Customers Just Don’t Understand

By Chukwukere Ekeh

A potential customer just spent time on your website or at your branch and left in frustration without leaving information or conducting any business. Sound familiar?

Now you’re left wondering why. But no worries—I have the answer and it’s simple:

You didn’t speak their language.

We have all been in a situation where we’re trying to purchase a new product or service, and the salesman uses overly technical language. Let’s say I’m at Best Buy to pick up the new MacBook, and the salesman starts grilling me about the SSD, VR capabilities, Ram, and the new A4 microchip.

I’m not sure about any of that. I just want the screen to be a certain size and I want to be able to run specific programs. But the salesman’s jargon is making me wonder whether we’re really understanding each other. Will I end up with the product I want and need? Hard to say. Just to be sure, I head down the street and buy my MacBook at the Apple Store.

Every day, sales reps lose sales because they speak in the terms of their own expertise, rather than keeping the conversation in the customer’s comfort zone.

Banks are better than that…right?

Actually, banks and bankers do an atrocious (aka bad) job of keeping language simple, clear, and concrete. Often communications—both written and oral—are filled with vague, unnecessary banking terminology, difficult phrasing, and legalese. Many of you at this point will be tempted to say, “Well, all banks are this way.” And that is where both the problem and opportunity lie.

Consider the untapped sources of potential customers left behind by bank-talk.

First, you have your current customers who have granted only a partial share of their wallet to your bank. Chances are, many of them are disengaged, but keep that low-balance account with you only because it’s too much pain to make a move.

Then you have whole populations who are either underbanked or completely unbanked. In a report by the FDIC, 7% of U.S. households in 2015 were “unbanked,” meaning that no one in the household had a checking or savings account.

On top of that, nearly 20% of U.S. households were “underbanked”in 2015. A household is categorized as underbanked if it has a checking or savings account at an insured institution, but also used one of the following products or services from an alternative financial services provider in the past 12 months:

  • Money orders
  • Check cashing
  • International remittances
  • Payday loans
  • Refund anticipation loans
  • Rent-to-own services
  • Pawn shop loans
  • Auto title loans

Across the U.S., these sources of customers account for an estimated 66 million adults, some of them bypassing your institution every day.

It’s even worse than you think.

Now, let’s look at some literacy and comprehension statistics for the United States provided by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

We can conclude a few things from the above information. The main takeaway is that it’s highly likely that—based on the language we’re using—it’s not that our customer doesn’t want to buy. It’s that our language is making it more difficult for them to.

For many areas, you must also take into play the diverse populations where English may not be the first language, making obscure language even more off-putting.

So as that potential customer scans those loan documents or reads through the requirements for a checking account, they may be falling out of the sales funnel rather than moving towards a conversion.

The problem: Until a potential customer understands what you’re offering, they’re unlikely to become a paying customer. If hard-to-grasp concepts and language are used during conversation, the sales funnel will be extended—making conversion less likely. The problem will not solve itself.

Even scarier is the rise of fintech companies aiming to disrupt the industry. If they solve the communication problem first, you’ll lose market share.

The opportunity: This can be a relatively simple and inexpensive problem to fix. If you do, it will make things better for customers and employees. Learning to communicate on terms your audience understands—using analogies that resonate and are powerful—can increase the likeability of your brand. Capturing this opportunity will lead to a better customer experience that enhances word-of-mouth about your institution.

Here are a few practical steps you can take to start turning things around today.

  • Review the language used on your website and in brochures periodically. Is it simple, concrete, and correct? Do you offer translations into multiple languages if serving a diverse community of customers?
  • Teach customer contact people how to simplify complex concepts. Give them examples, stories, and analogies to use with products they might not fully understand or work with often.
  • Take loan officers, wealth managers, and insurance people through training in effective speaking. The ability to convey benefits in terms their audience can comprehend will pay off, literally.
  • Lastly, remember customers are people. They have goals, hopes, and ambitions. Respect them and value them with your words and your tone.

Chukwukere Ekeh is a Marketing Officer at Citizens Bank & Trust. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Email: