Joining In: Your Place in the Customer Conversation
Customers are already talking to each other and to your company through a variety of means: social media, user groups, online communities, Customer Support, and other groups in your organization. Customers are sharing stories and creating their own content outside of the corporate infrastructure. Some customers value this interaction more than the official communication from your company because it is often directly related to their own experiences.
As Joseph H. Bragdon writes at the beginning of Profit for Life: How Capitalism Excels, “You might say that we are in the midst of a ‘Copernican Revolution’ in conventional business thinking. We are finally waking to the fact that corporations are not the center of our economic universe, with people and Nature orbiting around them. In fact quite the opposite is true.”1
Technical communicators need to join this conversation to discover what users really need and how users solve problems in the real world. This information helps us create targeted, useful content that aids users in completing their tasks. Without direct interaction with the customer, we are just guessing at what they need—or worse, we are taking for granted what other teams, such as Engineering or Product Management, think that the customers need.
Direct customer interaction is a vital part of our jobs now, and we must ensure that our teams participate in this process. Customer interaction is no longer only the role of a few groups—all teams need to join the conversation.
Fortunately, technology and changing customer expectations have made it a lot easier to talk directly to your users. In this article, we share the best practices we have developed in our teams for reaching out to customers.
Why You Need To Join In
Customer expectations and information consumption patterns are changing. Today’s users no longer expect one-way communication. Users expect to be able to contact a company and receive a personalized response. If users do not receive the experience they expect, they will use other means such as online communities or blogs to reach out to other users and share their experiences.
When users share their experiences with each other, it may not always be favorable or they may miss important information that you have published. By joining this conversation among users, you can help shape a favorable message for your company. You may be able to direct users to information that they cannot easily find with simple online searches. By directly interacting with the users, you are creating a positive experience by showing that your company cares about their needs and that you are there to help them achieve their goals.
Most importantly, when you directly interact with your customers, you find out valuable information that you can use to improve your content. Information that you gather from these interactions will help you justify funding initiatives that improve your information architecture, because you can easily relate the initiative to a corporate goal of improving customer satisfaction.
Defining Your Goals
Before you begin, you should have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve through your customer interaction. Making the leap into customer contact is a business endeavor as well as a cultural change. Define specific goals to make the business case, identify participants, define the interaction methods you want to use, and measure the results. For example, you might want to learn more about customer scenarios so that you can create corresponding content to address each scenario.
However, customer interaction is not always about obtaining information from the customer. Another goal could be to get customers engaged with the product and help them find useful information. The more you interact and respond to customers, the more engaged they feel and the more they will interact and respond. Engaging a small set of highly passionate customers can create advocates who will, in turn, speak to other users about the good qualities of your organization and its products. These engaged users could also provide information to you about their use cases and give you feedback on your existing content.
There are a range of goals you may consider. If you are investigating the possibilities of customer contact, pick one or two to explore that most closely match the culture and goals of your organization. If you work in a more closed environment, then a customer survey or direct interviews may be more suitable. If you work in a more open environment, use social media and other direct, interactive channels.
It is important not to overlap completely the goals of other teams such as Customer Support or Product Marketing. Where there is alignment, use the other team’s established practices to give you a jump-start. Make your goals known to the other teams and to your management chain to obtain buy-in and avoid confusion about the roles of each team. Some overlap is acceptable, because customer interaction is everyone’s responsibility and because customers will use whatever channel is most convenient to communicate with your company.
Here are some examples of goals for your team:
- Discover customer scenarios for creating targeted procedures
- Discover customer pain points and ways to alleviate them
- Direct users to the correct information and increase traffic to your content
- Encourage participation, feedback, and passion for the product
- Quickly identify and address problems and errors in the documentation
How Do You Join In?
There are a number of best practices that many Information Development teams have found to reach out to customers. The important thing is to use any pre-established channels and find where users are already communicating with each other. Thinking “inside the box” and using whatever tools you have is just as important as thinking “outside the box” and discovering new communication channels you haven’t traditionally used.
