I know, I know. Boring. But I promise, if you’re a customer experience person, this is something you should really care about. Just give me five minutes to explain why.
Or four minutes and 42 seconds, maybe. That’s the average amount of time people spend reading terms and conditions, according to some research we did last year.
It’s not nearly enough time to read them in full, by the way – our research also told us the average set take 28 minutes to plough through, and some monster sets could take up to three days. But still, it disproves the commonly held view that nobody reads them at all.
The problem is that a lot of Ts&Cs are awful: endless pages of impenetrable legalese written for other lawyers, not normal people. (Many of the ones we looked at had the same readability score as the Harvard Law Review.)
Apple’s terms and conditions for its streaming service Apple Music have ballooned to over 20,000 words, or approximately 100 minutes reading time for the average customer.
That makes for a pretty rubbish experience for customers at a crucial moment in your relationship. And it means that an awful lot of people are agreeing to terms they haven’t fully understood.
The stick and the carrot
All this hasn’t escaped the notice of the regulators. Last year the FCA urged financial businesses to sort their terms out: ‘Terms and conditions (T&Cs) typify consumers’ concerns about information complexity and overload. We encourage the industry, working with relevant stakeholders, to focus on bringing about improvements in T&Cs.’
But, clearly, progress hasn’t been fast enough, and now the Government’s on the case. They’ve recently opened a public consultation into how to make Ts&Cs more user friendly. And they’re proposing to fine companies whose terms don’t fit the bill.
So that’s the stick. What’s the carrot?
Well, we think your Ts&Cs are an opportunity to show your customers what you’re all about. To surprise and impress them. To show you care about them enough to make sure they know what they’re signing up to. And in a world where most Ts&Cs are a turgid mess, write yours well and you’ll stand out a mile.
Our advice? Don’t sort your small print out because the government says you have to. Do it for your customers. And do it now.
1. Give them some personality
You’ll often hear people saying how important it is to make terms and conditions clear and simple. Which is definitely a good thing to aim for, and a distinct improvement on the usual strangulated legal-speak.
Why stop there, though? See your Ts&Cs as an opportunity to get your brand’s personality across. Like O2 did when they changed the bland, ubiquitous ‘tickets are subject to availability’ to: ‘When they’re gone, they’re gone.’
It’s the unexpectedness that sticks in people’s minds: clever ads are ten a penny, but relatively few companies bother to reflect their brand in their small print.
A word of warning, though: half-measures won’t cut it. We saw some Ts&Cs recently for a competition run by a drinks brand. They’d made the odd cheeky gag (for example, if you try and cheat, they’ll ‘probably tell your mum’). But the terms were also full of stock phrases like ‘no correspondence will be entered into’ and ‘no alternative prizes will be offered’. This is disconcerting for customers – is it the warm, friendly brand that’s talking to them, or their slightly uptight lawyers?
2. Keep them short
There’s a tendency to include everything but the kitchen sink in Ts&Cs ‘to cover ourselves’. Yet the FCA says there’s ‘no compelling evidence that this [is] a successful risk-mitigation strategy’.
Bombarding the customer with information they might need could distract them from the really vital stuff. Better to think about what the customer really needs to know, and stick to that.
(The government consultation is proposing that companies should be able to fit their terms and conditions across two smartphone screens. That seems a pretty good rule of thumb to us.)
3. Don’t make them feel legal
Things like numbered paragraphs and surprising smatterings of capital letters (‘We will notify You as soon as possible, and You will have the right to cancel your Order’) can feel intimidating, or just look plain odd. (We’ve even seen some rather shouty Ts&Cs written entirely in caps.) And even though Ts&Cs often get called ‘the small print’, there’s no reason why they can’t be in a normal font size, either.
Breaking your Ts&Cs up with headings will make them much easier to digest, and headings are a great place to get a bit of personality across. Some brands, like LinkedIn, are even doing little summaries at the start of each section (though we’d still question whether they really need all the detail afterwards).
Make sure there’s plenty of white space – massive, dense paragraphs are incredibly off-putting.
And here’s a radical thought: the very phrase ‘terms and conditions’ is, let’s face it, a real buzzkill (frankly, I’m surprised you’ve read this far). So try calling them something else. Like LV, who instead say ‘Important things you need to know when using LV.com’.
4. Keep an eye on your readability score
Try running your Ts&Cs through a readability checker (such as ours). If score languishes around the 30 to 40 mark, chances are your customers are struggling to understand them.
We’d recommend aiming for a score of around 65: that’s about the same as the BBC website. Shortening sentences and using more everyday language instead of legalese will go a long way to making your terms more readable.
5. Make friends with your lawyers
We’ve written a lot of small print in our time, and worked alongside a lot of legal and compliance departments to get them signed off. Getting them on side first (for example, by running through your brand’s tone of voice with them) will help you avoid sign-off hurdles.
Actually, in our experience, legal types are usually really open to making terms and conditions easier to understand – as long as the rewrite means the same as the original. In other words, they’re more concerned about what the terms say rather than how they say it. Which means brand and customer experience people have more of a free rein than they think to give their small print an overhaul.
As Jos Sclater, general counsel at GKN, puts it: ‘I’m trying to get my legal team not to think of contracts as just legal documents. They’re not. They’re often the first expression of the sort of relationship you want with your supplier or customer. So if that document is complicated and defensive, it suggests that’s what your company’s like, too.’
Laura Carus is a creative director at The Writer, the world’s largest language consultancy. She helps big companies find their tone of voice, and writes everything from CEOs’ speeches to small print. Follow her on Twitter @laurakcarus.