Why banks don’t write in English

By Felix Salmon
December 8, 2010

This is why I can’t wait for the arrival of BankSimple, or at the very least for some kind of concerted effort to require banks to communicate in English. It’s a letter I just got in the mail from Citi:

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Why do banks tell their customers to read such stuff carefully, when it’s incomprehensible no matter how carefully you read it? For one thing, it makes no sense unless you’ve retained your Checking Plus (variable rate) Account Agreement and Disclosure, and nobody does that. (Incidentally, the Agreement and Disclosure is not available online: I looked.)

So in a fit of masochistic perversity, I decided to do what I was told, and call Customer Service to ask them what on earth this notice meant. It took a while to get a human, of course: I had to type in my social security number, and then my PIN, and then my ATM card number, and then another PIN, which was apparently wrong, and then my mother’s maiden name, and then the last four digits of the social security number I typed in at the beginning. At which point I was told that “at this time we are experiencing heavy call volume” (it was 11pm), before Ricky answered the phone and asked for my ATM card number (again), and my date of birth, and the last four digits of my social security number (for the third time), and for the date of letter. Then, finally, he put me on hold.

Eventually, Ricky came back to tell me that he was talking to his colleague but that he’d worked out that “you have a change in the rate that the account is set at”. He went away again, came back, said “All right sir, you still with me?” — and then we were disconnected, 16 minutes into the call.

Naturally, since I am clinically insane, I called back. ATM card number, mother’s maiden name, 0 for operator, 1 for questions about accounts, 1 again, “all of our associates are currently servicing other clients, and we are experiencing long call delays”, “thank you for holding”, and finally I get James. Who actually answers my question!

“All the letter is letting you know,” James told me, “is that previously, if the prime rate would change during a cycle, your interest rate would change during that cycle and we would backdate it to the whole cycle. Now, whatever the prime rate is on the first business day of the month, that rate will stay in effect the whole month.”

A simple explanation, in plain English, from someone who clearly understood what he was saying, and who could explain it a few different ways if I didn’t understand it the first time.

Citibank clearly employs people with brains, even to answer phones at 11pm on a Tuesday night. So how come it’s apparently beyond their abilities to write letters in plain English in the first place? I didn’t ask James that, but he volunteered the information anyway: “Everybody’s getting one of these,” he said. “It took us quite a long time to get an explanation of what it meant.”

In other words, that language about “if you have any questions, please call Customer Service” wasn’t put there to be helpful, since no one bothered to inform Customer Service about the changes before the letter went out. It was just put there as standard boilerplate, and was put in, I’m sure, by the same person who decided that if you’re telling customers about a change in terms, you shouldn’t say what the old terms were, thereby making it impossible to work out what the change is.

The myriad ways in which banks extract money from their customers are well known. But why are they so dreadful at communication when it comes to perfectly anodyne announcements like this? Maybe it’s just so that if and when a less anodyne announcement arrives in my mailbox, I won’t even try to read it. Maybe it’s just that there are far too many lawyers floating around in a bank which was brought to its knees by the leadership of its former general counsel. Or maybe it’s simply that no one cares, not when the number of banks communicating in English is zero. But I suspect that the real reason is that information asymmetry is so ingrained in banking culture that these notices are treated as a regrettable legal necessity, rather than an opportunity to actually communicate something germane. Is it possible to change that culture? I have my doubts.

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