This post will exceed your expectations

My favourite blog post of the week was in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), not normally somewhere I hang out but worth it on this occasion.  The author admitted that in about half of his business conversations he had ‘almost no idea what other people are saying’. 

He goes on to say that when he was younger, if he didn’t understand what people were saying, he assumed he was stupid.  He now realises it’s the other people who are stupid for not ensuring he can understand them.

I know what he means, having worked in a law firm for the best part of four years.  The only difference being, and it’s a crucial one, that I am sure lawyers use jargon on purpose to ensure we, their customers, don’t know what is going on.  Some of it, of course, is because there are technical documents and processes that consumers aren’t familiar with.  That’s fair enough.  But quite a lot of the time it can only be a deliberate attempt to confuse.

Take this example, a letter from a solicitor, from the Plain English Campaign website:

‘I acknowledge receipt of your letter dated the 2nd of April. The purpose of my suggestion that my client purchases an area of land from yourself is that this can be done right up to your clearly defined boundary in which case notwithstanding that the plan is primarily for identification purposes on the ground the position of the boundary would be clearly ascertainable this in our opinionwould overcome the existing problem.’

I have no idea what is being said, apart from the fact it is something to do with one person buying land from another (I use ‘buying’ deliberately as I intensely dislike using long words where a short one will do).  If I received that letter I would probably write right back asking for a translation.  If it is an attempt to sound impressive, which I think is what is behind a lot of lawyers’ bad English, then it’s failed because it just makes me think of monkeys and typewriters.

My pet hate from lawyers is the word ‘revert’, as in ‘please consider and revert’, which I frequently found at the bottom of emails from colleagues.  Interestingly, a quick search for examples on Google suggests that using ‘revert’ for ‘reply’ is most common among people for whom English is a second language.  Oh, and lawyers.

They also seem to have a penchant for using capital letters.  I remember editing briefing upon fact sheet where I had to amend ‘The Firm’ (I wasn’t aware they were the subject of a film), ‘Partners’, ‘The Courts’, ‘Wills’, ‘Freehold’ and countless other offences.  Pedantic?  Yes, but peppering text with capital letters doesn’t make it easier to read, and we’re not, as far as I know, writing in German.

With this jargon busting in mind, I thought I would have a look at some law firm websites to see if these were slightly more consumer-friendly, given they would almost certainly have passed through the mangle of a marketing department before they went live (not forgetting, of course, that marketing people have their own jargon, like ‘search engine optimisation’ and ‘market segmentation and differentiation’).

I suppose to be fair on law firms, it must be pretty hard to differentiate yourself when you are delivering services that don’t exactly get consumers’ pulses racing:  it’s not exactly the same as selling funky gadgets or up-to-the-minute fashion.  Even so, most of the sites are really dull and, while they avoid the worst jargon, I did find references to Chambers and Legal 500 on home pages (city law firms can argue their clients know what these are, high-street firms most certainly cannot).

And they all go about themselves!  For a profession that is supposed to be delivering a service for clients there is a lot of navel gazing going on.  As a potential client, why would I care if you are ‘business of the year’ or that your senior partner was recently in the Lawyer’s top 100 or quoted in the FT?  It may not be jargon, but it’s still all about the desire to impress, show off and, quite possibly, intimidate.

There are also a lot of meaningless platitudes around.  What exactly does ‘modern thinking, traditional values’ mean and why would I care who invented the windmill?  Is there a law firm in the country that doesn’t offer ‘team work, creative thinking and the right answers at the right time’, even if not in those exact words?  And how can they all be one of the UK’s ‘most successful and respected firms’?

The trouble is, lawyers, like all professionals, end up sliding into the trap of wanting to impress their fellow professionals more then they want to impress their customers.  So rather than asking what we want, they attempt to fit our problem into their way of doing business.  I am not necessarily going to know if I need dispute resolution, property or planning if I have an issue with my neighbour; or whether I need family, dispute resolution or wills if I have a problem with an estate.  So why don’t you make it easy for us?

A survey by CubeSocial, a social media support platform, found similar issues when it looked at legal websites.  It  found only three of the top 100 law firms even bothered to ask the reader what they might be looking for, never mind try and provide any answers.  Given how client-centred law firms are continually saying they are, this isn’t much of a result.  For this reason alone, any sites that suggest the law firm ‘consistently exceeds clients’ expectations’ is almost certainly lying (there will surely be many other reasons this statement is untrue).

If you don’t ask consumers what they really want how can you possibly exceed their expectations?  The author of the HBR blog wrote that he’d seen a sign in a Hilton hotel lobby that said ‘Our goal is to exceed the customer’s expectation’.  He goes on:

‘The best way to start would be to take down that bullshit sign that just reminds me, as a customer, how cosmic the gap is between what businesses say and what they do.  My expectation is not to have signs around that tell me you want to exceed my expectations.’

I couldn’t put it better myself.  Listen to what consumers actually want, stop with the jargon and, if you’ll excuse the cliché, tell it like it is (nicely).

Louise Restell, legal blogger. This post first appeared on the QualitySolicitors blog.