User’s Advocate: Collaborate to Advocate

Photo Credit: David Pursehouse on Flickr.comTechnical communicators often pride ourselves on our ability to work well with others. In fact, it’s a job requirement: you can’t be a good technical communicator if you can’t communicate with your coworkers! As a result, many of us (it can’t be just me) often become an information hub in our companies. We not only collect information from multiple people in multiple departments, but we use that to facilitate communication between departments that may never otherwise interact.

But in my experience, the truth is usually something like this: “The information I got from the lead engineer doesn’t match the spec the PM gave me. Let’s send some perfectly innocent questions to both of them and watch the fireworks!”

That can be hilarious (at least short term), but it clearly fails as communication. It’s not helping, it’s pulling the fire alarm and running away.

Technical communicators learn to identify subject matter experts (SMEs) early in the gig, and we all have our favorite SMEs who we rely on when it’s crunch time. In the software world (and I suspect in hardware and other products or services), we’re trained to work with product managers when we need to learn the how and why of new products and features, and engineering (aka programmers, aka developers) when we need more technical information about the features and when we need to document an API. But we often forget about other teams who not only work closely with customers, but also develop customer-facing content.

Your company’s first point of customer interaction: Marketing

Before your customer is a customer, they’re a prospect. And before they think about documentation (if they think about it), they learn about your company’s products through the marketing materials. And those materials contain a lot more technical content than you might think.

As technical communicators, we conditioned ourselves into thinking of marketing content as fluffy, lightweight, and definitely non-technical (just one glance through the techwr-l archives can show you how long that particular divide has existed). But that’s often not the case. If your product is used by people in technical roles, your marketing team is working with engineering to create content that speaks to those potential customers.

One of the most important messages I’ve ever received came from a salesperson, and it wasn’t even a message for me. He was reminding the sales team to use the product documentation as a sales tool. He told the sales team that good product documentation is a competitive differentiator that helps the sales process.

I realized that our customers see the documentation as another part of the overall corporate communication. Anything that customers can see is automatically part of corporate marketing. Despite the still-siloed nature of content in most companies today, customers and prospects perceive only one organization.

Technical marketing content (which has been around for years in industries that have to produce tech specs and other information to get a large contract) is an excellent source that we can reuse in our documentation. For example, having standard product descriptions will save you a lot of time (and perhaps send you down the path of an integrated content strategy that involves reuse). For example, I became best friends with our marketing team when I found out that they had created an architectural overview of the product, with text and graphics, that saved me many hours of research and development work. Similarly, be sure to look for product overview videos that can fit perfectly into getting started guides.

And then there’s that other thing that marketing usually defines: corporate voice and branding. The customer experience must be consistent across all of the content your company creates. When the marketing content has a distinctive voice, we need to match that in the technical content. The tone and specifics might change based on need, but the voice must be consistent.

That consistent voice and branding that’s carried across your company’s content reassures your customers and lends credibility They won’t wonder why your documentation looks and sounds nothing like what they saw on your corporate website, and then get uneasy about other information that doesn’t match up.

Your company’s first line of defense: Customer Support

Your customer support team probably sends reports of documentation bugs, but that may be the only way our teams work together. And, that just doesn’t make sense, because customer support is a source of invaluable insights.

The support team probably identifies issues by type, and track issue trends. A simple classification of “product bug/documentation bug/feature request/question” can be helpful, but many support tools collect additional metadata that can be a goldmine. I recommend setting up a quick meeting to find out what they’re reporting on, and make sure you get on their mailing list.

Because while we want to fix doc bugs, those are just simple, tactical fixes. Learning about the questions your customers ask allows you to create a meaningful strategy to address those questions in the content that you create. Then you can work with customer support to track issue trends to evaluate that strategy.

It’s usually easy to reduce the “tier 1” RTFM questions. But working together with customer support, you can build a content strategy to address the more complex questions.

Reducing the number of complex issues your support team needs to handle translates directly to reduced costs for your company. That’s what documentation is supposed to do. Good documentation brings satisfaction to our customers, and lower costs bring joy to our executive teams.

Your company’s first point of customer education: Training

Prospects often review technical documentation when they’re evaluating a product, but the training program is their first in-depth introduction to your products and your company. Just as with the marketing content, we need to make sure that the training content and product documentation speak in a consistent voice and tone and share common explanations. It’s confusing if the product documentation doesn’t match what they were taught in training or, worse, contradicts the training content.

Don’t be afraid to review content with your training team. In fact, if it’s not already standard practice, advocate for a formal review process. Your technical content helps them shape their training courses. Like the technical publications team, the training team needs to update the training content when your company releases new products and features. And just like your team, the training team is happier and more productive when they can reuse existing content. Especially well-written and well-organized content.

In return, the training team can tell you about the questions they get from new users. If your company offers refresher training or advanced training, they can also tell more about your advanced users. Use this information to focus your work on creating content that will answer these needs. Now you’re helping two audiences: your customers and your coworkers.

Collaborate to help your users

Your company’s customers expect consistent, high quality content to go along with the products they’ve purchased. No matter how awesome your technical communications team is, you can only deliver a piece of that. But the piece you deliver must fit with the pieces other teams deliver to product a successful experience for customers and prospects. Content creation is a cross-functional effort in today’s companies. Working together with marketing, customer support and training teams, you’ll gain a better understanding of your customers, and just as important, your coworkers’ goals and how they view their responsibility to your customers.

To provide the best customer experience, we must be user advocates, but we can’t do it alone. And it’s time to embrace collaboration to become effective user advocates.

Neal Kaplan is Senior User Assistance Manager at Interana in Redwood City, California. Neal is responsible for the creation, delivery, and governance of Interana's product documentation, tooltips, and training content. With 20 years of experience in the field of technical communication and user education, Neal has created many types of documentation and training content for companies ranging from startups to multinationals. His interests and skills include content strategy, information architecture, user experience, and project management. Neal lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters.

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