Written by Simon Rogerson
My eldest daughter is now a few weeks into her A Level Philosophy course, but she’s already had her first experience of unnecessary complexity. She showed me the notes her teacher had given her explaining the differences between the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato.
They were so complicated that I still couldn’t understand them after reading them three times. Whether that’s a reflection on me or the notes doesn’t really matter. It was her reaction which said it all: “Nothing needs to be this complicated”.
And she’s absolutely right.
Too busy to tolerate complexity
I think there’s been a massive shift over the last decade. Today’s customers don’t have the time, patience or inclination to deal with anyone, or anything, that makes their life any more complicated.
Take technology as an example.
Two decades ago, if I couldn’t figure out how a gadget worked, I’d have concluded it was my fault. Today, if I can’t work it, I blame the product, or the company that made it.
Today’s greatest companies are defining a new normal for customers – one without friction and where everything is both easy and enjoyable to use.
Amazon, Airbnb and Uber are leading the way. They’re making the user experience so frictionless and so intuitive that anyone can become a user and take charge of the relationship. And these companies have made a name for themselves because they’ve worked out one simple thing – the power in business has irrevocably shifted from the company to the customer.
Power to the people
The world is now so transparent, and technology so pervasive, that the customer has more control than ever before. If something isn’t immediately understandable, those customers will simply look elsewhere.
And, as these companies redefine the customer experience in their own industries, so customers’ expectations more broadly start to change.
Disruption is coming
The two sectors where companies are still struggling to work this out are energy and financial services (it’s not a coincidence that these are the two least trusted sectors in the world).
Most of these companies are still revelling in their own complexity – because it makes them feel clever, or because it allows them to hide what’s really going on, or because they’ve spent so long in their own world that they’re now incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of the customer.
Perversely, these are the companies that need to excel at communicating. And that’s because what these companies do is both complicated and important. People care about the planet or about their financial wellbeing but find both subjects difficult to comprehend.
Which is even more reason for companies to communicate in words everyone can understand.
It doesn’t have to be complicated
Part of this comes down to a company’s culture and its values. It’s no good chiselling your values into the wall if they’re not genuine.
So, don’t talk about customer centricity and service if your communications make Aristotle look easy. It’s no good writing about diversification, price per kilowatt hour, beta or the European Stability Mechanism if your customers don’t understand it.
It would be like Apple including an instruction manual with its products to explain what goes on under the screen.
Using complexity to get one over on your customers isn’t going to work for very much longer. The walls that companies built around themselves to stop customers from seeing in are being torn down.
As customers gain in confidence and new entrants challenge the status quo, no amount of jargon will be able to hide what’s really going on.
If companies believe that trust is the battleground for business over the next decade (it will be), then there’s one thing they’d do well to remember.
If your customers can’t understand you, they definitely can’t trust you.