International technology company Cisco Systems creates innovative high-tech networking solutions—but it can also create profoundly confusing communications. When building their technologies, Cisco’s software architects use techie jargon to talk to each other. But using that same language in marketing materials made it hard for customers to understand what the products were. And the product manuals certainly weren’t user-friendly; in fact, they were as hard to understand as the inner workings of the technologies themselves.

Cisco’s brand experience team uncovered the company’s language problem and embarked on a huge initiative—called Winning with Words—to simplify all its customer-facing communication. For example, this is how Cisco used to talk about its products:

The Cisco Medical-Grade Network supports mobility, unified communications, and various applications including electronic medical records, and computerized order entry. It facilitates greater collaboration between caregivers and enables flexible wired and wireless communications.

And this is how the brand communicates the same message now:

A doctor gets a second opinion on an MRI scan from a specialist. The doctor is in San Francisco. The specialist is in London walking his dog. Our Medical-Grade Network makes it possible.

About the Winning with Words project, the Cisco brand experience team had this to say:

It’s a big change. We needed a rigorous program to make it happen. And to make it stick. We created guidelines and playbooks. Translated them into 14 languages. Developed curriculum and a training program. Trained nearly 2,000 people worldwide. We created tools and provided resources to support them. To engage and inspire them, we’ve presented at thought leadership forums, corporate events and in worldwide television broadcasts. The great innovation of the program is that it’s so simple. We’ve taken an overlooked, very basic skill and used it to drive a cultural change across a 50-billion-dollar company.

In lieu of transforming its lingual brand image, Cisco could have spent its time driving forward even more advanced, successful products. It could have pioneered yet another cost-saving initiative. Instead, the company decided to focus on fully supporting one simple change that impacted the entire company’s culture. Our industry would be wise to follow the tech giant’s example.

Utilities are notorious for being run by engineers who aren’t typically trained in elegant writing. Plus, they have a duty to report to regulators—an audience that prefers keeping the long story long. It’s not surprising, then, that utility-speak naturally gravitates toward technically correct and wordy prose. Changing the way your utility communicates could be a high-value initiative for the company and your customers.

Using its simplified communication strategy, Cisco landed a $300 million deal it was in danger of losing while it was still using its old strategy. It used language with a strong-spirited, humanized approach to win a sponsorship of a major worldwide sporting event. Cisco also applied its new language principles to two entire sections of its website. Within a few months, the company observed an improvement in abandonment rates, an increase in time spent on pages, and a 150 percent boost in click-through rates. A Cisco representative commented on the boon: “Even better, our marketing teams were able to write and publish the content in half the time. Better results, faster,” On top of it all, Cisco’s Winning with Words initiative won the 2014 CX Innovation Award from the Customer Experience Professionals Association.

For utilities, the importance of a language transformation extends beyond winning deals, sponsorships, and awards. It has even bigger implications than improved web metrics and internal efficiencies. Because utilities have a duty to serve everyone in their service territory, they have to account for the entire spectrum of linguistic abilities—most notably, people with little to no ability to read. In part two of this blog series, we’ll cover why utilities need to be especially focused on simple language, and we’ll provide strategies to help your company deliver crystal-clear messages.

Contributing Authors

Senior Analyst, Customer Engagement Solutions

Keenan Samuelson focuses on strategies to enhance the utility customer experience. He spends the majority of his time researching how to optimize...