When Customers Bite Back

JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director
www.infomanagementcenter.com

Is there a point at which customers reject the technical information that we provide? Will all the cutbacks in the quality of information lead to angry customers who make their displeasure known? When will the customers bite back?

During the past two to three years, information-development managers have correctly responded to cutbacks in staff and other resources by prioritizing what they can and cannot deliver in support of customers.

Managers first attacked production costs. As part of their cost-cutting effort, they have eliminated print documents wherever possible, replacing them with Web or CD delivery. Even when documents are printed, managers have worked to reduce page counts, along with eliminating costly enhancements like color and creative illustrations.

In addition to reducing the cost of goods, managers have sought tools to automate production activities, introducing XML or SGML or using specialized output generators. Information developers no longer have direct responsibility for production tasks that can be handled faster and more accurately by tools.

But cost reductions at the end of the process are typically not sufficient to absorb significant reductions in force. Managers find themselves searching for ways to write less, supported by product managers who insist that customers “don’t read the manuals anyway.”

A practical approach leads many managers to develop reuse agendas, looking for ways that modular content can be reused in more than one deliverable. We have seen the increased use of FrameMaker’s facility for labeling text and graphics with conditions that support differences in detail where core content can remain identical across outputs. We have seen increased interest in developing modular content using XML so that information objects are created once and reused in many contexts.

But, finally, all the potential for increases in efficiency and reduction of processes are not enough. Managers must focus on opportunities to eliminate content that may not be absolutely necessary for customers. At this point, they decide that conceptual or background information must be eliminated. Troubleshooting information, difficult to produce in the best of times, falls by the wayside in favor of step-by-step procedures in support of only the most generic tasks.

At a company that develops a consumer-directed machine that is supported by embedded software, the consumers recently rebelled against the latest cuts in information delivered with the products. The information developers had cut as much as possible to reduce the cost of goods included with the shipped product. They had cut information in response to reduced resources and direction from product managers. Finally, the customers made their displeasure known to customer support, calling with requests for basic information no longer available in the documentation.

The costs of calls to customer service are significantly higher than the costs of delivering information with the product, especially when the product is in a highly competitive commodity market. Commodity products have slim profit margins, easily eroded by customers who can no longer perform basic tasks they had once been able to perform using the documentation.

As a result of customer complaints and increased calls for help, product management decided they had cut too far. They have instructed the information developers to focus on quality, usability, and accuracy.

Is such a turn around, especially in a commodity market, the beginning of a trend? Are we beginning to experience customers biting back?

In another case, customers responded with a 40 percent fall off in customer satisfaction with an entire product line when information became inaccessible on a badly redesigned Web site. The information-development management now had direct evidence that effective, usable, accessible information makes a difference.

Cost cutters caveat – customers do bite back.

Note: To read more about unintended consequence or “revenge” effects, see Why Things Bite Back by Edward Tenner (Vintage Books 1996).

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