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Do Away With Fine Print

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While watching television recently, I noticed an advertisement with a lot of fine print on the bottom of the screen. It was many lines long and impossible to read, not only because it was so small, but also because it was shown for only a few seconds.

Even if the letters had been big enough to read from my couch potato position, I could not have read it that fast.

The next morning, while reading the newspaper, I noticed an ad announcing a good deal on a product in which I am interested. At the bottom of the page, once again there were lines of small print. The lines spread all across the page, like footnotes that referred to numbers in the ad. I could not read it even with my reading glasses–it was that small.

There is a parallel problem in insurance sales–fine print and fine print thinking.

Here is an example: An agent with whom I spoke recently said he had inadvertently made a mistake on the funding for a complex matter. Dividends had been applied incorrectly. The error might affect the validity of the transaction. Worse, since there were several tax years involved, the mistake could not be fixed.

Many mistakes can be corrected. I often have said that if a client is alive, the agent can usually figure out a way to correct the mistake. If the client is dead, well, a mistake can be hard to correct.

Here, since the mistake did not appear to be correctable, the question for the agent was, should he say anything to the customer?

However, I believe that professionals are obligated to deliver such information when an error might affect the customer adversely.

That does risk upsetting the customer. But then again, once the error is revealed, the customer may be able to take steps (that the customer doesn’t know are available) to mitigate or alleviate the error.

When bringing such news, the customer should be informed that independent legal and tax advice may be appropriate.

The point is that bad news is not something to bury in customer communications. This is not something for the fine print.

If the error is not disclosed, the worse case scenario is that the client suffers damages due to the error, and only finds out about the error when damages occur.

Picture the agent on the witness stand. “Yes, I knew about the mistake,” the agent says. “Yes, I could have notified the customer, but I did not.”

Then this: “Why didn’t you notify your customer?” the plaintiff’s attorney asks. “Was it because you did not want to look bad?”

The agent’s response: Gulp!

We see fine print everywhere. I don’t understand why a legitimate sales idea suffers irreparably just from making the font larger on a disclaimer. Or in drawing attention to the possible downside of a concept. Or the risks involved.

If you were the customer, would you not want to know these things? What does the agent have to lose by making such disclosures? Yes, that’s right, the agent might lose the sale.

But, if agent loses the sale because it was not suitable for the customer, isn’t that a good thing? Do agents want to sell a policy to a customer who should not be buying it, because the underlying concept does not fit the customer’s situation?

Whenever I see fine print in sales materials, in my eyes the seller loses all credibility. It takes just too much effort to separate the good from the bad. I want a salesperson who knows that, and who tells me the good and the bad.

Any customer with any sense at all knows that if the idea sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So, why not do away with the fine print? Why not be sure to inform customers of the pros and cons? The information should lead to a better customer relationship, more referrals and a greatly enhanced chance that the customer will be happy with the purchase.

When that happens, it’s like an apple a day and doctors, but this apple keeps the plaintiff’s lawyer away.

Douglas I. Friedman, a partner in the Friedman & Downey, P.C. law firm of Birmingham, Ala., is national counsel on estate and business planning for insurers. His e-mail is [email protected]

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