Terms and conditions – time to play fair
Liz, January 6, 2017
Yesterday, the UK’s Children’s Commissioner published a report that condemned the “impenetrable” terms and conditions used by online media companies.
We agree that Ts&Cs are very rarely an easy read – but we think that it’s not just kids who don’t understand them.
We think it’s time for all companies to make their terms and conditions easy to understand and – dare we say it – interesting. Here’s why and how…
The Children’s Commissioner’s report was the result of a 12 month study – Growing Up Digital.
During those 12 months, kids were asked what they understood about the services they used – and for example, whether they knew that social media companies could sell images they uploaded onto third parties.
Not surprisingly, the kids the commissioner talked to didn’t read the terms and conditions. The commissioner’s conclusion:
“Impenetrable terms and conditions give social media giants control over children’s data without any accountability.”
But the bigger question here is, does anyone – adult or child – understand terms and conditions?
Has anyone, ever, in any country, anywhere in the world, read through the multiple iTunes updated terms and conditions before they’ve clicked ACCEPT? Of course they haven’t. No-one has the time to do that – and even if they did, most lack the legal understanding to know what they mean anyway.
Terms and conditions are tricky, unsexy communications to deal with. But making them easy and interesting to read is one of the best things you can do to build customer relationships.
We’ve worked with hundreds of organisations to help them improve these kinds of communications, so we know it’s not impossible. In fact, we’re working with a very forward-thinking insurance company at the moment to recreate its entire policy.
In our experience, this is what makes these legal documents the impenetrable mess that the Children’s Commissioner talked about:
The ivory tower of legal teams
Silos are rife in large organisations. And few teams tend to be more distant and “untouchable” than the in-house corporate legal team.
Legal teams are made up of highly intelligent, highly qualified people whose training has instilled in them that their mastery of language is second to none. And when it comes to courtroom communication, that’s probably true. Only highly trained people can skilfully use language as a weapon in our adversarial court systems.
So when corporate lawyers write terms and conditions, they’re rarely thinking about a user’s need to understand them. They’re thinking instead about protecting the company that employs them from risk.
Which means they construct contracts with long, convoluted sentences that are intended to wipe out legal ambiguity – but that leave lay readers bored and baffled. Effectively, they’re writing for other lawyers rather than consumers.
And because they’re the only team that understands what they’re writing and creating, it makes it difficult for other teams in the organisation – say customer experience teams – to influence or bring about change.
If I had a fiver for every time a client said: “We can’t change that, it’s legal,” I’d be living on my own private Caribbean island by now.
Very few companies actually set out to be sneaky. But some do. And if you’re going to be underhand, it’s better if no-one knows what you’re doing. So hiding behind impenetrable language is ideal.
Of course the thing is, if you’re not a sneaky organisation you can easily make it feel like you are – you just need to use complex legal terminology in your Ts&Cs.
That’s just the way it is…
Changing things seems like a lot of effort. In fact, trying to change anything seems doomed to failure.
This is a sentiment we sometimes come across in large organisations. And you can see why it happens. Teams (again, working in silos) have a lot of work on. Too much, often, to know what other teams are doing. Processes are inflexible and changing the way things are done just seems like an insurmountable task.
When it comes to asking legal teams to change, the odds can be stacked against you.
I’m always interested to know if teams that are struggling to bring about change have ever met the legal team. If they have, we stand a much better chance of making the change happen. Quite often, however, the legal team is an almost mythical entity that works from a top floor, doing high-brow, high-level, difficult things That Cannot Be Changed. It’s just the way things are.
There’s also a feeling that anything legal has to be difficult. That’s just the way it is. Well, look. I’ve personally recreated hundreds, if not thousands, of legal documents to make them interesting and easy for end consumers. So no, legal documents don’t have to be difficult. It just takes a little imagination to do them differently.
Clearly, changing terms and conditions and other important documents to make them clear, logical and understandable to end users is often not a walk in the park. But the benefits of doing it differently outweigh the difficulties – and they include:
Greater compliance with regulation
If you work in a regulated industry, it’s not good enough that your legal documents (including Ts&Cs) are accurate. They have to treat customers fairly too – which means they should be pretty easy to get to grips with.
All regulators stipulate that communications should “not be misleading”. But I think a form of “misleading” is “misdirection”. By which I mean that making a document difficult to understand is akin to being told there’s “nothing to see here”. When actually, there’s probably quite a lot for the consumer to be aware of and understand.
I had a conversation with an actuary once who told me: “I’d rather a customer didn’t understand than they were misled.” Honestly, my brain nearly exploded. Because what she meant was that if you couldn’t understand these products, brilliant – because at least you didn’t think they were overpromising.
We’ve got to get away from this thinking – because it isn’t fair. And it doesn’t comply with the spirit of regulation.
More responsible provision and usership
Most of us enjoy social media and the benefits it brings. But few of us fully understand what it is that the social media companies want from us – either in terms of our data or our ideal behaviour online.
And we’re not likely to know this until the social media companies communicate this simply and interestingly.
Communicating terms and conditions clearly is a great boost to any organisation’s brand – and to the quality of its relationships with its clients and customers.
Because when you communicate the “difficult stuff” clearly, you increase trust. You’re also treating your customer as an equal.
If you want to greatly reduce complaints and dissatisfaction – and boost understanding of your products and services both internally and externally – then you need to communicate them in a more straightforward way.
This one sentence in a policy I rewrote a few years ago saved the company I wrote it for an estimated five figure sum in the first year it was used. Why? Because it greatly reduced the number and duration of complaints that cropped up when customers realised their insurance claims weren’t going to be successful. And dealing with complaints – particularly complex complaints – can be costly.
And what will happen if we do nothing?
Well, the Children’s Commissioner is already calling for additional regulation.
But regulation doesn’t solve crappy communications (otherwise we’d be out of a job). What it does is introduce extra layers for companies to go through before they publish anything. In my experience, regulation, more often than not, adds to the complexity of communications, rather than reduces it.
So here’s a plea to the social media giants – sort it out. Making radical changes is achievable.
You’ll likely have to change your culture as well as your literature. You’ll need to get your legal teams to be more democratic and accessible in their language. You’ll need to make your processes more flexible so that everyone in the organisation can “own” communications and improve them.
And if you need help achieving that, remember we’re here – and that we’ve helped countless other organisations to make huge changes in the way they communicate.
Call us on 0800 1223 770.
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