27 October 2023

Rethinking the language of protection

Rethinking the language of protection

Rachael Welsh
Head of Marketing

The Consumer Duty’s requirements around clear communication – underpinned by the consumer understanding outcome – could give us an opportunity to rethink the language we use across the protection sector.

On an individual level, it’s prompted me to think about the language we use today and how we came to use it in the first place. For me, it starts in my attic of all places!

In a recent clear-out, I came across my university dissertation and gave it a quick reread. I was shocked to realize that the university had trained me to write so formally. The topic of my dissertation was retail store layouts, and how they influenced buyer behavior. Not exactly a topic that required the level of formality I’d written it in.

Over the years, I’ve heard talks and debates about using plain, accessible language. There are excellent communications consultancies that can help as well. .

This led me to question whether there’s a mismatch in the language and communications skills being taught at university, and to many school leavers, and the approach we need for effective customer communications. Of course, graduates often then move from this academic language straight into a world of business language. In other words, you may not be encouraged to use ordinary language at all at these two key stages, or certainly not in terms of communications with customers.

This quite typical career background is surely part of the current challenge. (I did avoid some of these pitfalls as my first boss/mentor always encouraged me to write as I spoke.)

And yet, when I go to the pub with my friends, it’s still quite difficult to convey exactly what it is I am marketing, or certainly to give an accurate picture of the industry I work in. They still view protection insurance as something that’s too complicated, or not for them, or that won’t pay. Can these objections be addressed with clearer, easy-to-understand language?

Even terms such as ‘sum assured’ or ‘benefit amount’, which aren’t even at the deeply technical end of things, are not exactly in everyday use. I am not convinced that the phrase ‘covering your mortgage’, which we hear in industry circles, is quite right either. ‘Protecting your family home’ sounds much closer to what families are concerned about. Now, I’m not suggesting we change the entire vocabulary – that would be an enormous task. But it’s been very interesting to consider communications in great depth given the Guardian’s program of work on the Duty.

Every single customer or adviser communication has gone through an approval process. Everyone with a role in writing our communications is going through ‘clear language’ training. We intend to introduce clear language champions in every department of the business. This isn’t just in the obvious areas such Marketing, but departments such as Underwriting and Operations as well.

We’re also testing our terms and conditions (T&Cs) with both quantitative and qualitative research. We’re surveying 800 customers to test snippets of our terms and conditions and asking a smaller group of customers about our T&Cs one-to-one, essentially asking what they do and don’t understand. All of this will feed back into the next version of our T&Cs.

We’re finding there are some limits. You do need a certain level of detail because protection involves a legal contract. There are many ‘what ifs?’ You can’t be too general. So, T&Cs will still be fuller and more technical than other communications, but they should still be much clearer. You are after all establishing but also communicating the legal position.

More broadly, a lot of this work will, we hope, better equip our adviser partners as well. This can be in very specific ways. For example, we offer a ‘reasons-why’ tool where we have approved paragraphs about all of our covers that can be built into reasons-why letters and follow-up communications with clients. The latest set on Income Protection was produced with the Duty’s requirements very much at front of mind.

The Duty has given us a rationale and some significant momentum for change, and I also think we have an opportunity, as an industry, to be more ambitious. We see a huge potential benefit across the sector where, like Guardian, many providers will be reviewing communications and retraining staff. In the coming weeks and months, I would really like to see us all think beyond the written communications of websites, client documents and marketing collateral to challenge conversations, vocabulary and perhaps even the terms we use. And we may need to challenge some approaches that have been schooled and trained into us over the decades.

Given our view that better understanding helps make the case for protection and, in current circumstances, helps make the case for customers retaining policies, a big improvement in communications – both written and verbal – is a really significant prize. We should reach for it.



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