5 Obstacles on the Road to Consistent Product Documentation

Posted by
November 3, 2016

While their results tend to vary — sometimes over-delivering, and other times coming up short — all companies know by now (or at least, they should!) that delighting customers is the key to short-term success, and long-term survival.

In fact, when customer service isn’t delightful, then it shouldn’t be considered an expression of customer service at all. Rather, it’s an invitation for customers to head the competition; one that they’re happy to accept without even saying goodbye. According to research by 1st Financial Training Services [.PDF], 91 percent of unimpressed customers will simply leave and never come back. And research by Consumer Reports found that on average, a single dissatisfied customer will spread their tale of woe to 28 people.

Yet with this being said, on today’s business landscape delighting customers is not exclusively or even necessarily about offering extraordinary gestures or going above and beyond the call of duty. Yes, that can be a big factor. But as Gartner VP Jake Sorofman has insightfully noted: “in the game of customer experience, I’d argue that consistency will always trump delight”.

Soforman doesn’t need to argue: his point is accurate and borne out by numerous studies, including one by McKinsey & Company that surveyed 27,000 consumers and found that consistency was the most important factor driving customer satisfaction and loyalty. In a similar light, Forrester found that the key driver of brand trust was not rooted in WOWing customers, but in providing them with a consistent experience across all touchpoints.

However, knowing that consistency is a big (if not the biggest) key for customer delight is one thing. Actually embracing this truth and bringing it to life is a much harder challenge, because despite their hard work and substantial investments in everything from training to technology, most companies have been struggling for years to achieve consistency with respect to a massive piece of their customer communication puzzle: product documentation.

While each company is unique, generally speaking here are the biggest 5 obstacles they face on the road to consistent product documentation:

  1. Lack of Awareness

Often, there is a fundamental unawareness or disagreement of what product documentation is and isn’t. As a result, marketing, sales and customer service teams don’t realize that much of what they’re producing and sharing on a regular basis is, indeed, a legitimate and important product documentation asset. As we’ve highlighted in our ebook “The New Definition Of Product Content To Attract Engage And Convert Customers”, product documentation is any and all content that relates to products, and plays an indirect or direct role in attracting, engaging and converting customers.

  1. Lack of Integration

Even when they agree on what product documentation is (which is rare), various departments nevertheless often use their own systems, frameworks and processes to create, share and update content. This doesn’t mean that all departments should start using the same software, tools, workflows and so on. That would be ideal, but it’s not realistic. What’s more, it’s not essential. It’s enough to integrate departments so that information is being shared, collaboration is happening, and nobody is producing or updating content in a silo – because when that happens, product documentation consistency is simply impossible. The individual pieces may work fine, but they won’t fit together, and customers can’t be delighted.

  1. Touchpoint Exhaustion

In the past, companies typically had to monitor and manage one or two touchpoints; or a handful at most. But with the rise of the web and accompanying surge in customer expectations, new touchpoints are emerging and changing all the time, such as SEO, knowledge portals, customer communities, social, contact centers, real-time web chat, and the list goes on. All of this is leading to an epidemic of touchpoint exhaustion, as companies frenetically try to push fresh, updated content to each touchpoint. Unfortunately for both companies and their customers, keeping up with demand simply isn’t possible — which leads to an inconsistent content.

  1. Product Documentation Fights Back

Ironically, sometimes the biggest obstacle on the road to consistent product documentation is product documentation itself! This happens when content is “stuck” in documents such as PDFs. Global changes are impossible, and as such individuals (typically overwhelmed and overworked Technical Writers!) must manually update each document; which can literally take weeks or months. In fact, it’s not unusual for recently-updated content to be partially or even fully out-of-date by the time all documents have been changed.

  1. Wikis Don’t Work

Last but certainly not least, some companies have tried using wikis for product documentation — and the only positive thing we can say is the sheer misery and stress they are going through, is that they shouldn’t feel singled out: virtually everyone is regretting this decision. Wikis have their uses and play a role, but as we highlighted in our ebook “Why Not Wiki”, they’re categorically unsuitable for product documentation because they inherently lack everything that a product documentation tool needs: version control, structure, integration, localization and flexibility.

The Bottom Line

As McKinsey & Company points out, the 3 C’s of customer satisfaction are: consistency, consistency and consistency. And while product documentation isn’t the only factor that drives consistency in customer service, it certainly play a defining role. This is inspiring news for those that have overcome the obstacles noted above, just as it is alarming for those that haven’t – but must.

Zoomin Software