ORGANIZATIONS SOLICITED CUSTOMER INPUT ON THEIR NOTICES
Seven of the 10 organizations we contacted received customer feedback
concerning their notices. Some mentioned working hand-in-hand with
local advocacy groups to obtain customer input. The feedback ranged
from focus groups, the most frequently mentioned, to satisfaction
surveys and comment cards. One respondent established an 800 number
specifically for questions or problems concerning letters customers
had received from the company.
Customer input varied and included such suggestions as using simpler
language, avoiding the use of patronizing language, increasing the
use of bullets and lists, and using fewer words and more graphics
in the notices. Respondents stressed that obtaining customer input
before sending out notices enabled them to identify and clarify confusing
material before incurring the expense of mailing notices to customers.
ORGANIZATIONS WERE LEGALLY REQUIRED TO INCLUDE CERTAIN STATEMENTS
IN THEIR NOTICES
SSA is legally required to include certain information in its notices
(e.g., appeal rights must be included.) Eight respondents also reported
being legally required to include certain information in their notices.
These requirements included any and all changes in account history,
pricing and rate changes, credit sources, and appeal rights. One
respondent reported that 99 percent of its notice is made up of language
to satisfy legal requirements. Other respondents explained that legal
requirements varied from case to case.
Some respondents reported meeting legal requirements through the
use of separate fact sheets or attachments. They explained that this
fulfilled all legal requirements while making the notice somewhat
easier to read.
KEY COMMON PRACTICES
Respondents offered many suggestions for simplifying and improving
customer notices. They included:
Limiting Notices to
Seven of the 10 respondents said they kept their notices to one
page or less. They used various methods to do this (e.g., using both
sides of the page, attachments, graphics, etc.). The three respondents
whose notices exceeded one page in length reported that the complexity
of their notices precluded limiting them to one page.
Currently, SSA is not able to limit all of its notices to one page;
however, several SSA task groups are looking for ways to make this
In order to make the notices as brief as possible, all 10 respondents
removed the required complex legal information from the body of the
notices and placed it in attachments. Further, they suggested that
attachments should be no more than one page and on the same size
and type of paper as the notice itself. Many found through surveys
that customers are more likely to read attachments of this type,
rather than folded brochures or other types of fliers.
Some respondents reported using monthly newsletters to inform customers
of legal issues or policy changes that might concern them. Therefore,
it became unnecessary to repeat the policy changes in individual
notices, making them shorter.
SSA is currently looking into a more widespread use of attachments.
Avoiding Confusing Jargon
Respondents repeatedly mentioned using simple, clear language as
a way to clarify notices. Specifically, they recommended writing
in plain English and avoiding the use of professional or agency jargon
which may be foreign and confusing to the customer. Respondents also
mentioned having selected customers test the notices to identify
and clarify any confusing language.
Currently, SSA attempts to avoid confusing jargon while fulfilling
its legal requirements.
When asked to describe methods used to create notices, all respondents
reported obtaining input from their legal departments first to ensure
accuracy of the information being provided. However, more than half
believed it was important to have specialists write the notices to
avoid the technical terminology used by the legal department.
Specialists are those individuals actively involved in the subject
or programmatic area covered by the notice, rather than experts in
the area of writing notices. Specialists would, therefore, be better
versed in any issues that might arise as a result of statements made
in the notice.
Currently, SSA uses teams of notice writers, legal experts, and
specialists to work on its notices.
Identifying a Contact
Another common suggestion was to identify a contact person and telephone
number in each notice. "Customers like the idea of knowing exactly
where to go if they have a problem," explained one respondent.
Those who did not give a specific name and telephone number provided
a general telephone number where customers could obtain assistance.
SSA currently includes its toll-free 800 number on every notice.
Respondents mentioned the use of graphics as an effective tool for
reducing the number of words in a notice without changing the message.
One respondent reported, "Graphics rate very highly in our focus
group testing. Were sending the same exact message, but the
approach is different and the customers prefer looking at the graphs
to reading more words." Customers also preferred the use of
illustrative charts and tables when possible, again with the result
being a decrease in the number of words while maintaining the message.
SSA has not, to date, used graphics in its notices.
Using Bulleted Lists
Another repeated suggestion was the use of bulleted lists, bold
print, and italics to emphasize important parts of the notice and
to clarify the message. Respondents reported that customers find
it easier to have the most important parts of the notice highlighted
with bullets because it gives them a place to focus their attention.
Respondents found that customers appreciate having ". . . everything
boiled down to one clear little list."
SSA routinely uses bulleted lists when appropriate.
Testing Reading Level
Half of the respondents reported testing the reading level of a
notice before it is sent. There are a number of tests available for
this purpose, including the Flesch-Kincaid Index and Gunning Fog
Index. Respondents suggested maintaining a reading level of eighth
grade or lower, and fifth grade if at all possible.
SSA currently maintains a sixth- to eighth-grade reading level on
most of its notices.
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