Improving Customer Communications With Well Designed Debt Letters

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Traditional legalistic demands for payment can be hard to understand and can be less effective at encouraging customers to pick up the phone than plain-language, well-designed letters that incorporate frequently asked questions, and easy, direct payment methods.

Meet regulator requirements

Though not regulated by a body like the Financial Services Authority, debt companies are required to follow debt management codes of practice defined by the Office of Fair Trading. These include, for example, not threatening a debtor with legal action unless you are definitely prepared to follow it through.

Lots of the guidance is, essentially, common sense. Debt companies are required to follow a formal sequence of communications before legal proceedings are necessary. This includes the issuing of a default notice, and giving plenty of advance notice to allow the customer time to consider their options.

Ensure fair debt collection practices

All communications to customers in debt should be fair, lawful and not oppressive. Debtors are often vulnerable, due to the nature of their circumstances. It is therefore particularly important that customer communications clearly explain the situation, and the options available – rather than making inappropriate demands.

Clarity of all parties

Many customers in debt may not be aware of how the debt industry works. Rather than using this naivety to their advantage, debt owners should ensure that they clearly explain who they are, and the sequence of steps that they go through. It is particularly important to be clear about who owns the debt – and therefore who it is that is communicating with the customer.

Customer’s right to dispute

It is also important to remember that though a few consumers might be reckless about their debt, most are not, and may have already taken steps to try to resolve it. Some debts have arisen not as a result of their actions, but as a result of another party’s actions – and in these cases it is important that the customer has the opportunity to dispute, and to make their case.

Polite appropriate language

Words like ‘debtor’ and ‘creditor’, ‘charging orders’, and ‘default notices’ are understood by debt industry specialists and used every day – but to a typical customer it is a new language. Some debt companies use the difficult words to give a legal impression. Though feeling threatened as a result, customers just feel confused and inadequate because they don’t understand the fundamental message in the communication.

Empathise but don’t sympathise

Though not necessarily wanting to sympathise with a customer’s circumstances, it’s important to empathise, so that the customer recognises that you are trying to see the situation from their perspective – this will encourage them to pick up the phone and discuss their case – rather than bury their head in the sand and ignore it.

The customer may be a victim

Bear in mind that the customer’s debt may well be one aspect of a much larger set of circumstances – the debt may have arisen due to a recent redundancy, for example, or even as a result of another person’s actions. It’s vital to bear this in mind when communicating so that the customer has the opportunity to explain: offering helpline support, and pointing customers towards advice bureaus for example.

Be pro-active but also aware of customer’s context and surroundings

Getting through to customers is hard – have you got the right address, is it better to text message them or email, rather than send a ‘red’ letter? It’s important to use all the tools available to encourage the customer to take note – but it’s also important to bear in mind the context of your communication, and maintain confidentiality, for example. If your letter’s debt message is visible through a window envelope, could someone else read it? And if you call a customer on a landline, give them the option to call back on their mobile.

Key design tips

The layout of debt letters can be used effectively to

Optimise your print capability

Get your message across effectively.

Many letter printers have the ability to print in more than one colour. Letters in the early debt cycle can use colours like blue and yellow to effectively highlight the call to action. Save red for later in the cycle to draw attention to the importance of the situation.

Laying out your letters so that the main lines of text are about 10 to 12 words long makes text easier to read. This follows readability research. Don’t layout your debt communications using long lines of small text – make sure the font is readable, keep the message concise, and if you have more to say, point customers to your web site, or include it on the back.

BoagMcCann is the UK’s leading independent information design consultancy based in Wardour Street, in London’s creative heart. It has developed significant expertise in the writing and design of appropriate and effective customer communications to people in debt. For more information about debt letter design visit

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