Opinion

The stimulus America needs: trust

Public trust in businesses is rock bottom. Simplicity will win it back.

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In an effort to rebuild decades worth of lost trust, President Obama has called for transparency and openness in government. And a good thing too, as the intensity of consumer distrust is at the highest I've seen it in the past 30 years.

A survey of 1,200 adults we conducted this month reveals that trust in banks, mortgage lenders, and brokers has plunged nearly 40 percent in one year. Moreover, 63 percent of those surveyed feel that these businesses flagrantly make things more complicated in order to hide real risks. So how can businesses rebuild trust amid today's global economy, deceptive propositions, double talk, and disclaimers?

They need to incorporate clarity and simplicity into their programs and communications. Corporations need to do more than improve governance and raise capital. They have to speak plainly to their constituencies. It is time to come out from behind unintelligible language.

Consider how one bank explained its "Simplicity card": "All your APRs may automatically increase up to the Default APR if you default under any Card Agreement that you have with us because you fail to make a payment to us when due…"

With effort, you might have gotten the gist behind the happy sounding card and the thick language: Make a late payment on any card at the bank, and the bank will slam you with increased interest rates.

Can this kind of behavior possibly foster trust?

Government is just as guilty. Every spring, Americans are forced to face the challenge of filing taxes – an odious and emotionally charged ordeal that only alienates citizens and further weakens the bonds of civic trust.

In the poll I cited, Americans say that they are primed to demand simpler, more open practices and communications. The problem is, individual Americans have never stepped up to the plate.

Think of the times all of us just go ahead and pay phone bills we can't decipher, suffer higher credit card fees for reasons we don't understand, or stash puzzling healthcare bills in the drawer – unread. Giving up because we can't understand something only encourages companies to underserve and deceive us.

Why tolerate overly complex, confusing propositions at all? Why do we allow organizations to bury basic terms of their business in technical jargon?

Years ago, I wrestled with lawyers to transform pages of caveats and codicils into a simple loan note. In the end, my team distilled 250 tangled words to this one sentence: "If you don't pay on time, you will be in default, and we will take legal action against you." This is how trust is built, not by hiding behind legalese.

There are a few companies who do retain loyal customers with fair and open treatment. One online bank's "privacy policy" is not pages of thick wording. Instead, it states plainly, "We will not give or sell your private information to anyone." This is clear – and blessedly in tune with consumer wishes.

Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple, has used simplicity as a competitive weapon, turning his company into a citadel of simple, engaging design. Warren Buffett, the world's most successful investor, explains his company's strategy in ordinary words in an annual report that thousands read for wisdom and pleasure.

I have worked with major corporations, government agencies, and not-for-profits to simplify every conceivable type of contract and document. There are wonderful models of communications that prove simplicity is possible – and research confirms the enormous benefits for companies and consumers. We just need to follow these models.

Today's crisis may hold this silver lining: It may be the catalyst for a broad demand for transparent services and simple, understandable communications. Eighty-five percent of us, according to our recent poll, are more likely to do business with companies that communicate in plain English.

So let's make it happen. Refuse to do business with any organization that violates your need to know and understand – and support measures that simplify practices across all agencies and all industries. If we the people show resolve, then an era of simpler services can be launched.

It's hard to hoodwink people if your practices are transparent. By standing up, we will spur an era of honesty. On top of that, businesses will be easier to manage thanks to clear strategies clearly communicated and employees who understand their own services. And customers will be less inclined to complain.

Openness strengthens relations among people. Transparency fosters trust. Americans' mistrust of their institutions will persist long after this crisis unless we keep it simple.

Alan Siegel is chairman and CEO of Siegel+Gale, one of the world's premier strategic brand consulting firms. Mr. Siegel specializes in simplification and plain English writing in business communications.

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