THE BLOG

If You Are Going to Threaten People to Pay Their Bill...

20/02/2014 13:24 GMT | Updated 22/04/2014 10:59 BST

Regardless of what anyone says, language is very important and getting the right words in the right order can make all the difference in the world. And this is why when I received two similar letters in the same envelope from my energy company informing me of a 'notice to terminate' both my gas and electricity, I was initially slightly flabbergasted considering the relevantly small amounts involved and the fact this was the first 'red letter'.

As an self employed person, cash flow is the bane of my life and so while I acknowledge I did not have enough money in the account when they tried to take the money, I was not quite expecting the letters I received. Both letters asked me to pay immediately but considering the letters for dated a week before I was reading them, I kind of wondered if technically it was already too late and some bad people were already on their way to cut off my gas and electricity in the middle of winter! I was already seeing the headlines and I could milk the fact I have cerebral palsy to the local media to cause a great deal of bad publicity for the company.

Now let me make it clear, I understood that in reality they were not actually going to cut off my gas and electricity at that very moment, and the letter was designed to shock me into paying my bill as the first stage of a long series of letters and phone calls. However, if I am being threatened, I do very much expect the threats to be legally accurate. The letters were not 'notices of termination' but 'notices of the intention to terminate'. The former is telling me they have already decided to terminate the services and there is really no point paying them since they have already made up their mind, the later informs me of their intentions if specific actions on my part is not carried out, eg paying them.

I have often played this game of David and Goliath with many organisations because their size does not necessarily make them right. But you may be wondering why I think getting a few words wrong is a big deal? Well, people who are struggling financially are more likely to be emotionally vulnerable and therefore if they read a letter that makes them believe that their gas and electricity is going to be cut off, almost immediately, then this could be seen as the last straw, pushing them over the edge towards significant emotional distress and even suicide.

I am not saying companies should not pursue people when they owe them money but they need to understand the balance between carrot and stick, and take extra consideration to ensure their communication is accurate and unambiguous, especially when it could be understood people experiencing emotional vulnerability may be more likely to just read the headline and ignore the small print, or become overly obsessed with every small point in the letter, so it also has to be relevant and sensitive to the broad range of readers.

This is a central reason I wanted to work with ATOS Healthcare, as I was observing that their weakness could have been the way they were communicating with claimants. If their letters have been pushing people already experiencing emotional distress to suicide, then surely someone needed to have a look at these letters to see how they can be improved. I strongly believe it is indeed the smallest improvements that could sometimes make the biggest difference. And while stating my reasons to wish to work with ATOS on several occasions, I remain bemused to some people's anti-social reaction to my desire to make things better for everyone.

As I said in the beginning, language is very important and as we can see, getting it right can in some cases be a matter of life or death. And while I understand big companies need to chase people who do not pay their bills, they need to be accurate in the way they communicate with customers.