The course is about to begin; new client, new city, new room, new people.
A quick round of introductions reveals the only constant: none of the delegates about to receive a three-day course on business writing skills has ever had any writing training before – no matter how long they’ve been in the business for.
I should be a little perplexed, but I’m not; this is the trend I’ve observed for the past few years with companies in all industries, all over the world.
Why do so many organisations hire non-professional writers and expect them to write professional-level messages? Shouldn’t writing skills training be included in induction programmes – just like customer service, brand, or health & safety training – rather than being treated as an afterthought?
Or perhaps, is the ability to write taken for granted (in which case, it’s an illusion worthy of David Copperfield)?
Writing skills should be a foundation to build on
The emphasis on customer service is at an all-time high. But for some mysterious reason, when we think about good customer service, we tend to associate it with helpfulness, reliability, or empathetic and positive customer communication, in general. This makes sense – but leaves out quality writing, which is also at the core of best practice.
This is even more true if we consider that written messages can be more damaging than spoken ones. They can always be used as reminders about a writer’s skill (or lack of), and can greatly impact a company’s reputation for years to come. Spoken communication, instead, is easier and more volatile.
To use a metaphor, writing skills should be the foundation on which to build other soft skills. But in reality, it seems it’s generally the other way around – with obvious structural failures.
A famous exception is the ethos embraced by CEO Kyle Wiens, who in a Harvard Business Review article claims he’d never hire someone who can’t pass a basic grammar test.
Quoting Lynne Truss’s bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves, he goes on to explain that “good grammar makes good business sense”, not only in his community of open-source repair manuals, but for companies in all sectors.
That’s because, in his opinion, good grammar and good writing are often indicative of an employee’s attention to detail, beyond language-related matters.
The cost of poor writing
If logic alone wasn’t enough, there are also emotional arguments linked to the importance of quality writing.
In a recent case, the lack of an Oxford comma (used before the final ‘and’/’or’ in a list) in a labour law cost the state of Maine $5 million, which were awarded to dairy delivery drivers for their overtime work.
A more ordinary example is discussed in a BBC article. Here, entrepreneur Charles Duncombe spells out how problematic poor writing and poor grammar can be for his online business, to the extent that “a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half” because “sales figures suggest misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website’s credibility”.
While this results in a broader discourse on cyber security, the conclusion of the article is still sound. Since 42 percent of employers are dissatisfied with young employees’ literacy skills, governments should make these a priority in schools and colleges, because good writing is still essential – even in the age of auto-fill.
Of course, not everyone shares the same level of alarmism about the rise and fall of the English language. Guardian editor and linguist David Shariatmadari, for example, argues that English standards are not deteriorating; the language is simply changing constantly, and so it’s necessary to treat it as such: with fluidity.
How do you want to come across?
While writers like Shariatmadari help us to keep in mind that linguistic myths and pedantry must have boundaries, there’s clearly a balance to be had.
To grasp the importance of writing skills in customer service scenarios, it’s always useful to reflect on practical before and after examples. The following are real messages I’ve recently received, and my re-writes.
Yes mam, We need to update that. Please share your passport number and expiry date for updation.
You’re right – we need to amend the information. Please share your passport number and expiry date, and we’ll update our records straight away.
To change how you receive the available communications, please logg [sic] into your membership online xxx using your member number and pin number and make your election in the personal details section “Update your current details”.
If you’d like to change the communication settings, please follow these three easy steps.
- Log in on xxx using your member number and PIN.
- Go to the section “Personal details” “Update your current details”.
- Select your preference. You’re now in control of what you receive.
In perfect anti-Plain English Campaign style, the original messages offer a mix of spelling errors, incorrect/outdated vocabulary, unnecessarily twisted expressions, and unimpressive standard prose. The display doesn’t always facilitate the reading, and readability scores low.
Pieces of communication like these don’t do companies any favours. On the contrary, they make organisations come across as old-fashioned, and advisors as unprofessional.
The good, the bad and the ugly
A quick analysis of the before and after examples demonstrates three fundamental principles about writing and customer service: the good, the bad and the ugly.
First, good quality writing is so powerful that it comes above everything else. Readers must be able to easily understand a message before deciding whether it ticks all the other boxes of good customer service practices. If a piece of writing is unclear or sloppy, it’s doomed to remain so, and can’t be elevated to dynamic, caring or trustworthy.
Second, badly written messages are tricky because they’re permanent. They can put a company’s reputation on the line, or encourage upset customers to take revenge on social media.
Third, the receiver inevitably makes a judgement about the sender – both the person who’s written the message and the company that has sent it. And it’s easy to discard them both on the basis a few lines. The ugly side of this is that – especially in sensitive complaint situations – a customer might question the business’s attitude and competency, and might even leave. After all, if companies can’t write a decent message to paying customers, what else can’t they do?
In politics, communicating intentionally unclearly, with the purpose of hiding something – like the infamous Ems Dispatch that started the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 – might still be expected nowadays.
But in the commercial arena, at a time when customers are more powerful than ever before, companies should pay more attention to the link between quality writing and good customer service.