Writing empathy

Do big brands pass the empathy test with their communications?


Empathy is how you connect with customers. So the language and behaviour experts at Schwa created a test to measure empathy in big businesses’ writing. Here’s what they found, and how it can help you.

4th Oct 2021

We had a hunch that the businesses with the best customer service were probably also the best at writing with empathy. We wanted to put this to the test. So we created a way of measuring empathy in business writing. And we used it to unpack the simple ways your business can communicate better with the customers who most need your support.

Writing with empathy should be easy (and it is, with a few practical tips)

We find it easy to be empathetic in our day-to-day lives (well, most of us do) – when a friend or colleague is sad, upset or scared, we effortlessly know how to be understanding and supportive. So it’s not a skill many of us need to learn – it’s just one that’s easy to lose sight of in the fog of a business context.

That’s why we chose to try out our test on an industry not exactly renowned for empathy: big banks.

Big banks are heavily regulated. They know there’ll be lawyers and regulators scrutinising every word they write. So they often focus too much on what their legal tick-boxes need, and not enough on what their customers need. That’s when their natural sense of empathy gets lost. But even in the legalese world of banking, empathy can shine through.

We analysed online comms from eight banks of varying rankings in Which’s best banks for customer service. These comms covered:

  • Complaints policies.
  • Replies to complaints on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Bereavement.
  • Covid-19 web pages.
  • Apology statements on news websites.

We found five ways to measure empathy

We based on them on what we see in our clients’ most empathetic messages.

  1. Having a clear structure. An intuitive structure makes a message easy to read and understand at-a-glance. Subheadings, drop-down menus and step-by-step guides bring the most important information to the reader’s eyes first.
  2. Focusing on 'you' more than 'we'. If you're talking about yourself, the chances are you’re not thinking about your reader. Businesses often spend a little too long guessing how people feel, using phrases like – we know what a difficult time this must be, and we want to make it as easy as possible, so we’ve introduced a 10-step process… But the most empathetic writers get practical, using plenty of ‘you’ to focus squarely on the things readers need to know and do.
  3. Having no obvious cut-and-paste. We can all spot template replies a mile off – especially on social media. They feel impersonal, dismissive and often unhelpful.
  4. Keeping the process simple. It doesn’t matter how good your writing is if you’re giving customers too many hoops to jump through. Making a process as simple as possible for the customer shows you can empathise with them.
  5. Scoring high on readability. When our minds are frazzled from stressful situations, we need messages to be accessible and easy to read. Microsoft Word has a tool for checking readability – it looks at lengths of words, sentences and paragraphs, as well as the percentage of active (rather than passive) phrasing.

The results: not to brag, but… our theory was bang on the money

The best banks in Which’s survey for customer service were our top scoring banks for empathy too: First Direct, Monzo and Metro Bank. Our top scorer, First Direct, was the only bank in our selection to get a 5-star rating for communication in Which’s survey.

which results

Schwa scores

First Direct, Monzo and Metro Bank took the medals in our test, and hit the top of the Which customer service test too. Coincidence?

But none of these banks passed our test with flying colours – the top score was only 6.6 out of 10.

So let’s have a look at where certain banks aced our test and others fell flat.

Readability: It’s the icing, not the cake

Banks that flunked our test tended to use legalese, process-driven language. RBS, for example, asked customers to use their ‘digital notification service’, whereas others simply said ‘let us know online’.

But readability only tells you so much.

Some banks (like Santander) had high readability, but tended to waffle a bit. CitiBank kept it concise, but with low readability and a cold tone. Monzo got it right by staying both succinct and readable.

santander monzo


Santander proves you can have decent readability, but still lack empathy by making things too long and complicated.

Want to know how much your bank cares? Check their complaints page

Some banks are oddly defensive and egotistical when it comes to complaints. Some seem to belittle readers by implying there must be something wrong with them if they think they’ve had poor service.

Metro Bank’s complaints page, for example, makes it all about them. They reframe complaints as ‘feedback’ and describe their own customer service as ‘outstanding’ (on the one page you wouldn’t be visiting if you’d found this to be true).



Metro Bank scored well on our test. But their complaints page lacks empathy.

First Direct excels with their complaints page – by being friendly, humble and keeping it brief.

First Direct


If you’re unhappy with First Direct, they’re not too proud to believe they might have messed up.

Less is usually more empathetic

We were on the lookout for confusing structures and daunting processes. And when it came to messages about Covid-19, we found lots of needlessly long and complex writing.

Here’s TSB using about 200 words to say: “You can still visit our branches if you need us, but be sure to check our opening times first.”



This text-wall from TBS is far more complicated than it needs to be.

Again it’s First Direct that gets it right. It’s clear, concise and structured around the reasons a customer would be likely to visit the page.

first direct


First Direct cuts the waffle – keeping the message focused and practical.

For empathetic writing, follow your instincts

Banks are far from the only ones
with empathy shortages or customer service problems.

We’ve helped loads of big businesses craft the right comms for sensitive situations – with good writing and a bit of behavioral science. So it’s no surprise our hypothesis turned out to be right.

If you keep an eye on the five things we measured in our test, your natural instinct for empathy should shine through.

Replies (1)

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Michelle Spaul Customer Experience Consultant
By Michelle Spaul
12th Oct 2021 17:26

brilliant study and report, Hannah. Thank your for sharing.

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