Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Written in style


Written in style

Typefaces, fonts and the customer’s experience

Human beings are so complex that any study of human behaviour is always going to be such fun. No matter the conditions under which people are studied, people always make for an interesting subject of study. In business studies, where humans are studied as consumers or customers, humans make for such fantastic subjects. I believe this is because so many things can influence customers. The number of factors that have the potential of influencing the customer’s experience is as varied as can be.

For someone who struggles with monotony, the study of customer experience, therefore, is a most exciting area of specialty. This is why I spend so much of my waking hours poring through all kinds of consumer studies. I am always assured of coming across a gem of a scientific finding. Sometimes, you come across a finding that seems too outlandish to be true. But when you take your time to think through and really analyse the study, you get to realise that truly, sometimes fact can be stranger than fiction.

I thought I had seen it all, until I recently came across one very interesting study, which led me to some more very interesting body of work. The studies I am referring to has to do with an aspect of communication that one hardly talks about when it comes to the customer’s experience—written communication. Not just written communication, but handwritten communication.

There have been studies that prove that even in these days when people are writing less and less in their own handwriting, handwriting still plays a very role in the way people communicate in writing. One would have thought that there should be more important things that should affect the way a customer evaluates the quality of an experience. Issues like the price of the product or service, behaviour of customer-facing employees, the ambience of the service experience and such things should be more important than the design of letters used in a piece of written communication. But the studies seems to suggest that the style of the writing we come across does influence us more than we know.

The truth of the matter is that in dealing with customers, a business has to find a way of communicating with them. Communicating with customers can come in the form of face-to-face communications, telephone conversations, and written communications. Written communications can conveniently be grouped into those you can actually hold in your hand and those you can only read on a screen. The former group includes those handwritten letters that have slowly gone extinct. In the latter group will fall all online or electronic communications. E-books, e-mails, social media posts, etc. are all types of electronic written communications.

In writing letters, one could either type the letters, as in using a keyboard, or one could just take a pen and paper and write in one’s own handwriting. However, whichever form a piece of writing takes, one thing is always constant, the letters, alphabets or digits that are used.

The unit of any written piece of communication is the letter—and it is in the design of those letters that make up a written piece that one can read so much meaning. Whether typed or written in hand, the design of letters communicates more than the words they make up. One can liken the design of letters to the tone of a person’s voice. Just as a person can say one thing and mean something else, so can a written word mean something else based on the design of the letters used for that word.

Did you know that even the style and design of the letters, the typeface, used in communicating with customers has a way of affecting the customer’s experience?

For those of us who are unlettered in the study of letters (pun intended), it is important to know the difference between typefaces and fonts. The various designs of letters including the size, weight and slopes of the letters used are what are known as typefaces. Fonts, on the other hand, are variations of typefaces.

When it comes to fonts, one can conveniently group them into those that are sleek and retro, and then there are those that look pretty much like they are handwritten. The former group are those fonts that look like they were machine designed and the latter group consists of those fonts that look like they were written by someone.

Another important categorisation of fonts are those with letters that are designed with little dashes or strokes at the end of the letter. These are known as Serif Fonts. Times New Roman is one of such serif fonts. The dashes at the end of the letters could be sharp, blunt, decorative or plain. The strokes could even be in the form of tails. Then there are those fonts that are without those strokes and dashes at the ends of the letters. These are known as San Serif Fonts. Calibri and Arial are two examples of San Serif Fonts. These fonts are said to be more modern than the Serif Fonts.

It has been argued by some experts that aside the colour of the typeface, the style of the typeface is the next important design element that really influences the way customers perceive a piece of written communication. Although, poor writing skills would normally lead to confusion, it is equally true that the design of letters used can also send a wrong message to the reader. For instance, it would be very odd to send an official written message to a Chief Executive using the kind of fonts one sees on Valentine Day cards. Those fonts with letters that have “long curly tails” would send a wrong message to the boss. In much the same way, you do not want to be sending written messages to customers using those same flowery fonts.

Studies have shown that in communicating with customers in writing, using typefaces that look like handwritten letters tend to be more acceptable to readers. Fonts that come across as having been handwritten are said to generate positive emotions from customers. This is not so for those machine-designed fonts.

A study published in the June 2022 edition of Cornell Hospitality Quarterly journal found that the orientation of the customer played a role in how the one was influenced by the font style used in a piece of written communication. Titled, “Optimizing Handwritten Font Style to Connect with Customers,” the study inferred that the positive effects of handwritten font styles were not observed in customers who had a low communal orientation.

It must be stated that communal orientation has to do with the way individuals were willing be put themselves in the shoes of others. Individuals with high communal orientation are those with a general inclination to be sensitive to the problems of others. They are those customers who will readily help others primarily in response to their needs and out of concern for their wellbeing. In other words, if you have a customer who is very caring, you must be sensitive to the fonts you would use in communicating to that customer.

One of the important ways in which the font style can greatly affect the customer’s experience is in the design of the organisation’s website. To put it bluntly, there are certain fonts that have absolutely no business being used on the websites of certain organisations. One of the most important factors one has to consider when it comes to the design of websites is readability. It creates poor experiences for customers if they have to struggle to read what an organisation puts on its website. Therefore, if the fonts used on the websites make it difficult for customers to read what is on the site, then the design has failed.

It is generally agreed that the handwriting of an individual has so much to tell us about that individual. This is the way every organisation is supposed to think about any written communication it puts out there. Customers are forming opinions about the personality of organisations based on the fonts that these organisations use in communicating with customers. There are organisations that have lost customers because those customers thought the organisations were not serious organisations. How do those customers come to such conclusions? The fonts used by those organisations use in either writing to those customers or in designing their websites.

It is however important to note that the kind of business in question also plays a role in the type of fonts that customers would deem appropriate for written customer communication. For instance, a graphic design firm can effectively use certain fonts that a legal firm would not dare make use of. There are some fonts that would be just fine when used by banks and other financial services firms. However, those same fonts would be consider inappropriate when used by a fashion brand. This is why the issue of typefaces, fonts and letter design cannot be left to chance.

It is a fact that people are less and less taking pieces of paper and writing on them. However, we are still writing, even if it is just via a keyboard and a monitor or screen. For as long as we retain the sense of sight, we will continue to communicate via writing. This means customers will continue to experience the organisation in its writing. Those organisations who do not take anything for granted and would therefore put a lot of thinking into anything that involves customers are those that would really consider the fonts they use in their written communication. Those are the businesses that customers would love to read from because these customers know that anything that the company writes would not just be written in style, but written with substance.

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