How to build a financial services business that speaks to people

Help your customers understand all the great things you offer with our upfront advice on clear, accessible and engaging communication.

Let’s get one thing straight. Understanding something as essential as our finances should be simple. The trouble is, and we’re not going to mince our words here, the language used by financial services often makes it harder than it needs to be, and that needs to change.

Because for most people, understanding finance is hard enough.

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88% of British adults don’t have confidence in their financial literacy. Eighty-eight per cent. And do you know how many UK adults would pass a basic financial knowledge test? Just half.

There’s more.

55% of working-age adults say they don’t understand enough about pensions to make confident decisions. It’s a similar story down under, where half of all Australians struggle with financial literacy. At the same time, in South Africa, you guessed it, there are significant gaps in understanding basic financial concepts.

That’s a lot of people scratching their heads - or maybe even burying them in the sand - when they start to think about money.

And that’s a lot of people probably missing out on all the good that the financial services industry can do - something we talk about in episode two of the Upfront podcast: ‘Mind your language’.

Guests Charlie Corbett and Julia Newbould said that financial services have a massive opportunity to help more people understand all the great things they have to offer, but the language of financial services needs to change. Listen in full here.

From that episode, we’ve got some Upfront advice on how financial services businesses can instantly become more approachable, accessible, and infinitely more engaging.

ASPIRE TO SIMPLICITY

‘Finance is actually simple. It’s only been made complex by language’ says Charlie, a plain language evangelist and founder of the Plain Speaking Institute in the UK. He told the Upfront podcast that financial services need to stop ‘hiding behind complex language’ and make what people are dealing with easier to understand. When consulting businesses, his advice to companies is to ‘aspire to simplicity’. That, for example, means making bullet points bullets, not paragraphs and asking yourself, ‘have I said this in the most concise way possible?’ But his advice comes with a warning. While it’s easy to think about being simple, all it takes is for one meeting for people to fall back into using jargon, so watch out.

‘Too often in business we put on our waffle hat’, says Charlie, who keeps a list of overused business buzzwords he’d like to see banned (check out his ‘quadrant of shame’ here) - so many that he’s made a book of them.

BE HUMAN

Both Charlie and Julia told the Upfront podcast that they would like financial services to be more human and stop talking in their own language. It’s the first rule of good writing, says Charlie - ‘to speak like a human being’.

And here’s the science bit: the human brain switches off when it reads a word it doesn’t understand. So, to keep people switched on to you and their finances, use the same language they would. But wait - this doesn’t mean you have to get down with the kids. Forget ‘ridiculous marketing segments’ like millennials or Gen-Z says Charlie: ‘speak like you and just think of them as human beings who got up that morning, spilt the coffee and got stressed out. Don’t send them an email when they’re going through the bills or busting to get out the door’.

Oh, and lose the jargon.

“Once you’ve made it relevant, you’ve made it interesting.“

HAVE A WORD

Our podcast guests called for the industry to make it easier for people to better understand the great things that financial services can achieve for people. That means getting on the same wavelength as them.

Julia Newbould, former editor of personal finance magazine Money, told Upfront that people just don’t connect with talk about ‘wealth management’ and ‘wealth creation’ and ‘wealth this, wealth that’.

She added ‘‘you’ve got to be able to explain concepts to people in your house, no matter how old or young they are or what kind of educational background they’ve got because they’re real people.’

So if you want to reach and connect with a more diverse audience, take a close look at the words and language you’re using. It’s also good to look at the content and topics your target audience is engaging with on social media; you’ll find the top financial hashtags are all about #financialfreedom #investing and #money - much more relatable, familiar terms for most people.

Just don’t hang about because, according to Julia, the first company that can connect with whatever group they’re trying to connect with will come out on top.

For Charlie, one of the problems with financial communications is that they are just not relevant enough to people - even though financial services are fiercely relevant to everyday life. He said more needed to be done to relate directly to people’s experiences because once you’ve made it relevant, you’ve made it interesting.

GET REAL

Julia echoed his point, saying she would like to see more financial services businesses making finance relevant to people’s everyday lives so that it goes from being finance to becoming life. That, she says, means talking to people in real terms like: ‘Can you afford to send your kids to private school? Can you buy that car? Can you quit work etc.?’

Her advice is to think about the end-user and the importance of finance in their life and to use language and real-life scenarios that they can relate to: ‘Think about who you’re talking to, what their problems are and how you can solve those problems’.

You could also try Charlie’s advice: ‘We’re all just big babies. We need reassurance, we fear for the future, and we love a laugh. Try and hit those buttons’.

ASK THE AUDIENCE

Try as you might to put the customer first, somehow, after meetings, brainstorms and countless approval processes, the customer can get left way behind, and that’s a common problem, says, Julia. Her advice is to ‘Be real about having the customer at the centre of everything. Test things with real people, talk to them and make sure it appeals to them. Don’t just talk to each other.’

And when faced with a monster of a document that’s been around the houses for approval and looks nothing like the one you started with, the advice is to go back to who you’re writing it for.

‘Give it to a real person to read. All it takes is for someone to say, ‘I don’t get this’, then you can go back and put it in plain-speak. Doing this would help the consumer, but it would also help the business.’ says Julia.

And when faced with a monster of a document that’s been around the houses for approval and looks nothing like the one you started with, the advice is to go back to who you’re writing it for.

‘Give it to a real person to read. All it takes is for someone to say, ‘I don’t get this’, then you can go back and put it in plain-speak. Doing this would help the consumer, but it would also help the business.’ says Julia.

THE LAST WORD

Financial literacy is a big problem and, if financial services want to be part of more people’s lives, they have to be part of the solution. Changing the language of financial services will go a long way to helping more people understand and access it - and it’s completely doable.

Unlike other challenges and transformation projects the industry takes on, it won’t require massive budgets or multi-year timeframes. It doesn’t take a special skill-set, and businesses can start making a difference now. With the opportunity to help more people understand the great things financial services can do, starting to fix this most fixable of problems should be - quite literally - simple.

How can financial services be more accessible to everyone?

Share your opinion with us at upfront@iress.com