Customer support ingredients, vol. 3: KISS

Keep it simple and make them yours.

Keep it simple and make them yours.

"We don't want to dumb things down."

At some point in every training session, I hear those words.

And I don't like them.

They usually come from a good place: respect for people's intelligence. But this attitude can make reading really unpleasant through endless sentences and fancy words.
And they leave lots of room for a snarky, dismissive tone to creep in — and make friendly advice sound like a guarded complaint response.

Worse, the expression "dumb things down" itself tastes of disrespect.
Disrespect for young readers, dyslexic people, customers with learning difficulties, even the elderly.
And all of us who have only little time and attention to spare for messages from anyone but our nearest and dearest.

In this blog post, we'll look at a few example sentences from an email we've had — and shed some light on:

  • The importance of sentence length for good communication
  • How to avoid unintentional rudeness by writing simply and clearly
  • 3 free tools to improve your writing

But first, let me tell you a story.

Make your replies to customers as crisp as a freshly starched shirt.

Make your replies to customers as crisp as a freshly starched shirt.

We needed a new iron. In most shops, you can't really test drive small appliances, so we treated ourselves to the most entertaining iron — one with coloured LEDs. (Besides the light show, it also promised good steam output and fantastic power. And it was half price.)

At home, the rough coating and heavy weight meant it produced more wrinkles than it ironed out. We also weren't happy with how little steam came out. We used it a few times, hoping it would need to be “run in”. Then I told the manufacturer we wanted to return it.

Here's their reply:

Dear Ms Harnau,

Thank you for your recent email concerning your iron.

We have noted your comments and are sorry to learn of the problems that you have encountered with this product.

Although it may be of little or no consolation to you we can assure you that all our products are designed and tested to ensure compliance to the relevant European Standards and all undergo strict and rigorous testing prior to their acceptance into our product range.

We can also advise that generally, consumer feedback has remained extremely positive in relation to both the design and the performance of this product and consequently, we have sold large volumes of these with few complaints of any nature having been reported to us.

Naturally, we regret that on this occasion we have not provided a product that ensures complete satisfaction.

However, please note that we do not have service agents for our products. Therefore, to enable us to ascertain the precise cause of the problems that you have encountered we must ask to please return the product to our Customer Service Department here in Manchester, for full examination.

The correct procedure for returning a product under guarantee is via the original place of purchase which should then forward it to us on your behalf.  

If, the item is outside the guarantee period or you are unable, for any other reason, to return the product via your retailer then you may return it direct with the onus of posting on the sender.  Upon receipt, we will exchange your iron for our model X iron.  

Please pack the product carefully; enclosing proof of purchase, if available, together with a covering letter giving brief details of the problems experienced and send the parcel to: - Sweep Brands (UK) Ltd, Consumer Service Dept, Support Street, Manchester, M00 0AB.

We would also recommend that proof of posting be obtained from your local Post Office when returning a product direct.

Regrettably, until we have received your product we will be unable to assist you further and we therefore await its arrival after which we can assure you that the matter will be dealt with promptly and if any charges are to be made for its repair/replacement then you will be notified of these by way of a quotation for your acceptance prior to the work being carried out.

Yours sincerely,

Ms J Buckley
Consumer Services Advisor

 

KISS = Keep it short and simple

A good rule-of-thumb for average sentence length is keep it short and sweet. 20 to 25 words are quite enough, as a 2009 study by the American Press Institute found:

When the average sentence length in a piece was fewer than eight words long, readers understood 100 percent of the story.
Even at 14 words, they could comprehend more than 90 percent of the information.
But move up to 43-word sentences, and comprehension dropped below 10 percent.

This study was so groundbreaking that the team behind gov.uk decided to keep sentences to 25 words max.

Many who first see it shake their head in disbelief — after all, who'd cram 43 words into one sentence! 

Well, there are three such sentences in our example email:

44 words:

We can also advise that generally, consumer feedback has remained extremely positive in relation to both the design and the performance of this product and consequently, we have sold large volumes of these with few complaints of any nature having been reported to us.

46 words:

Although it may be of little or no consolation to you we can assure you that all our products are designed and tested to ensure compliance to the relevant European Standards and all undergo strict and rigorous testing prior to their acceptance into our product range.

And a whopping 69 words:

Regrettably, until we have received your product we will be unable to assist you further and we therefore await its arrival after which we can assure you that the matter will be dealt with promptly and if any charges are to be made for its repair/replacement then you will be notified of these by way of a quotation for your acceptance prior to the work being carried out.

A 10% comprehension rate means people need to read them ten times to fully understand them. 

In fact, their readability is so poor you'll need a postgraduate degree. Problem is, most businesses don't want to exclude anyone who's not at least degree educated.

