Sian Lewis, from the Data, Insights and Quality team at the Legal Ombudsman, highlights the organisation’s new research into the language of complaints.
When the Legal Ombudsman started operating in 2010, we went to great lengths to ensure that the language we used was simple, plain English and free of ‘legalese’.
Committed to addressing the power imbalance that many service users felt existed between themselves and lawyers, we were almost militant in our approach to eradicating needlessly confusing language and legal phrases from the complaints and investigation process.
However, as time has progressed, customer feedback began to indicate that we weren’t quite getting this right. We were persistently receiving lower satisfaction scores from complainants in response to some of our written communication and began to suspect that while we had had some success in removing a lot of legal jargon from our processes, this had almost been replaced with our own Legal Ombudsman jargon which was ‘seeping’ out in our written and verbal communication.
This was the basis for the research into the language of complaints. We wanted to understand the extent to which the language we use can impact on our complainants’ choices and what impact might this have on the nature and stage of resolution.
Although the research was based on legal complaints, it also focused on terminology and phrases which are frequently used in broader complaint handling, providing valuable lessons for the wider Ombudsman community.
The project, which was delivered by IFF Research, used a qualitative methodology allowing us to capture nuanced feedback on the language of both written and verbal communication used in the complaints process. A series of focus groups, interviews and consultation events were therefore developed with our staff, complainants to the Legal Ombudsman and wider users of legal services to explore the impact of our language in depth and detail.
The use of language is a challengingly subtle issue, which is likely to be affected by an imperfect memory. Stimulus in the form of sample letters, key pages of our website, factsheets and recordings of calls were used to capture feedback on both ombudsman and provider communications, and to keep the feedback as focused and ‘grounded’ as possible.
The research also looked at the language used by legal service providers at the first tier to understand the extent to which it influenced people’s ability to engage at the various stages of the complaints process.
The good news was that, on the whole, our public-facing material was very well received and viewed as being clear and easy to understand.
However, the researchers did highlight a number of key areas where communication could be improved within our complaints process.
There were a few examples of unclear or complicated terms beings routinely used in both the verbal and written materials, which participants felt could be expressed more directly and clearly.
‘Process’ terms in particular were having the opposite effect of confusing complainants’ understanding of the complaints process, with many left confused or unsure what the terms ‘preliminary and provisional decisions’ meant and how they differed to each other.
Furthermore, some of these phrases were felt to be ‘down playing’ the importance of the issue in hand. ‘Informal remedy’, for example was seen to diminish the importance of a customer’s complaint and the term ‘remedy’ was felt to be medicinal and imply that the issue could be ‘made better’, something that some complainants found to be jarring given the impact that the initial issue had had on them.
“It’s not that it makes it better. You could’ve been injured by something [as part of the original issue]. It’s not actually going to make you uninjured. It’s just that you’ll get some money.”
There was also some confusion around our organisational and individual roles, in particular the escalating seniority of job title, from ‘investigator’ via ‘senior investigator’ through to ‘Ombudsman’. For some, this escalation of roles felt intimidating – like having to try to scale an edifice to progress your case – or gave the sense of being ‘owed’ an Ombudsman’s decision. For a handful, this meant they had concluded that the investigator opinion was less valuable. Alongside this, customers and non-customers noted the use of “I” when investigators were explaining how decisions were reached. For some, this undermined the authority of the decision as, if you disagreed, you could try someone else.
“I was just wasting my time with someone who didn’t have any influence anyway, they were just there to shuffle paper about, they don’t have actual influence over a decision, whatever they say can just be rejected by the other party – what’s the point?”
However, the research also highlighted that it is important to strike a balance. While members of the public did not react well to what they deemed deliberately ‘pretentious’, flowery language, at the same time they expected a level of professionalism and as a result casual language was not regarded as appropriate as it undermines the case investigator’s authority.
“You don’t want him to be too pally-pally because then you are going to get the wrong idea of, ‘Yes, he is going to help me. I’m going to win this case.’
While the research confirmed some of our earlier suspicions, it has also challenged some of our preconceptions about what ‘good’ communication looks like to our customers. While commonplace to us, many of the terms and phrases we are routinely using are seen as ‘meaningless jargon’ to our customers, which can not only have an impact on their satisfaction with our service, but may also have a real influence on the outcome of their complaint.
My daughter recently started primary school and as I waded through the piles of letters on school trips and policies, I came across the framework for the early years’ education. This included the phrase that ‘children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners’ needs’. It’s a fundamental skill, which can often be overlooked in the professional world.