Deborah Silvi, BMC Software, Inc.

Customer relationship activities are an important source of information for improving technical documentation. When you set up a customer program for your organization, decide on two or three activities to focus on. For example, as part of your program, you may choose to regularly survey customers about their documentation requirements and pain points. Another part of your program may be for writers to engage directly with customers, using existing programs such as Customer Advisory Boards (CABs), online customer forums or communities, and Beta programs. In addition, you might want to initiate your own customer engagements related solely to documentation topics.

When you set up a customer program, you want to measure the success of your activities, so that you can refine and improve on them. Decide on two or three methods to measure success. For example, if you regularly survey customers about documentation, include a question about satisfaction in several areas such as accuracy, comprehensiveness, ability to find information, and clarity of writing. Also, include a question about overall documentation satisfaction.

During the first year or two of your customer program, you may want to measure the level of your engagements with customers, with the goal of increasing both the engagements and the number of writers who are able to participate. One way to measure level of engagement is to assign points for each type of activity you do, giving more points for activities that create an on-going relationship with one or more customers and for activities that require advanced planning and follow-up. Activities could include conducting your own documentation CAB meeting, participating in a product management-sponsored CAB, having an online discussion with one or more customers about documentation, conducting a conference call with a customer, and sending a short informal survey to a group of customers about a particular documentation topic. You could calculate the average score every six months or every year and set a target score that identifies the point at which your startup program becomes part of your organization’s “business basics.”

For on-going relationships with a group of customers, you should be addressing their requirements and pain points and following up with them later to see if requirements are met and pain points are reduced or removed. When meeting with customers to understand whether you are successfully addressing their concerns, you can report on the number of concerns expressed and addressed. When the number of concerns trends down, you know you are improving documentation satisfaction. You can also report on the time it takes you to address the concerns and set a target number of days that identifies the point at which your service level is considered excellent.

If your company regularly surveys customers about product and support satisfaction, those surveys often include requests for verbatim comments about areas of dissatisfaction. Verbatim comments usually include dissatisfaction with documentation. When you analyze the verbatim comments, not only can you gain insight and context into why customers are dissatisfied with your documentation, you can also measure the number of negative documentation comments as a percentage of the total negative comments. If the percentage is decreasing over time, you are improving documentation satisfaction.