 

The height of sophistication is simplicity.
— Claire Booth Luce, playwright and US Ambassador
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
— attributed to Albert Einstein

 

KISS = Keep it short and sweet

So, long sentences are hard to read. But they also make it harder to get the tone right. All those extra words can make us seem unsophisticated. We can come across like excited teenagers. People might think we don't know what we're talking about. Or, as in Ms Buckley's case, we create a lot of distance to the customer and become inadvertently rude:

Although it may be of little or no consolation to you we can assure you that all our products are designed and tested to ensure compliance to the relevant European Standards and all undergo strict and rigorous testing prior to their acceptance into our product range.

Incon-sole-able

She's right. Complaining customers don’t care about European Standards if they don’t match their own. The company's criteria for strict and rigorous testing must be inferior to the customer's if they've had reason to complain. But good support advisors want to console unhappy customers. They don't offer information that's "of little or no consolation".

This sentence would be much better if it was split in two and reduced to the facts:

We design all our products so they meet European standards. And before adding them to our product range, we test them rigorously.

Gone is the snark. Kids in seventh grade can understand it. And it even sounds a bit reassuring.

"How weird — everyone else is happy!"

The Plain English Campaign have a clever tool called "Drivel Defence" on their website. Paste in a bit of text, and it'll tell you how to improve it. We've tested it on this sentence:

We can also advise that generally, consumer feedback has remained extremely positive in relation to both the design and the performance of this product and consequently, we have sold large volumes of these with few complaints of any nature having been reported to us.

And here's the result:

Potential alternative : advise → tell, say (unless you are giving advice)
Potential alternative : consequently → so
Potential alternative : in relation to → about
Potential alternative : perform → do
Potential alternative : remain → stay
Potential alternative : extremely → (edit out?)

Following this advice, we get: We can also say that generally, consumer feedback has stayed positive about what this product does and how it looks, and so we have sold large volumes of these with few complaints of any nature having been reported to us.

— In other words:  Except for you, people are thrilled with this iron's looks and how smooth their clothes were after its use, so although we sold lots and lots of them, we only got few complaints. (One, to be precise: yours.)

How much better to keep it short and sweet: This iron is really popular. Most customers praise its good looks and how well it works, and we've had only few complaints.

There's not a hint of accusation here, and it's readable for a fifth-grader.

Virtual lung volume = customer effort

Ms Buckley goes on to advise the “correct procedure for returning an iron” in a rather schoolmasterly manner. (Is there a punishment for using an incorrect produre of returning it?) 

Then she takes a deep virtual breath for an Eddie-Murphy-style finale, in which she firmly sets my expectations:

Regrettably, until we have received your product we will be unable to assist you further and we therefore await its arrival after which we can assure you that the matter will be dealt with promptly and if any charges are to be made for its repair/replacement then you will be notified of these by way of a quotation for your acceptance prior to the work being carried out.

There's so much unnecessary fluff here — 43 superfluous words, to be precise: 

  • Regrettably, until we have received your product we will be unable to assist you further and we therefore await its...
  • ...we can assure you that the matter will be dealt with promptly and....
  • ...of these by way of a quotation for your acceptance...

As a result, this company appears difficult to deal with. But we know making things easy is the most powerful driver of loyalty. So it makes good business sense to keep it short and sweet:

Once we've got your iron, we'll let you know if we can repair or replace it, and if there's a charge.

21 words, fit for a child in year 6.

 

3 simple tools for readability, politeness and reduced customer effort

An example of how Hemingway works.

An example of how Hemingway works.

Hemingway app

Copy and paste some text into this web app, and it tells you how much formal education the reader needs to understand it.

There are lots of helpful stats — best of all, though: tips to help you improve your writing immediately.

Hemingway is also available as a software download.

By the way, it's rated this blog post as "Grade 6: Good."

 

The Drivel Defence report looks a bit more technical.

The Drivel Defence report looks a bit more technical.

Drivel Defence

This is probably one of the earliest tools to keep drivel at bay: the Plain English Campaign first developed it in 2001.

Like Hemingway, this web app is available to download to your computer as JavaScript based web page files.

In addition to text, Drivel Defence can quickly check entire web pages if you paste the URL.

 

 

 

The Microsoft help pages themselves seem much more readable these days.

The Microsoft help pages themselves seem much more readable these days.

Microsoft office 

Conveniently, Microsoft have built readability into their spellcheck.

The Microsoft Office help pages give instructions on how to switch it on, depending on your software version.

 

Sources

Ann Wylie, How to Make Your Copy More Readable: Make Sentences Shorter. PRsay, January 2009.

Sara Vincent, Sentence length: why 25 words is our limit. Inside gov.uk, August 2014

 

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