Many Information Development teams may not be comfortable with an enhanced level of direct involvement with customers. Also, some companies may have organizational barriers to prevent this type of interaction. If you can identify viable communication channels, set a team goal to use these channels on a daily basis. The resistance to this new interaction will decrease with time, and customer interaction will become part of the deliverables of your team.
Here are some common approaches that many teams use to reach out to customers:
- Establish an email alias for documentation feedback and publish and promote this alias to users
- Participate in online community forums
- Monitor social media (twitter, blogs, and so on) and respond
- Partner with customer-facing organizations such as Customer Support and Product Management
- Survey users and gather data at user conferences
- Participate in customer Beta programs
The following sections describe some customer outreach programs at our specific companies.
Splunk is a software company headquartered in San Francisco, California. It has about 1,000 employees globally, with 15 members on the documentation team. The documentation content is authored and delivered in a customized MediaWiki environment. All Splunk documentation is available publicly at <http://docs.splunk.com>, and Splunk uses a number of direct channels to communicate to customers every day.
Between five and ten customer comments come daily by way of the feedback form at the bottom of every topic. The documentation team responds to all inquiries within three business days, either through email, posting a follow-up comment in the topic, or both.
The other mainstay of Splunk’s customer interaction is the Splunk Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel (#splunk on efnet). IRC is an older online live chat protocol, and the Splunk IRC channel represents a lively community of customers, partners, and Splunk employees, including writers, developers, support engineers, field engineers, and product managers. It is a place for community problem-solving and learning about the product, and it enables Splunk to establish a long-term relationship with some of the more passionate customers (See Figure 1).
Splunk also has a Twitter channel (@splunkdocs) with over 600 followers that is used for announcements and answering customer questions.
In addition to participating daily in these online interactions, the documentation team at Splunk is part of the Customer Support organization. The team has a matrix relationship with the product development team, but has a solid line reporting structure with Customer Support. The Support and documentation teams at Splunk are responsible for the end-to-end view of the product and for being the voice of the customer within the company. Writers attend the Support “top issues” meetings, watch and participate in relevant support cases, and take an occasional rotation onto the Support team. The documentation team at Splunk is always mindful that improving the customer experience with the products and reducing the burden on the colleagues in Support is its primary mission.
BMC is a software company with headquarters in Houston, Texas. It has about 6,500 employees worldwide, with about 60 members of the information design and development (IDD) team. Most documentation content is authored and delivered in a Confluence wiki. Content that has not yet migrated to the wiki is authored in FrameMaker.
Similar to Splunk, the web-based documentation at BMC has space for comments at the bottom of each topic. The BMC IDD team sets guidelines for response times and how to respond to different types of comments. Customers have been enthusiastic about the fast response times and about how their input results in improvements to the documentation.
The BMC IDD team has always been interested in customer contact. However, until a few years ago, this contact was sporadic and often not initiated by the IDD team. BMC IDD formed a customer relationship team with a goal of increasing customer contacts and making those customer contacts more meaningful.
The customer relationship team creates resources and provides support for customer contacts. They provide guidelines and templates for tracking customer feedback, and they report both to IDD and to cross-functional colleagues. The customer relationship team analyzes data from customer surveys, including a documentation-focused survey that they create.
The customer relationship team runs a Documentation Customer Advisory Board. The board includes a few key customers and meets periodically, providing these customers an opportunity to express their needs and preview enhancements.
VMware is a software company headquartered in Palo Alto, California. It has approximately 16,000 employees globally, with 70 members on the documentation team. The documentation content is authored in a mixture of tools using a content management system and DITA as well as FrameMaker. Most VMware documentation is available publicly at <http://pubs.vmware.com>.
One problem VMware faced with the customer feedback email alias is that the feedback needed to be placed into the defect tracking system to easily route the feedback to the appropriate author for handling. At first, this was a manual, copy/paste operation from email into the defect system. VMware created a script that automatically receives incoming email, locates keywords such as product names, and submits the text of the email as a defect into the system, assigning the defect to the appropriate team based on product name when available. This script dramatically decreased the turnaround time for handling incoming feedback and also allowed tracking data more efficiently using the defect system’s reporting capabilities.
