Real people work in banks 

I got into a tiff with one of the telecoms companies. Let’s call it Telco.

I ordered a phone line and paid a year’s rental upfront. An engineer came along four weeks on, and despite the nice-looking sockets on the walls, he worked out there were no phone cables coming into my flat. It turned out a different engineer would need to lay cables from the road. And another would come round to do whatever they do inside your flat. It would take a week.

When a week passed and no one came, I asked for my money back, saying I’d pay it again on the day the line works. But apparently ‘The window for you to ask for a refund closed seven days after you paid.’

Another week, another engineer, yet still no cables. It wasn’t worth Telco’s while to dig up the road. So I cancelled. I was promised a refund within 28 days, then after 28 days within 90 days, then after 90 days – nothing.

So I sued. It was interesting to compare Telco’s Rumpole of the Bailey-style writing with mine.

They would start ‘I acknowledge receipt of the sealed proceedings issued out of Northampton County Court on 20 February 2014.’ And after pacing around, I’d start my reply ‘I have your letter of 28 February.’ Which is a 10-word difference to say more or less the same thing.

I won. I got a cheque in the post and sent it to my bank. But the money didn’t show up in my account, so I emailed.

‘Hello, on 5 April, I posted you a cheque for £191. It hasn’t yet credited my account. How long should this sort of thing take? Thanks’

The bank’s reply read:

‘We’ve checked your account and have no record of the deposit to your account. To investigate this we need to know if the funds have left the paying bank. If they haven’t you’ll need to ask that the cheque is stopped and a new one issued.’

After explaining what info I’d need to get if the cheque has cleared, it ended:

‘We’ll then investigate this for you.’

Lack of commas aside, I like it. For a start, it’s a quick read: the whole email was 128 words (52 are here). Four sentences made up of six to 17 words, which is an average of 13. And I don’t need a dictionary to understand them. Most are short: there are 43 of one syllable, six of two, one of three and only two of four. Yet it doesn’t sound monosyllabic. It sounds like a human wrote it.

Sticklers for plain English might argue that ‘look into’ would have been clearer (and friendlier) than ‘investigate’. But who wants to sound plain? It can come across as dumbing down. Plus, investigate sounds more thorough.

It’s all written in the active voice, making it naturally short. And Word’s readability statistics give it 86.2 for Flesch Reading Ease and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 4.4. Both are good. Back to the email, it’s not far off what I’d have been told if I had phoned, I think, which would have allowed for even more of a personal touch. And best of all I like the contractions.

The slight repetition at the end of the first sentence is passable. It makes the point that the money could be in someone else’s account, without admitting that if it were, the bank would be at fault. (It wasn’t.)

Somehow the bank has permeated its tone of voice right down to the customer services people who reply to emails, or certainly to the one who replied to mine. Unless, of course, it was written by a rogue banker.

Either way, it’s not often I say this: ‘Well done, bank.’

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