I got two letters from my bank last week. Looking at them side-by-side showed just how much of a problem an inconsistent tone of voice can be for big business.

One of them was a current account statement. It did its job well enough. It was reasonably well designed and in seconds I knew how much was in my account.

The other letter was a completely different kettle of fish – hard to believe it was from the same organisation. I only had to look at the envelope to know it was trying to sell me something.

It had the look and feel of junk mail. The whole package was printed on cheap and thin paper. Now my bank is one of the richest organisations in Britain. Surely they can afford to make their letters look better than this. Especially when they’re trying to get me to do something – in this case, to buy insurance.

Two-tone

But it wasn’t just the paper that was different between the two. Their tone of voice couldn’t have been further apart.

The statement sounded matter of fact and straightforward. The tone was simple and clear. Here’s how much money you have. End of story. Not particularly warm, but it told me what I needed to know and that was that.

The sales letter, on the other hand, was impersonal, confusing and, to be frank, annoying.

It didn’t talk to me like a normal person would. My statement says ‘Dear Mr Robinson’. Formal, but fine. And correct because that is indeed me.

The sales letter said ‘Dear M J C Robinson’.

That tells you everything. ‘Mr Robinson’ sounds like it’s talking to a real person. ‘M J C Robinson’ sounds like it’s been pulled straight from a database. One among thousands.

The rest of the letter was badly structured. Three or four dense paragraphs explaining why I need to be insured for X,Y and Z. A typeface that was so small and squished together it was hard to read. And contact details buried away, so it wasn’t immediately clear who to call or what to do, even if I had been interested. Poor information design all round. And not a chance of getting me to buy.

I’m sticking with my bank for now. But would I buy anything else from them? Certainly not on the back of the current wave of sales letters they’re sending my way. The poor attention to detail and shoddy quality in these makes me feel less confident about the standards of the bank as a whole. Poor logic, I know, but that’s how the human brain works. And that’s why poor communications are so damaging to big business.

A challenge

Have you had a similar experience with letters or emails from companies you do business with as a customer? Banks, insurance, utilities – you know the ones. We’d bet pretty much everyone reading this blog has. If you’re the exception, then please – prove us wrong.

PS Tale/tail – geddit?