How does not using plain language cost firms and workers money? I had a first-hand experience with a global firm that showed me exactly how.
A few weeks ago, I did a one-time (non-editing) job for a huge global company. Its website says it has over 1,300 staff, plus 1,900 suppliers like me around the world.
Their official onboarding instructions were in an email and 13-page handbook. The handbook mostly explained what services suppliers like me provide and concluded with a few lines of how to submit my invoice.
Additional instructions about getting myself registered in their system and submitting invoices were in the 408-word email.
- The ideal scenario
- What actually happened
- A waste of resources for the company (and me)
- Problem point & possible solutions
The ideal scenario
I think the company’s ideal scenario was:
- I fill out two forms attached to the email (a US tax declaration and my banking details).
- They register me in the system.
- I submit an invoice (form also provided—this was easy).
- They would pay me.
What actually happened
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite so smoothly.
- The email was vague about which forms I was supposed to return.
- The list of documents in the email didn’t match what was attached.
- The instructions for the US tax form didn’t match the tax form.
So our email conversation went like this:
Me 🦹♀️: Can you please confirm what I’m supposed to send back and how do I fill out the US tax form?
Them1 👨💻: Here are the answers.
Me: Thank you!
Me to Them1: Here are my forms.
Me to Them1: And here’s my invoice.
My colleague 👸: You sent it to the wrong person. And you have to make the subject say this.
Me to colleague: Oops! Didn’t note that when I read the handbook because it wasn’t relevant at that moment.
Me to Them2 👩💼: Here’s my invoice.
Them2: You’re missing a supplier number. Please contact Them1.
Me to Them2: Them1 said in the first email I don’t need a supplier number the first time.
Them2: You do.
Them1: Let me explain what I meant.
Me to Them1: Thanks. So do I need to do anything?
Them1: We need your two forms.
Me to Them1: I already sent them to you a week ago…but here they are again. Please confirm receipt.
Me to Them1: Did you receive them this time?
Them1: Yes. We’re processing them.
Me to Them1: Great. Do I need to do anything else?
A waste of resources for the company (and me)
For this routine process, both sides wasted time just because the instructions weren’t clear.
I suppose I could’ve read all instructions more carefully. But like many people—like many of you!—I was busy with a full load of demands on my working hours. And I wanted to get through the admin for this side job quickly.
⯈ A little calculation of dollars wasted
So how much are the unclear instructions costing the company?
Let’s say Them1👨💻 spent an extra 45 minutes answering my questions and Them2👩💼 spent 15 minutes. That’s 1 hour of wasted time dealing with me, one supplier.
Now imagine doing that for 1,900 suppliers. Or let’s say only 950 of us got lost. If staff spent 1 extra hour on each of us, that’s 950 staff hours wasted.
Even if they were being paid US minimum wage (I’m sure they make more than that!), that’s USD 6,890 wasted in answering unnecessary inquiries.
I won’t even mention the pain on my side as a solopreneur and what that time costs me.
Bottom line? Not using plain language costs companies money.
Problem point & possible solutions
I’m not being paid to give feedback on this company’s processes. But if they wanted to cut down on waste, here are some things they could consider. (There may be other organizational things going on, but I’ll stick to the plain language issues.)
⯈ Problem: The instructions are unclear.
The root problem is that the instructions to me, the supplier, are confusing.
- The instructions aren’t in one place—some bits are in a handbook, others in an email.
- There is no timeline. Both the handbook and email mentioned several time limits (48 hours, 72 hours, 45 days) related to the invoice but I couldn’t keep them straight.
- There’s too much information I don’t need.
- The information is in dense text.
⯈ Possible solutions
✓ Put all the instructions in one document.
Basic of all basics. Don’t make people look for important instructions in different places.
✓ Keep instructions short. Focus on the action.
All I want to know is what action I have to take by when. I don’t care what processes they have on their side.
✓ Make the information scannable.
That means grouping information in a meaningful way and using subheadings that I can scan to quickly find the info I need at that moment.
✓ Word the instructions so it’s about “you” and “we.”
🗙Once all signed documents have been received, they will then be reviewed for completion. During this process it is important to respond to any correction requests within 48 hours.
✓ When we receive your signed documents, we will check that they are complete. Please reply within 48 hours if we ask you for more details.
✓ Design the information.
For example, use a timeline so I know when I have to take each action.
Don’t give me big blocks of text with italics, bolds, underlines. Too much formatting is distracting, not helpful.
(Even if you don’t have a professional designer, there’s still plenty that non-designers can do.)
While it’s not fun dealing with this kind of thing, it was a good lesson to me how plain language matters!
Conclusion: Plain language will save you money. And make you more credible in the eyes of your clients and suppliers.