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5 Tips to Use Plain Language to Explain Complex Topics

If you work in customer service and you want to improve satisfaction and reduce repeat contacts, start writing in plain language right now. I mean today.

Please don’t be worried about whether plain language will “dumb down” the complex technical, medical, or legal topics you must relay to customers. That’s not how plain language works, at all.

Writing in plain language means making your information easy for your customers to read, understand, and use. It means that the writer does more work up front in crafting the text so the reader (your customer) can do less. It’s the perfect communication approach for explaining complex topics to our customers and central to our mission; after all, helping them understand and do things is our very reason for being.

Writing in plain language requires commitment and skill, but it is worth the effort. Here are five writing tips you can use right away.

Replace or explain technical jargon.

Technical jargon is insider’s language. People who share the same technical expertise should use jargon when they communicate, at least when needed, but customers usually aren’t technical experts on a company’s products or processes. Customer service pros should replace or unpack technical jargon.

Here’s an example. A customer complains to a food manufacturer that the bag of popcorn they purchased tastes and smells sour.

Don’t simply reply, “Based on your description, the popcorn may have become rancid.” In this case, the word “rancid” has a specific, technical meaning, one your customer may not know.

Instead, write this: “Based on your description, the popcorn may have become rancid, which means the fats or oils used to make it have become stale.” You could continue this response by explaining that stale (rancid) oils aren’t unsafe, but they sure aren’t tasty, either.

Cut the biz-speak.

Let’s say you must explain your company’s refund process to a customer. Don’t write, “The refund will be reflected on your account within three business days.” “Reflected” is biz-speak, a type of accepted euphemism for a common business practice.

Biz-speak can be confusing, so replace it with plain language. Write this instead: “The refund will be credited to your account within three business days.”

Count the steps.

When you’re explaining to a customer how to complete a process, number the steps in the process. Don’t just bullet the steps, and don’t clump them in a paragraph. A numbered set of steps provides your customer with an extra layer of help.

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Use the Paraphrase-Quote-Link approach when you must refer to the fine print.

To respond to some customers’ complaints or questions, you’ll have to share your company’s legal language (terms and conditions, policies, procedures, or regulations, etc.). If you just copy-paste this legal language into an email, your customer probably won’t understand it.

Try this helpful approach instead:

  • Paraphrase the key point of the legal language for the customer.
  • Quote a short, relevant passage of the legal language.
  • Link to the full text of the legal language online.

Here’s an example: Customer Carolyn contacted her auto loan company to request they remove her husband’s name from the state registration of their car. When the auto loan company replied that this was impossible unless she paid off or refinanced the loan, she wouldn’t accept their answer. In a follow-up email, Carolyn challenged the auto loan company to explain why they wouldn’t remove her husband’s name from the registration.

In their final response in the email chain, the customer service rep at the company used the Paraphrase-Quote-Link approach. Here’s a portion of their reply to Carolyn. I’ve called out the sentences that use this approach:

“…Unless you pay off or refinance the car loan, it’s impossible to have your husband’s name removed from the car’s registration. (PARAPHRASE:) The car’s title work and registration must read exactly as does the contract for purchase. (QUOTE:) The law states, ‘The title work and registration on a vehicle must be commensurate with the binding contract assigned upon purchase of said vehicle.’ (LINK:) You can review the full text of this Title Transfer and Ownership Law online.”

Use personal pronouns to refer to the customer (“you”) and your company (“we”).

The teacher, professor, or boss who told you not to use “you” and “we” in business communication was wrong. In fact, using these personal pronouns is one of the best ways to make your writing easier to understand. Replace the words “user,” “customer,” or “policy-holder” with “you.” Replace “our company” or “the Customer Service Department” with “we.” These personal pronouns help customers understand who will or should do what.

Here’s an example from “Landsavers United,” an environmental preservation organization that offers a sought-after paid internship. Come February every year, this organization fields thousands of customer service inquiries from undergrads hoping to land an internship.

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These techniques may take some extra time and practice, but remember that communicating well with customers is easily the most important part of the job.

Some leaders use glowing, dramatic terms for what customer service teams should accomplish, terms like “surprise,” “delight,” and “exceed all expectations”. When we explain complex topics to our customers in plain language, we instead do something humble, practical, and important - we help them understand and act. We help them get stuff done.