Clear communication and customer experience: The wisdom of Ingrid Lindberg

Ingrid Lindberg

Ingrid Lindberg, the world’s first customer experience officer, is a groundbreaking figure in the discipline of customer experience (CX). She comes to the analysis of corporate writing from a CX perspective. I love her principles, which I’ll give a sample of here.

I first came upon Lindberg in researching my most recent book. This passage from that book should give you an idea of how she opens up people’s eyes to the truth about CX:

When Ingrid Lindberg was the chief customer experience officer of the health insurer Cigna, she became concerned with the extreme volume of the messaging (mail and email) to subscribers from colleagues at her company, she finally figured out a way to make her point as dramatically as possible. She took 10,000 pieces of collateral, all of which were in active use at Cigna, stapled them together, and hung them from the ceiling of one conference room. She mounted 167 flat-screen TVs, each showing one URL that Cigna’s members needed to access. “We were able to show employees that yes, they were part of the problem,” she told us. As people toured through this “customer experience room,” they realized that their individual message might be important to them, but to the customer, it was just one piece of a distracting and annoying blizzard of paperwork and messages.

Eventually, galvanized by this display, Cigna cut paper collateral by half, combined phone contacts into a single toll-free number, and built a single website. Cigna’s stock went up tenfold even as this reduction in messaging was going on.

Now Lindberg is an independent consultant. Her operation is called Chief Customer. And she’s on the warpath against confusing language that gets in the way of customers. In her latest blog post, “Words Matter,” she takes aim at how bad writing gets in the way, including these principles:

[W]hat I’ve learned can be applied to just about any communication — whether it be customer, board member, or employee. And it can be applied to any industry. Here are a few of our tips.

  1. More is almost never better. Ensure that your communication is clean, clear and to the point. That means fewer words, more bullets, and really, really concise information.
  2. Focus on one topic at a time – if you can. I know, I know, I know. Everyone wants to be able to pile on information into the piece you’re sending out. But let’s be honest. We know what is really valuable and we know what isn’t. Stand up and ensure that your communication brings value to your reader.
  3. Ensure that your communication has a call to action. Make it very clear exactly why you’re sending it and what your recipient is supposed to do. If you are just sending out an FYI, rethink it. People don’t generally need FYIs — they need to know what they have to do to respond. Find that call to action.
  4. Strive for a 5th or 6th grade reading level. This doesn’t mean your audience is stupid. It means that your job is to take your complex product or service offering and make it super, super easy to understand. And it means that we all skim. We are inundated with information, and I promise you, people spend their time reading and understanding the things that are really important to them. Everything else gets skimmed.
  5. Make it easy for your audience to know where to go if they have questions.Include phone numbers, email addresses, websites. But make sure you have multiple ways for someone to find out more/do the thing they need to do/ask a question. Trust me — ensuring that it is easy for your audience to do the thing that you’re asking them to do will only raise you in their esteem.

What this means for you

I endorse these principles, which are entirely compatible with the message of Writing Without Bullshit. But what’s new here is the customer experience angle.

I’ve quantified the cost of bad writing the economy. It’s $396 billion every year in wages wasted paying people to fight their way through terrible writing in the attempt to get at the meaning. That’s 6% of every dollar of wages paid in the US.

But what does that mean to you, at your company?

It means that your most highly paid executives are going to be cursing and wasting time rather than making decisions based on clear and accurate information.

It means that your middle managers will be frustrated attempting to figure out and implement unclear policies because the people who made them didn’t think hard enough about readability.

It means that your line employees will be making mistakes because, in the instructions you sent them, what was important wasn’t clear, and what was clear wasn’t important.

And it means that your customers will give up on you because they can’t figure out what the heck your product does or how to use it. Their time is valuable, too.

Ingrid’s connection between customer experience and clarity is crucial, because there’s a wealth of data about how investments in customer experience make companies more profitable.

So don’t just invest in better writing because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s good for your career. Do it for the bottom line. Better writing pays off.

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One Comment

  1. Josh:

    Succinct is Super.

    Curious on your take for writing positively.

    For example, take your paragraph, which addresses wastes when not being succinct.

    It means that your most highly paid executives are going to be cursing and wasting time rather than making decisions based on clear and accurate information.

    and change it to this, when succinct is super.

    Your highly paid executives will be making decisions based upon clear and accurate information, rather than cursing and otherwise wasting time.

    And I’m curious if I’m the only one asking this. I have not seen this approach used outside of my stuff, but maybe I’m missing a whole school of positivity.