In a recent publication, the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets (AFM) observed that banks have made the information they provide to customers clearer and easier to find. In its report about customer-friendly information, AFM indicates that ABN AMRO scores above average on this aspect. "We’re thrilled with this news," says Lenny van Oeveren, manager of ABN AMRO’s Plain Language Programme, who played a key role in the culture shift.
Words like 'inasmuch' and 'whereby' have been banished from ABN AMRO’s vocabulary. "In the past, banks wrote far too formal language and used far too much jargon," Van Oeveren explains. "Take the following sentence: 'For the execution of the mortgage deed, an appointment with the notary public is mandatory.' Will customers actually know what this is about? We can put this much more clearly: You must make an appointment with your notary public to sign your mortgage deed."
Thinking like the customer
Van Oeveren explains how ABN AMRO has been waging war on unclear language: "We watched videos taken by AFM for its research. They showed customers clearly struggling with our information. That had to change. We started by making all our information for retail customers in the Netherlands simpler. Then we extended our reach to other communications by our bank. The trick is to think like the customer: which information do they need? The focus in our communication should not be on our product or our process, but on our customers and their everyday lives."
Wholesale or retail – a different approach?
Countless letters to customers, brochures and website texts have been edited in the past few years, first for ABN AMRO’s retail business, and later also for its wholesale activities. The recipe is always the same: both retail and commercial customers get clear information that is easy to read and easy to search through. "Still, there are some differences between the two categories. In texts for retail customers, we do a lot of explaining. Not everyone is equally at home in financial matters, which are often quite complicated. The customers that our wholesale business serves – larger companies – know more about these matters, and we pitch our communications to their level. But for these customers, too, we’ve made our texts more customer-friendly, avoiding unnecessary legalese and jargon. Because business customers are busy people, and want to be able to read our texts quickly and efficiently."
Since the campaign kicked off, most of the communications in Dutch to ABN AMRO’s customers have been rewritten. But the difficult part, Van Oeveren says, was raising awareness. "It’s been quite a long process. But if we hadn’t taken the time, we wouldn’t have succeeded. We’re asking our employees, who’ve been working in a particular way for a very long time, to change the way they do things. They don’t always see right away why they need to do so. With our Plain Language Programme, we’re tinkering with the DNA of the organisation. On the other hand, writing more clearly is not rocket science. With a course in writing and the right support, many employees can improve their writing."
Making texts clear and ensuring they stay that way, Lenny van Oeveren argues, is a work in progress. She has seen her colleagues grow more aware and take increasing care to write plain language. "For them, it really took some getting used to at first. But we’ve been at it for a few years now, and the results are starting to show. There are no more than a few sceptics left, and most people are downright enthusiastic. They come to us themselves with their letters to customers and ask: When are we going to tackle these texts?"