What Good Is Web-based Help If Customers Can’t Understand It?

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December 1999

What Good Is Web-based Help If Customers Can’t Understand It?

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, Center Director

Providing customer support documentation on the World Wide Web is indisputably efficient and cost-effective, but only if the on-line project is implemented in such a way that customers can access the information easily and understand it once they have access to it. Here is a story about XYZ Company’s abysmal failure at a noble effort to cut customer support costs and enhance the value of its customer service.

A Customer Support Fable

Once upon a time, XYZ Company decided to reduce the volume of user support calls by adding a customer information Web site. The support engineers documented the problems that customers called about most frequently, along with their solutions to these problems. Next, someone compiled a list of the problems and solutions submitted by the various support engineers and added the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) codes required for Web publishing.

The Webmaster attached keywords to the problems and solutions so that customers could search for the information they needed. The list was organized in reverse chronological order (most recent first), and each problem was assigned a meaningful name.

Everyone worked very hard to develop the information for the Web site. However, the support engineers who documented the problems and solutions all worked independently. Consequently, the problem-solution write-ups all contained different terminology and different keywords. Little about them was standardized. Some of the support engineers could write clear, well-organized descriptions and recommendations, but others had difficulty, either because English was not their primary language or because they weren’t trained to write clearly and succinctly.

At last, the new Web site was announced to the customers, who greeted the announcement with considerable enthusiasm. Customers were anxious to find answers to their questions without having to wait three or four days (the standard at XYZ Company) for a response from the greatly overburdened support engineers.

The Plan Goes South

Alas, when customers started to use the Web site, their excitement turned to frustration. They couldn’t navigate their way through the hundreds of problems and solutions. The document titles were often obscure, and the organization of the list in reverse chronological order made no sense to them. Worse yet, just when they thought they had found a problem-solution document that was relevant to their own current malfunction, they often discovered that they couldn’t understand what it said.

Sometimes the information had gaps because the support engineers had overlooked a step or two in the solution process that was obvious to them but not obvious to the customer. Other times, the information was just plain incomprehensible, like those instruction manuals that come with bicycles and toys that have to be assembled or with electronic devices produced in non-English-speaking countries.

The company’s high hopes for reducing customer support costs were rapidly plummeting to the disaster level. Although customers were accessing the Web site in droves, each “hit” seemed to generate at least three calls to the support center. The customers needed additional explanation of the Web site information.

Technical Communicators to the Rescue

Customer support groups are beginning to recognize the opportunity to provide electronically based customer support as a way to supplement telephone-based support. Management often views the development of an information-based Web site (either external or internal) as a panacea that will automatically reduce the high costs of support. But the fable illustrates a dismayingly real situation for many organizations: If information is to be valuable, especially to nonspecialists, it must be well organized, designed for ease of use, and written so that the intended users get the information in a form that they can understand.

Fortunately, most product developers already have in place an organization capable of assisting the customer support groups in developing an effective and usable information base. The technical publications staff is often skilled in the following attributes:

  • Grouping information in ways that users will find logical and understandable
  • Developing and using standards formats so that similar information looks the same each time it appears
  • Creating and implementing standard terminology
  • Creating cross-references that enrich a hypertext-based presentation
  • Developing synonyms and related concepts that make a keyword search system effective
  • Writing instructions that are easy to read and understand

These skills can help a support organization develop an information base that customers will find easy to use. As a result, they will be less likely to call the support center.

The Intel Experience

At Intel Corporation, technical communicators became partners with the customer support staff to increase the value of information distributed electronically to Intel’s customers. In an article for Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), Jean Scholz, formerly of Intel, reported that the customer support group is very active in supporting customers via telephone, electronic bulletin boards, fax-on-demand documents, and, more recently, a Web site. The support personnel and the technical communicators assigned to the team worked together each week to analyze the top issues that generate calls. The technical communicators wrote articles that described new problems and their solutions, updated information on existing problems and solutions, and published the information initially on the bulletin board and then on the Web. Scholz confirmed that technical communicators wrote 90 percent of the articles in the database.

Intel’s technical communicators study the frequency with which customers access the electronic information, comparing telephone call volume to electronic access. They also talk to customers to determine whether the electronic version of the information is accurate and useful.

Scholz noted in a presentation at a recent STC conference that the technical communicators’ involvement in delivering accurate and usable information for electronic access enabled Intel to reduce the volume of support calls by at least 85 percent. She also calculated that, if electronic delivery is typically one-tenth of the cost of traditional customer service phone calls and if a support call averages $20 and electronic delivery averages $2, then a company shifting support to electronic media could realize substantial savings. If 70 percent of the calls are handled electronically, a company with 100 calls per day would save $1,260 per day.

How to Start a Partnership

Many support organizations already have a cordial relationship with their company’s technical communication group. At these companies, communicators regularly consult with support personnel to better understand the problems that customers are reporting. At other companies, support personnel provide reports that document user problems or indicate areas that might be covered in future documentation.

For support groups that do not already have an established relationship with the technical communication organization, here are some ideas for beginning a dialogue and implementing a partnership.

  • Contact the publications manager and request a meeting. Indicate your interest in a partnership and exchange ideas about how implementation might begin.
  • At the planning meeting, make your needs clear, but be prepared to listen to the communicators’ perspective. They may have to find time in a busy schedule to work with you.
  • Consider providing some funding to support a technical communicator. The technical communication group might have no extra capacity at the moment. However, we strongly advise that the group find some way to accommodate such a worthwhile new effort.
  • Establish a good work process. Remember that at Intel, the support people and the technical communicators met weekly to determine which problems were the top call generators.
  • Devise a method of assessing customer satisfaction with the process and the quality of the electronic information. Evaluate whether or not you are indeed decreasing costs and increasing effectiveness.
  • Ensure that the information database is also useful for training and supporting your own support staff.
  • Set up an evaluation schedule. Establishing a specific date to review the process and the project ensures that problems will be aired and successes celebrated.

Everyone Wins

A strong working relationship between the customer support and technical communication groups will go a long way toward enhancing the effectiveness of both organizations. Support personnel gain the technical communicators’ expertise in written communication, organization of information, and hypertext and search structures. In many organizations, technical communicators work directly with or for the engineering department and are aware of the technical details of new products and product changes sooner than anyone in the support group. By partnering with a technical communication group, support personnel will have a conduit to the engineering organization.

The technical communication group also benefits from the relationship. Support personnel are close to the customer, aware of the customers’ problems, and knowledgeable about the customers’ expertise (or lack thereof). Technical communicators will become much more attuned to customers’ needs by working closely with support personnel.

Technical communicators also will be able to monitor the value and completeness of the information that goes into the technical documentation. Often, the support staff knows of gaps, errors, and unclear information in the technical manuals, but they rarely have the time to communicate that information to the technical communicators. A partnership fosters communication because people are working closely together on a continuing basis.

The greatest benefits accrue to the customer who gets the information, solves problems, and gets systems up and running more quickly-all of which boost customer productivity. The company ultimately reaps rewards by earning the loyalty of increasingly supported and satisfied customers.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Help Desk Institute’s LifeRaft (9:2), March-April, 1997. CIDMIconNewsletter