VMware receives approximately 8 to 10 documentation feedback emails each day. Before implementing automation, response time varied from a few days to months before responding to the users. After the automation was implemented, the team set a goal of responding to the user with a reply to their comment within 48 hours of receiving the email. This goal is typically exceeded, and authors typically respond on the same day within a few hours.
Another technique VMware uses to reach out to users is to monitor users that create engaging and popular content in blog posts. Over the course of a few years, VMware identified three particularly prolific and well-liked blog authors and developed a relationship with them. VMware employees would contact the bloggers when their blog posts could benefit from a reference to our documentation. Eventually, the Technical Marketing team at VMware realized the value of the content from these users and created positions for the bloggers to create content for us (See Figure 2). If you can identify passionate, engaged users who are already creating great content, consider hiring them!
How Do You Measure The Result?
Measuring your success in customer outreach is important so you can determine if you are meeting your goals and can communicate your success to management and other teams. How you measure your results depends upon the goals you have set for your customer outreach program and the tools available for measurement.
Here are some examples of how you may want to measure different programs:
- For automated routing of documentation feedback email, when the feedback is placed in the defect tracking system, you can run reports to determine the number of messages per product, by release, per author, and determine average resolution time and other useful metrics.
- Traffic flow analytics of your web-based documentation can help in identifying usage patterns, and you can potentially correlate the patterns with customer support call information to approximate a call-deflection rate.
- Placing a “was this useful” checkbox on each topic helps to measure topic relevance.
- Monitoring social media can be helpful for sentiment analysis (with the help of web-based tracking tools).
- Determining amount of time desired for this activity per team member, allows you to set personal and team goals, then track time over each quarter to measure whether team members are spending the desired time reaching out to customers.
- Keeping track of individual user comments (positive and negative), allows you to gather examples of customer sentiment. Use negative comments and resolution metrics as examples of how quickly your team responds to feedback and quickly improves customer experience.
Whatever measurements and analysis you perform, it’s important to report your findings both inside your team and externally to management and other teams. Within your team, use measurements to incent your team to achieve specific goals. Outside of your team, publicize your successes to improve your team’s reputation and its perceived value to your organization and to help build the business case for infrastructure projects or growth.
How Important Is the Customer Conversation?
Customers are already engaged in a vital, meaningful conversation about your company and its products. Direct customer interaction has always been an essential part of the information development cycle, but now more than ever the dialog has expanded into a continuous discussion. Information development takes place on a larger canvas where companies and customers must constructively engage with and support each other. That relationship is the key to future success. As Steve Denning wrote in a recent Forbes article:
“Customers have reliable information as to what is available and can communicate with each other: as a result, power in the marketplace has shifted from seller to buyer. The customer is now in charge. … Disruption can happen so quickly and on such a large scale that it is hard to predict or defend against. Competitive advantage is becoming increasingly transient. The only way to survive is to build relationships and delight customers by constant innovation and strategic adaptation to the changing scene.”2
Joining in the customer conversation, whether through social media, structured customer visits, advisory boards, responding to direct feedback, or other channels, enables your organization to build a strong, lasting, productive relationship with your customers. By joining in, you can increase customer satisfaction, boost sales, and establish credibility for your company and your team in the global community.
1. Profit for Life: How Capitalism Excels, Joseph H. Bragdon (The Society for Organizational Learning, 2006), p. 1.
2. Denning, Steve. “How Modern Economics Is Built On ‘The World’s Dumbest Idea’ Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 22 July 2013. Web. 06 Sept. 2013.
About the Authors:
Christopher Gales is the Director of Documentation for Splunk. Chris has 20 years of experience managing information development for end-user, enterprise, and developer audiences, in companies of all sizes.
BMC Software, Inc.
Michele Marques manages a global information development team with BMC Software. She has over 15 years of experience documenting software and managing information development teams in a variety of industries.
John Frazzini has over 20 years of experience in creating industry-leading user assistance at companies like Oracle, TIBCO Software, and VMware, where John is currently a Senior Manager on the Technical Communications team.