Suitability and syntax – cracking client reports

I’ve worn many (professional) hats. They’ve pretty much all boiled down to creating and communicating products and services. For the most part, to financial advisers and their clients.

I’ve recently tried on a new hat. For the first time, I was the client.

My adviser is fantastic; young (well, younger than me), female (bonus in my book), chartered, uses cash flow modelling, charges fixed fees, is a great communicator and is backed up by slick operations and support. It all adds up to a great experience. I’ve complete confidence in her advice.

Then a strange thing happened. ‘The Report.’

Long and difficult to read, it was at odds with the rest of the experience. Aside from the length the biggest issues were:

  • lots of unbroken text, with the odd table, that made me reach for a stiff drink before starting
  • lots of embedded technical explanation that detracted from the stuff that was important to me
  • syntax that made my head hurt

On the plus side, it was in the 1st person. That was the only thing that stopped it reading like a letter to the head of compliance.

How many advisers excel at verbal communication, build genuine rapport and long term client relationships but are let down by their written stuff?

Two very tangible consequences were:

  • I procrastinated before reading, so I delayed the process
  • one meeting ended up being about the report rather than the report supporting the meeting

Neither of these things were great for me, but they probably weren’t the best for my adviser either. Not when you charge fixed fees, time is money and you have to manage cash flow.

Here’s a thing, what if my report invited me in and I wanted to read it? What if it was easier to understand and we’d been able to spend more time talking about stuff that’s important to me? We got there in the end – but I reckon we could have cut the time considerably.

The FCA has been clear that it’s a fan of easy to understand communication. Suitability must be presented in a ‘clear and accurate manner, comprehensible to the client’. And I’ve written about its paper on Smarter Consumer Communications before.

Writing in plain English makes commercial sense. A Review of literature on product disclosure carried out for the FCA in 2014 found that ‘letters with simplified language were much more effective in convincing doctors to clarify their tax affairs than traditional letters drafted by HMRC.’

All businesses want their clients to do something. Plain English helps drive action. Who knew it?

So, if I was writing my own planning and suitability report from scratch I’d follow some guiding principles.

  • Stick to the client need, recommendations and reasons why in the body of the report.
  • Consign complex, technical explanations to appendices (if you REALLY need them).
  • Use colour and visuals where you can. And I don’t mean just stuffing in lots of graphs.
  • Use plain English. If you do nothing else:
    • ditch passives
    • cap your sentences at 20 words
    • swap Latinate words for nice, simple Germanic ones

Do this and the tone will shift up the scale from abstract and formal to accessible and personal.

If you’re an adviser or paraplanner who’s already cracked great report writing, I’d love to hear what you think.

And if you’re thinking you’d like to do something different with yours, drop me a line and I’m sure we can work some magic.

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