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Parlez-vous jargon?

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A contractor stopped by to do some work at my home this week, and we started talking about the job.

I’m reasonably knowledgeable when it comes to home improvement terminology, but about 10 minutes into our conversation, I realized I was in over my head.

“So, then you take the jibbiwitz and spread it with the wizzinscote,” he told me. “A lot of guys don’t do that step, even though it’s really basic stuff.”

“Oh, yeah. Tell me about it. I mean, helloooo. It’s, like, Wizzinscote 101,” I said.

But what I thought was: “The huh?”

It was a good thing we were just making small talk and this wasn’t information I’d have to actually retain. But what if it had been? And what if, instead of a contractor, I had been speaking to an advisor?

Every industry has its own unique lingo, and the insurance and financial services field is no exception. It’s not the most horrible offender when it comes to jargon and acronyms — I’ve worked in education and defense; believe me, it could be much worse — but it’s also a more consumer-centric field than most, where clear communication with clients is critical. Putting industry terms into layman’s terms means the difference between a client who makes informed choices, with the help of an advisor he trusts, and one who does the bare minimum, so he doesn’t have to fake his way through another confusing meeting with his agent.

It’s too bad, then, that our industry isn’t exactly known for its top-notch communication skills. A recent Colonial Life survey on employee benefits communication found only 60 percent of employees say it’s fairly or very effective. Almost 10 percent says it’s not at all effective. As a result, only about one-third of employees are comfortable making decisions about the benefits available to them at work, the survey found. Among those making less than $35,000 a year, that figure drops to one-quarter.

What could change that? Access to benefits information from home as well as some time with a benefits professional would help, the employees said. But, perhaps most importantly, nearly 40 percent said they wanted benefits information that was easier to understand.

The results reminded me of an article Maria Ferrante-Schepis (formerly Umbach) wrote for us a while back, about whether life insurance language was dooming this industry to irrelevance. Studies have found that, among young adults especially, words like “premium” and “policy” only serve to confuse when used in an insurance context.

Armed with all these study results — and the fact that Gen Y consumers are increasingly entering the insurance market — isn’t it time we did something about this? It wouldn’t be that hard to start calling premiums “monthly payments.” Or ditching deductible for something like “out-of-pocket expenses.”

Of all the problems we face as an industry, this seems like an easy one to fix. So why haven’t we?

For more from Corey Dahl, see:

The bag lady bogeyman

JC Penniless?

The education disconnect