Beyond words: Customer communications need clarity

When it comes to communicating important information to your customers, how do you know they understand your message? If they respond with questions, you notice an increase in support or help calls, or they don’t respond at all, your message isn’t connecting with them. When writing for your customers, it’s not just the words that matter but the overall clarity of your words.

This post looks at an example of a customer email that used confusing language and lacked a clear call to action. It guides you through the process of breaking down the words to find meaning and building it back up into a well organized, easy-to-understand actionable email. While the guidance presented here applies to an email for customers, it can also apply to any written customer communication.

Find the message disconnect

A client needed to send a service notification email to inform customers about a payment issue. The original draft was confusing on a few levels. First, the general story behind the email was missing about what happened and why the customer needed to know about it. Second, the language used nonsensical phrases–such as the term payment instrument and the phrase purchase offers–making it difficult to understand what the email was referring to. Third, the call to action–add a payment instrument to purchase offers–was unclear about how customers needed to respond. Figure 1 shows the original wireframe draft.

Original version of service notification with branding removed.
Figure 1. Original version of the email (branding removed)

Tip: Make a mental or written list of items in the written communication that are confusing or troublesome and could create a negative customer experience.

The message also needed to sound more human and to follow company standards. See how adding clarity and a human voice to this message helped this client reach its customers and get them to respond.

Dig into the meaning

The first objective was to ask the client what payment instrument referred to. Was it a credit card, a payment service, or some other magical way companies pay for services? The second objective was to understand why customers would receive this email, that is to know what action triggered this email. The third objective was to determine the call to action , whether it was urgent, and why customers were given two different dates. The draft markup included my initial guesses as to what the client was trying to convey but also had many comments to help pinpoint the answers to my questions. The draft (Figure 2) was heavy with comments and tracked changes to help clarify the objectives.

Figure 2. Marked-up version of the email with comments to the client (branding removed)
Figure 2. Marked-up version of the email with comments for my client (branding removed)

Tip: When written communication seems confusing, ask the 5 Ws–who, what, where, when, why (and how)–to help build its story.

Reassemble the story

After the first review round with the client, the purpose of the email and its goal gained clarity. It seemed that somehow a payment system inadvertently let customers purchase a product after a free trial without them having a credit card on file for their account. The customers who would receive this email needed to add a credit card (payment instrument) to:

  • Continue using the product by the date indicated to avoid loss of service.
  • Make future purchases in the online marketplace.

The client clarified the meaning of payment instrument. However, they introduced the term billing profile instead of account (my preference) because their customers might have different billing profiles for one account.

Tip: Customer communications should always use terms and concepts that customers understand and recognize, despite what others might want.

The client also explained the call to action. In doing so, they realized that only one date was required. To make it easier for the customer to take the required action–add their credit card–an action button was added (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Final approved version of the email that will go to clients (branding removed)
Figure 3. Final approved version of the email that will go to clients (branding removed)

Tip: When a customer first scans an email, a simple button guides their eyes to the required action and makes it easier for them to complete the action.

Polish for clarity

After clarifying the story, the concepts, and the action, review the written communication for organization and flow, consistency, tone, voice, style, spelling, and grammar. This particular email resulted in a clearly worded, scannable notification with a defined call to action. The final version (Figure 3) offers an enhanced customer experience that avoids ambiguity in regard to the reason for the email and the required action to take.


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