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The pain of plain

Effective communication often determines the outcome of sales meetings (apologies to all you fee-based readers, I mean advice meetings).

Plain English is the vogue and many companies unremittingly pursue the coveted crystal mark. Plain English is very important, we know this because no less an authority than Tony Blair has told us so.

The English language is a wonderful thing. Unlike most other languages, it allows any amount of emotion or subtlety and when it occasionally falls short, it introduces words such as chutzpah or hubris.

Our language is so wonderfully inventive that it enables writers to display emotion or make their specific point, albeit sometimes subconsciously, without resorting to invective or torrents of abuse.

This point has been hammered home to me during the past year when considering the terminology used by various bodies when describing the buying public.

Within the RDR, the FSA uses three descriptions – consumer, customer and client. There are qualitative distinctions between these words that I believe we would all agree with.

A consumer is somebody capable of taking advice or buying a product.

A customer is somebody who makes a purchase without any formal relation-ship with the adviser/sales-person and a client is somebody who enjoys a continuing relationship with their adviser.

In simple terms, everybody is potentially a consumer whereas banks have customers and advisers interact with clients.

Worryingly, the FSA seems to believe these three terms are endlessly interchangeable and this probably sheds light on their understanding and on why so many consumer oriented regulatory theories fall short of reality.

Another term exploited by certain financial journalists is punter. This word is used to suggest that the very act of taking advice is a gamble where the poor consumer has as much chance of losing out as of benefiting. It is a device that is derogatory towards clients but in reality is aimed at advisersHyperbole is another stratagem running rampant in our industry, among fund managers and insurance companies especially. Critical-illness insurance providers like to point out how many conditions they cover as if it is a matter of particular note. Industry pundits frequently irritate with illogical phrases such as “it’s a big ask” and “it’s slightly unique”. What the illiterate commentator is telling us, apart from his failure with language, is that the product or service is fractionally different to something else and this nonsense is intended to gain our attention. In my case, it usually does but for different reasons.

There is simultaneously a trend to dumb down, even though the latest fad and profit-generator is education. Instead of educating the reader and encouraging him to stretch his vocabulary, we are told to communicate effectively and use “do” instead of “accomplish” and “try” instead of “endeavour”. In this way we can all become as one, each as limited as the next person. Perhaps the next phase will be text talk, so dats K thN.

Now you may think this water-cooler garbage is quite acceptable, you may term it “the folk process”, a natural evolution of our language, blue-sky semantics. However, even in an industry as dour as financial services, we owe our clients and readers a duty of care to not overburden them with drab phrases or overwhelm them with thinking which is too far outside the box.

If you believe the above to be a cascade of exaggerations, then consider a recent error message displayed on Nationwide’s website which was spotted and kindly provided by another IFA. “Unexpected Application Error occurred. Please try again the registration if problem persist then contact helpdesk and report the problem. FSA Web Service can not be accessed, try later.”


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