.

An end to ‘caveat emptor’?

But the days when companies can get away with treating their customers like children are coming to an end. Information is now infinite and almost anyone can access what they want, whenever they want. And because this information is typically coming from people just like them (other ‘outsiders’) it’s written in a way where no-one needs a dictionary or a degree to understand what’s really going on.  

We’re at a point where the companies (and in some cases whole industries) that are most desperately trying to cling on to the previous power dynamic are on their way out. Real power now rests with those organisations willing to share their information openly. Google does it every day (the reason it was set up in the first place). Amazon does it as well – by using all of its data to tell you what else you might find interesting. And Tesla did it when it published its Intellectual Property for everyone else to see.

The world is now super-connected, and information flows freely. There is no longer such a thing as a private or one-off transaction. Everything you do or say will play out in front of everyone else. And “everything” includes not only your product or service (your WHAT), but the way in which you behave (your HOW).

Customers rightly expect full transparency, and those companies that don’t offer it willingly risk being exposed. You only have to look at websites like Trustpilot or Glassdoor to see what customers, and employees, really think of an organisation. Everything plays out in public; there is no longer anywhere for companies to hide.

And if a customer’s experience of how you deal with them doesn’t meet their expectations, the backlash will be even stronger than if you get your product wrong. We live in a world where behaviour counts. The features of a company that were historically labelled as ‘soft’, like culture, values or reputation, are now the ones that really matter. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s behaviour, not product, that will determine whether today’s companies have a future.

Author
Simon Rogerson
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