If you work in London, or are a periodic visitor like me, and travel by tube, you’ll be well aware at the moment of a publicity campaign being run by Royal Mail, to promote the continuing benefits of what we nowadays nickname “Snail Mail”, in the digital age.
This represents the culmination of an in-depth study that Royal Mail’s marketing division carried out, to see what the receipt of post means to us as a nation. This is not just looking at how we read it, but what we do with it, how it changes our perceptions, the emotions it generates etc.
The conclusion, not surprisingly, is that post as a medium of communication is still alive and thriving. Royal Mail then makes the point that communicating by letter still has a part to play in marketing campaigns.
All of this got me thinking about the financial services industry. As much as it embraces the digital age wherever possible, if we need to communicate key messages to our customers, then sending a letter or a pack of materials through the post is still largely the way to go.
The art of letter writing
If you’re not sure, think about your own experiences within your firms. When was the last time you had to send out a key message about a change or initiative to some or all of your customers? And for that initiative, how did you communicate your messages to them? For many of you, I bet the answer was by post.
I know this is true, because I think of all the communications I receive by post concerning my own insurance and pensions. Everything from routine correspondence such as renewal notices, policy schedules and pension benefit statements. But also, ad hoc messages, such as notices to restructure investment funds or transfer of insurance business to another company.
The reason for this? Primarily I believe it’s not a question of technological constraints. Rather, because as an industry, we still haven’t got to the bottom of how to communicate with our customers electronically without satisfactorily mitigating the security and privacy risks. And the larger the firm, the bigger this issue will be. Plus the fact that not all of our customers will have access to computers and the internet.
So communication by post appears to be still extremely relevant today – for now at least. And Royal Mail has been very clever in reminding us of that fact.
So, if as an industry, we will continue to communicate with our customers by post, that means we have to write letters to them. What could be simpler than that?
The answer is actually quite a few things, because in a heavily-regulated industry such as ours, there are a number of factors that need to be taken into account before pen can be put to paper (figuratively speaking).
There are regulatory requirements to meet
A number of communications will need to follow strict regulatory requirements, and these will always need to be the starting point where applicable. A good example is the pre-retirement communications that need to be sent to pension customers. These communications themselves are mandated by regulation, and this even goes so far as to say they must be presented in a “durable medium”, which in practice means by post unless customers can be given a downloadable file addressed to them.
In addition to which, there are a number of core messages that need to be communicated. So that’s your starting point.
Generating the right outcome
If a communication requires customers to take a specific course of action, this must be presented in the right way, so that customers understand what they have to do and why. This can be something of an art form, often requiring complex technical concepts to be presented in plain language. Add to this the requirement to comply with the FCA’s Principle 7 – communicating with customers in a clear, fair and not misleading fashion, and this can be quite a challenge sometimes.
And not forgetting marketing
For firms that use letters as a means of direct marketing, there’s also the added pressure of complying with the financial promotions rules laid down by the FCA. This is an area where the FCA has been extremely active of late, and has taken multiple enforcement actions against firms for persistent shortcomings in controls around promotions.
Getting it right
What all this means is that in an age where postal communication is still alive and kicking, firms need to make sure their communications are up to scratch, not just to help the business but to stay on the right side of the regulators too.
But good communications are only as good as the people who produce them; and that’s where good training comes in.
What are communication skills?
These can cover a number of areas; from how to overcome objections, how to deal with difficult customers, how to communicate confidently in challenging situations and how to give and receive feedback, to name but a handful. But the ability to communicate clearly in writing is absolutely fundamental to maintaining a firm’s reputation and arguably is as important as verbal communication skills for that reason. Especially as this skill doesn’t just apply to big mailing exercises. It also applies every time someone in the firm writes a letter; whether it’s responding to a complaint, sending out a contract note or answering a policy query.
The regulators expect firms to demonstrate skill and professionalism in their written communications. And this is one of those areas where external training and the benefit of communications specialists can be particularly useful.
So as long as the drop of an envelope onto a doormat has its place in the communications mix, firms need to make sure that the training needs of staff are taken care of adequately. This is one of the many areas where Industry Events Online can help.
By Martyn Oughton a Professional Member of the International Compliance Association (ICA). Martyn now writes a regular blog for Industry Events Online focusing on the importance of training in all aspects of compliance. Read Martyn's other publications at Martyn's Writers' Residence website.
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