Customer Experience (CX) and Technical Communications

Photo by Matthew Henry on UnsplashHenry

In an earlier article, I argued that technical communication makes up about 50% of the user experience process for a product. In this pretty straight-forward argument, I posited that no matter how elegant the UI and thought-out the feature set, there will always be gaps in user understanding that can be bridged by relevant and usable technical content.

But, what about the larger world of customer experience (CX) with a company? What role does technical communication play in this area?

A quick back-of-the-envelope summary of customer experience. If the sum of a user’s experience with a particular product is user experience (UX), then the sum of a user’s experience with the entire company is their customer experience or CX. For example, if you love using the American Airlines iPhone app, but absolutely hate flying on American Airlines because of bad customer service, old planes and what appears to be a strategy to screw loyal customers out of airline miles at every moment, then the UX of their app is great, but their CX is terrible.

The idea of separating UX from the more all-encompassing CX becomes more pronounced when a company starts to expand from a single product to multiple products and / or services that may or may not be bundled together and owned by that company.

In the American Airlines example, American Airlines provides services (flights, online booking) but delivers those services within environments they don’t really control (airports). So, the CX is delivered by multiple third-party and internal resources (gate agents, TSA agents, IT support if the app breaks, Admirals Club representatives, flight attendants, pilots, etc.). Though somewhat limited, this example makes it easy to see how the combination of all of these activities creates the customer experience of traveling via American Airlines.

Rather than looking at customer experiences as one giant area, it’s easier to decompose CX into more specific areas. You can find any number of CX frameworks to guide you, but for the sake of brevity we’ll think about experiences before, during and after a sale through two frameworks: buyer journey and then user journey.

The buyer journey is also sometimes called the marketing funnel, but the naming doesn’t matter so much. This journey breaks down a purchase into Awareness (of a problem), Discover (solutions to the problem), Evaluate (potential solutions), Purchase (the solution) and Post-Purchase (evaluation). The user journey elaborates on and expands the “post-purchase” phase of the buyer journey and covers the steps involved in going from a novice in the capabilities of a purchase to an expert.

I especially like these models because a) they make intuitive sense to me b) we can map different types of communications to them:

  • Marketing – promoting the product and helping potential-customers understand that they have a problem and how a product or service can satisfy customer needs.
  • Sales – information designed to help someone evaluate the product or service and make the purchase.
  • Technical Communications – helps a user evaluate a potential solution and then get the most out of the product post purchase.

When looking at marketing, sales and technical communications the first thing that jumps out is that technical authoring is the only one that appears passive. Marketing and sales, by definition, are there to persuade and influence. These fine forms of communications spend their days and nights working to convince potential customers (and repeat buyers) that this brand is the one the potential customer most identifies with and that it exceeds their expectations. In other words, they’re writing the checks that the various types of technical communication materials need to cash in order to create a great CX payoff.

Not only does technical communications deliver the payoff of great CX through user documentation and support, it’s also key to enabling organizational development, knowledge and capabilities. Materials such as employee training and resource development, strategic guidance and policy documentation, and business analysis enable company resources to maximize their potential, deliver thoughtful and logical decision making, and understand the right way to behave when inevitable gray areas arise.

These authoring roles combined with content technologies, which allow for knowledge management, content reuse and roundtripping create a dynamic and capable organization that not only readily addresses basic customer needs, but also stays nimble enough to address customer issues and build remarkable products in the future.

Training and Resource Development

Learning is an irreplaceable component in defining an organization’s culture to support the innovation, market adaptation, and employee engagement necessary for success. – Dr Ross Tartell, “If “Culture” Is Key, How Can Training Help?”, Trainingmag.com

Company training and materials are second only to direct communication from leadership and remuneration strategies when it comes to great customer experience delivery. Instructional designers and trainers (technical communication brethren) are often the voice of the organization.

Great CX relies equally on technology and resources working toward a common goal of satisfying customer needs. Training helps create a shared knowledge and guidance for employees as they navigate both the good times and those times in which they need to do customer recovery or handle some edge case.

In much the same way that other areas of tech comm and CX evolve, it’s not the act of having a fully built out training program for a company, but leadership’s desire to have one that signals a company more likely to provide excellent CX.

Strategic Guidance / Policy Documentation

Yes, policies and decision-making guidance often sit within corporate communications, but for today, I’m moving those chairs to the technical communications table, since that information will guide resources on how to work with customers and create great experiences. The information created in these areas often serves as source material for corporate training, which in turn will be used to guide decision making.

