Clear as mud By David Smith on Dec 6, 2019
Often when I am undertaking a firm review I see documents and emails of advice that are many pages long and contain a wealth of technical jargon and references to legislation and cases. There is no doubt that a lot of work has been done and that the advice is probably right. However, it is likely that it has failed the fundamental test of ensuring that the client has understood the advice and is equipped to decide the appropriate course of action.
All too often clients complain that they don’t understand the verbal and written communications from their accountant, yet most firms pay little attention to how they communicate with clients. Worse still, some accountants believe that long and complex advice is a way to justify their fees and protect them from litigation.
But there are other firms that are realising that their job is not complete unless clients fully understand their advice. These firms are now dedicating resources to improve how they communicate with clients.
Newspapers are written so that they can be understood by 14 year olds. Whilst it may not be necessary to target that standard, simplifying the message for clients should be the objective. Everyone in business today is overloaded with information. By using images and simple, easy to understand language, it is possible to dramatically improve the message conveyed to clients.
Some of the approaches firms have taken to address this issue include:
- Appointing a support person to be the final check before any document is sent to a client. That person checks the basics such as spelling and grammar but is also empowered to reject a document if they can’t understand it.
- Appointing the best writer in the firm to be the creator of best practice templates so that the standards used by the firm are well written.
- Conducting extensive training courses to improve all the team’s writing skills.
- Appointing a dedicated “presentation” word processing team member to take important documents from team members and make them look as attractive as possible.
- Summarising information using charts so that clients can understand their financial position without ploughing through volumes of information.
Consider the typical client who may have multiple entities (companies, partnership, trusts, superfunds and individuals). Many clients struggle to understand the purpose of these entities and how they come together, yet few firms produce an easy to understand report that brings it all together. The Smithink One Page Client Report is just one example of a template with the objective of simplifying the communication of a client’s business affairs.
Perhaps you should consider a “Clarity Audit” of your practice. Select some of your client documents, emails and reports at random and ask a support team member to read them and provide some feedback as to whether it could be easily read and understood.