Financial Marketers Must Eradicate Fine Print Surprises

The COVID-19 Recession makes a good time for reexamining intents versus actualities about banking consumer communications. With credit trouble on the horizon, and the industry's trust and reputation in the balance, hiding behind compliance requirements that make things unclear won't cut it anymore. Neither will misleading language — nor will relying on contract points that aren't really there.

“Read the fine print.”

This has become a financial cliché. Most people — bank lawyers and compliance officers being the exception — probably do not read the fine print until they need to. Perhaps they have been charged a fee they did not expect or had their credit card denied. And then they look at the agreement they should have read before they signed or checked the box to find out what should have been made clear from the outset.

I suggest that terms and conditions, privacy policies and similar agreements contained in bank account enrollment forms do not have to be dull, dry, overly long and printed in type you need a magnifying glass to read. They are never going to be anyone’s idea of a good beach read, but they could be brief (or briefer), devoid of legalese, plainspoken, reader-friendly and findable.

Much of the type of communication I am referring to is mandated by the government. But regulations usually dictate what points must be contained in these documents. They do not generally dictate the wording to use.

Here is a simple, but revolutionary idea, for consideration: A document can be written in plain language and still be legal.

And why would your financial institution want to make the mumbo-jumbo less intimidating?

Because those documents, whether online or in print, are as much a part of your brand as your logo, your ad campaigns, and your customers’ experience.

Your bank can endear itself (yes, really) to customers by making life easier on them. Isn’t that — helping them navigate — what you’re trying to do right now?

If even one financial institution re-examined all the text a legal team or compliance staff has been in charge of writing all these years and allowed a communications team (or agency) to simplify them, I believe many other financial institutions would have to follow their lead.

Lack of Clarity Destroys a Big Opportunity to Earn Consumers’ Trust

Think about it. Who writes the copy for your ads? Your press releases? The branch signage that must be attention-grabbing and easy to read? The punchy headlines on your website and billboards? Your official social media posts?

Why haven’t those people ever been asked to review and rewrite your terms and conditions?

No matter the reason, not tapping this talent means most institutions have missed an opportunity to establish trust with their customers.

Public trust in financial institutions has been troublesome for years. But in the wake of COVID-19, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Financial Services , in an updated edition, found that the portion of people who trust financial services firms had reached an all-time high level since the study started in 2012: 64%. But that means there are 36% who don’t trust financial providers.

Research shows that trust is built through communication. So, paying attention to every piece of communication with your logo on it pays off. Bankers tend to think of marketing, branding and public relations a lot — but fail to think about clarity in the most crucial content that people need to understand.

Regarding these oft forgotten, but crucial, pieces of communication as a branding opportunity is a new way of thinking. There may be some resistance to it, but it is too important to let “we have always done it this way” hold your institution back.

Banks and credit unions are changing most everything else about their businesses because of COVID-19. Why not take the opportunity to change communication too?

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Transparency Isn’t Enough (Whatever It Means)

“Transparency” has become a buzzword in the past few years in marketing and other disciplines. Organizations are always promising to be transparent with their customers. But don’t be so fast to pat yourself on the back for your transparency.

Claiming to be transparent merely means you have disclosed something to your customers. Clarity means you have taken the extra time to make sure they understand what you were being transparent about.

Some marketers may remember Bank of America’s 2009 Clarity Commitment. The Financial Brand described it in a 2010 story as “simple, straightforward summaries of debit, home loan and credit card accounts.” The commitment began with customers seeking mortgage loan modifications during the financial crisis and promised to make the legal documents customers were signing brief and easy to understand. I applauded that effort.

Vanguard, a company famous for using plain language in all its communications, obtained a copyright on Plain Talk® and made its straightforward approach part of its brand identity. They’re not using the “Plain Talk” line in marketing these days, but they are still using actual plain talk in much of what they share with customers.

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Stop Hiding Behind Tiny Print

I recently had an issue with my own bank. I was a day late paying a credit card bill and was ready to accept the penalty. I knew I would owe a fee and interest and was prepared to pay without complaint. But my bank cut off my credit card. I found out when a merchant denied the card — a card I’ve used for three years.

I decided to dive into the fine print of the card agreement — a nearly endless bog.

Doing so led me into a nightmarish customer service odyssey that reveals a key secret — even the institution’s own staff is not sure what is in the fine print. No one —and I talked with three representatives — could show me where in the bank’s terms and conditions consumers are warned about such a harsh penalty.

(My credit card is linked to every company I do business with online via PayPal, so when I had to get a new card, I had to try to remember every place I needed to update my information.)

That provision — that a credit card may be cut off after just one late payment — is nowhere to be found in the fine print. I know because I used a magnifying glass to read it completely. And it is certainly not in the big print either.

The bank’s representatives repeatedly referred me to the fine print. But later they admitted they weren’t even sure it was there. Some questions every executive and marketer should be asking:

  • Shouldn’t your own customer service team be familiar with the legal gobbledygook?
  • How can you expect consumers to read it if your own employees are not required to?
  • Or perhaps you are banking on customers not reading it?
  • If that’s the case, isn’t now the time to do better by your customers?

Trustworthy brands take years of careful tending to establish and to maintain. But it doesn’t take much or much time to tarnish one. During this prolonged “pause” in which we are changing so much about the ways we live and do business, doesn’t it make sense to examine these crucial, but ignored, communications and look for ways to make them clearer?

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