Similar to the old BASF commercials in which they didn’t make the tape, they made the tape stronger – technical authors don’t make the strategy; but their participation can make the strategy stronger. Longtime technical authors and business analysts can, and often do, operate as the voice of the customer. It’s a pretty natural role since so much of their time is spent drafting user documentation and answering questions from the field.

Also, there’s good reason that the big consulting firms such as McKinsey and Co do not allow consultants and other strategists to write and create their own materials. Great strategy is about 50% data analysis and 50% use of that data to find creative and sustainable ways to meet customer needs and counter competitive pressures. Sure, some strategists can pull together great messaging from this strategic development, but too often that wonderful work becomes poorly formatted 200-word PowerPoint slides. Oh, boy.

It’s hard to truly embrace great strategy, if you’re too damn bored or confused to listen to the approach.

Policy documentation, which is often the outcome of strategic decisions, can easily utilize tech comm skills. I’ve known more than one technical writer staffed on policy teams. These policy technical writers translate SME speak into customer-friendly materials and often provide a sanity check to approaches and materials design.

Customer Service, Sales, Marketing and other people need to understand the rules of the road. Well-authored content allows them to master the rules to so they can find the right customers, and then deliver products to them in a way that wins hearts and minds.

Business Analysis

Wikipedia defines business analysis as “a discipline of identifying business needs and determining solutions to business problems.” The entry goes on to mention that business analysts (BAs) not only work on software but also in process improvement, organizational change, strategic planning and policy development.

Typically, BAs drive the business requirements documents and high-level requirements for system enhancements. Since such requirements evolve as more becomes known about the problem to be solved and the technical capabilities required, they often participate through the entire technical project. BAs help create a more efficient organization with better systems that allow it to more nimbly address customer needs.

Their activities happen as the product takes shape, so business analysis is often viewed as upstream from technical communications and downstream from strategy. Business analysis translates strategy into day-to-day tactics (business process mapping) and technical system enhancements. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes these BAs are then asked to pull together the technical and user documentation.

Content Technologies

Content technologies such as knowledge management (KM) systems, structured authoring tools and dev ops tools are as important, if not more important, than the work activities I’ve described. These technologies, often lumped into the technical content strategy world, allow employees to identify, create, assemble, and evolve the content (and products) in an efficient manner.

Findablity – it’s really a terrible newish word, but one that provides a considerable amount of power to companies willing to invest in knowledge management systems. Think of KM platforms as search engines like Google, but for a company’s intellectual and strategic property. KM systems should be the first place a marketer, policy maker, product manager or even technical writer looks before setting out to create some new material.

Companies with great KM systems mean team members start a project by asking do we have something already? If yes, then rather than starting from scratch a technical author can just refine the work or branch it to address whichever question needs to be addressed. Can we easily find it?

A good sign that a company’s knowledge and digital asset management systems are immature is the likelihood of creating duplicate content because it’s so hard to figure out if and where it lives.

Good authoring tools allow the content creators to pull and push content into these knowledge management systems, in ways that allow the content to be “single-sourced” and trackable. Oh, and since I’m painting an ideal world picture on this topic, the authoring tool should be easy to use and have a great UX. Content creators want to create content, not think about overly complex rules, and definitely not navigate a weird and alien landscape that might or might not lead them to something useful for their audiences.

The final technology key for creating great CX is a system that allows for round-tripping. Think of round-tripping as a feedback system—one that takes ideas / content / feedback from some point of origin to a spot to solve or address and then back to the originator (whether author, illustrator or curator).

An example:

  1. A user identifies a bug in a software package.
  2. A customer service representative captures the bug in help desk software.
  3. A support analyst reviews the information and creates a fix ticket for a future software release.
  4. At the same time, a technical writer and maybe instructional designer update the knowledge base and in-app help to allow users to work around the defect until the fix is released.
  5. Fix is built, tested, and released.
  6. User docs are updated; the ticket is closed.
  7. Note to original customer is sent thanking them for providing the feedback.

The example starts with a problem and finishes with the user being told the problem was solved or a round trip journey.

When thinking about CX, it’s certainly true that the biggest checks technical communications cashes come in UX currency.  However, in larger organizations that’s not the only checks out there for redemption.

The outputs from technical authoring efforts and technologies, such as training, policy and strategy communications and business analysis, form a strong and unified base in which those product managers, sales leaders and marcomm gurus write those checks. It’s safe to say that no company will have perfect CX, but it’s a safer bet that companies that skip the technical communications will fail to deliver the CX that ultimately pays all the bills.

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