What Should a Bank Sound Like?

I love my mobile banking app.

When I sign in from my New York office, it greets me with a cheery “Good Afternoon,” with a backdrop photo of nearby Washington Square Park. In San Francisco last month, it wished me “Good Evening,” against a nighttime photo of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sure, I can check my balance and transfer money. But I expect to be able to do that. What’s memorable is that this very large bank has managed to add a personal touch to such a straightforward transaction.

The personal touch matters, now more than ever. There was a time when consumers knew tellers and loan officers as real people. In the digital world, though, banks are now competing against a growing group of non-traditional providers like PayPal or Venmo. These days, a personal touch is usually not a matter of a familiar face in a branch. All you’ve got are a few seconds of screen time, a few words your customers are scrolling through. It comes down to what you say — and just as importantly, how you say it.

Talking among friends

For a bank to thrive online, it has to create meaningful conversations with its customers about life’s big financial decisions. But you can’t have a conversation if we’ve tuned you out. A lot of retail banks talk about how they’re ‘customer-friendly’, even though no friend would use the language we see in a typical mortgage application, bank statement, or credit card letter. If you asked a friend for a bit of money advice over a coffee, how would you feel if they turned round and answered, “My proposed risk allocation model is designed to help you look beyond the traditional portfolio model.

You might protest, “we have to sound like that because the FHA/FDIC/FCRA requires it,” but I don’t buy it. For one thing, regulators have been pushing banks to be simpler and more straightforward, so customers know where they stand.

Technology magnifies the problem

These days, people often read a letter from their bank on the same phone or tablet they use for mobile banking. So when a stiff, formal message is only a swipe away from a friendly app, people notice – and it makes them doubt your brand’s broader message.

It’s ironic, because our growing preference for omni-channel shopping actually plays to legacy strengths. Banks have some natural advantages relative to the upstarts, because they have the resources to give us the always-on experience we demand. And when you sound the same across products and channels, you subtly reinforce the messages customers want to hear most: “We’re stable. We’re trustworthy. We’re convenient.”

The truth is, it’s an easy fix

Just change the way you write. We all want the same thing: information that’s understandable to normal humans, not just financial experts. Small print that explains clearly where we stand, and doesn’t make us feel like a sneaky lawyer is looking for a loophole. Banks are poised to win if they can just learn to get these things across in a more human way.

One of our clients, a major bank, recently rewrote some customer service letters to make them easier to follow. After they simplified the language and the structure, the number of people who responded soared. In fact, the response rate was about ten times higher than they’d expected. Frequently, customers are perfectly happy to do what you want – once they understand what you’re telling, asking, or offering them.

Balancing ‘brief’ and ‘intimate’ isn’t easy. And it’s true that writing clearly and simply isn’t always simple to do. But it’s a heck of a lot simpler (and cheaper) than most technology projects, and it may do more to shape our attitudes, too. Sometimes big problems just need simple solutions.


Anelia heads up The Writer’s US office. Her thoughts and words have appeared in books, newspapers, design annuals, magazines, blogs, and up the sides of Guinness bottles. She was foreman of the Writing for Design jury at the 2014 D&AD Awards.

Written by Anelia Varela