The Value of Documentation and Help when Support is Free

Every year my company hosts a large user conference where our customers are invited to attend.  The goal is for them to attend sessions that furthers their knowledge about our applications through demos and round tables; sit one on one with key company contributors for information exchange; and attend brown bags and networking events where they can freely exchange information amongst themselves with how they use our software.

An email was distributed this week by my Director with "takeaways" from the conference.  One of the major takeaways was that "the value of online help is not being readily utilized by customers because they do not go there first".  The good news is she said value; the bad news is...customers are not using one of my team's products.  That never bodes well for a documentation team.

It should be noted that technical support is free as is training at our company so I wonder how much of an uphill battle we are fighting.  How often will customers go to online help or a technical manual when a "real person" is a quick phone call away if not a support ticket?  It would seem, in fact, that the documentation's teams customers are often times the support team who are looking up the information that customers are asking them on the phone.

I'm curious if anyone else has this situation and what you do to increase your value to end users.  How do you encourage them to look at documentation first before going immediately to support?  Is it simply a matter of communicating between teams in-house?

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Comment by Mark Baker on March 2, 2012 at 11:38pm

The first thing most people do when they need help (after asking the person in the next cubicle) is to Google for the answer (or, it now seems, ask their Facebook friends). We are all learning that we are more likely to find answers on Google than in local help systems, both because Google has access to more content, and also because Google's search engine is so much better than that of any local help system. 

Certainly that is what I always do: Google first. Often the company's documentation is among the search results that I get, and sometimes I find my answer there. So the answer is simple enough. If you want people to read your help, put your content were the people are: put it on the web.

How do you justify this to your company? They may give support away for free, but it is still a cost to them. If people Google for help before calling support, and if they find the answer they need in your help on the web, then the company will save money because customers will not call support so often.

Comment by Daniel Archer on March 4, 2012 at 10:10pm

My documentation is written to closed gate user communities, but the support is already bought and paid for as part of the contract. I know for a fact that most of our users will pick up the phone and call the support desk before they look at the user manual or online help (which we integrate with the UI via RoboHelp).

Our user manuals are first and foremost contractual deliverables, but I try to make sure that they add value for the help desk as well. I invite them to participate in peer reviews and to serve as secondary SMEs when I'm updating documentation, and I interview them about what kind of calls they're getting. They in turn can use the user manuals as a point of reference when they're trying to walk someone through a process on the phone.

The other thing I do is cultivate a close relationship with our field trainers, so that when they go from site to site doing live training they can refer users to the user manual and CBTs. We use a "train the trainer" methodology in those sessions - the handful of users who attend live are expected to go back to their sites and train everyone else. That's where the UM really becomes useful. As long as the processes are clearly documented they serve as the "next best thing to live training." When I hear users talking about my docs that way, I consider it a big win.

Comment by Daniel Archer on March 4, 2012 at 10:13pm

What I'm also going for - and this is where the field trainers and service desk and end users are all valuable allies - is a word-of-mouth culture that says "hey, check the UM before you spend 30 minutes on a call." If they know it's both lucid and accurate, they'll be more willing to crack it open (or search the RH index).

Comment by Tammy Butcher on March 5, 2012 at 10:24am

Daniel, our culture and set-up is much the same.  Our online help is integrated with the UI via RoboHelp as well which is why my last question posed was is it simply a matter of communicating more between in-house teams in that I need to ensure that the support team is encouraging customers to use Help more as they walk them through it and our manuals are being disributed by the trainers (such as you describe) and so forth. 

Because, as you mentioned, and as noted at our conference this year, when available and when free, most users will pick up the phone and call the support desk first.  Unfortunately, while this is a short term solution, the long term effect is we are not making "smarter" users in that I don't know that they are learning as much by not finding and solving the issue themselves.

Comment by Daniel Archer on March 5, 2012 at 10:47am

I've had versions of this conversation with some open-minded project managers, and it always comes back to capturing intent - not just what does it do, but why does it do it? A support call is by nature going to be focused on the immediate problem at hand. The user manual can add value by showing the big picture. If you can get the end user's light bulb to go on, they're going to become smarter users and probably get a lot more excited about the system as they use it more effectively / enthusiastically. Then you've got your word-of-mouth advocate.

Comment by Milan Davidović on March 5, 2012 at 3:47pm

If calling support looks easier than consulting the documentation, can you blame them for choosing the former? Where's the incentive for them to choose the latter over the former?

Comment by Chastin Howerton on March 16, 2012 at 3:35pm

At the point in which customers are calling support personnel rather than reading help documents, what should you do? Does your primary audience become the support staff, or do you revamp your training materials to better engage your clients? And if you recommend the latter, then how?

Comment by Mark Baker on March 16, 2012 at 3:55pm

Chastin, I think it is very different to move user behavior in this regard. The problem is that their choice of whether to phone support without looking at the docs is not likely based on the experience of your docs alone, but on their overall experience of all the technical documentation they have experienced. Some people may never be willing to read docs and just always want to talk to a person, and some may have been turned off by frustrating experiences with docs in the past, but either way, one company improving its docs is not going to change those lifetime habits by much.

I do think that where docs can make a difference is on line. Certainly habits are changing, and people are increasingly going online for the information they need. If they find the information online, then obviously they will not need to call support. The problem is that many organizations still do not have their documentation online, or if they do, it is not designed in a way that works well online.

I think the best way that pubs can change what they do to reduce support costs is to get their content onto the web, and into a design that works well on the web.

Comment by Chastin Howerton on March 16, 2012 at 4:09pm


You made some great points in your last comment. I certainly agree that documentation needs to be moved online. We are in the process of moving information to a wiki, but I am interested in hearing what you have to say about different web solutions? There's only one of me in the documentation department and I lack the experience and the guidance to know what design(s) might work best for our company. I am completely open to resources/suggestions.

Comment by Pavitra Jothi on March 17, 2012 at 1:29am

I do think that where docs can make a difference is on line. Certainly habits are changing, and people are increasingly going online for the information they need.

Mark, that is so true! The Help doc I have written are published on a wiki platform, where there is an option to leave comments. I often found customers reading the Help and posting comments if they need additional information or if they haven't found the solution to their problem. In that way, the online help was also giving space to leave comments and interact with the customers. There were cases when the same question was being asked 2 to 3 times. That gave me a chance to understand where my docs were lacking to improve them.

Again, this can be a good option only if we have enough resources to quickly reply to the comments. People definitely look for a way to interact with others in order to get the information needed. I feel having this kind of interaction in a small level in help docs can do some good.


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