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Published on October 5th, 2009 | by Rahel Bailie


How to alienate customers and drive away prospects

Part of a good content strategy is anticipating the various ways a site gets used, and ensuring that content consumers won’t be frustrated when they look for the treasure at the end of their hunt. This point was driven home to me in a very personal way over the past weekend, and sharing my experiences makes the point that ALL of your product information is marketing content.

I’ve just moved into a new place, which comes complete with a gas fireplace. I was told by my landlords that using the gas fireplace to warm the lounge area would be cozy and economical, so I pushed the button on the remote control to start up the fireplace, which was set to 74F, took some painkillers, and promptly fell asleep on the sofa. When I awoke, the temperature hovered in the low 80s, and I couldn’t figure out the right button combination to turn the fireplace off, and within a half-hour, the temperature was climbing into the mid 80s. As I couldn’t get in touch with my landlords, the next best thing seemed to be to find the information on the manufacturer’s site.

The site was completely geared toward sales. There was no telephone number to contact anyone, and the customer support side was rather anorexic. I sent off an email using their contact form, with little expectation that anyone would get back to me, as the form was also geared to sales – or at least knowing details such as the model number (and I wasn’t about to start poking around a very hot hunk of cast iron). There were some downloadable manuals, that in my fevered state made little sense, and even in my current non-fevered state, I realize now, didn’t have the information I needed.

The poor user experience continued, even after some creative searching turned up company with a phone number in the same area code as me. So do I have incredibly bad luck, or is this problem more widespread than should be, considering that the Web has been around for more than a decade? Where is their knowledge base, their forum, or at least a FAQ page? I am, after all, used to using new Web services, where  self-serve is the norm. I had every incentive to look for the information, if it were there. And in this case, where I was literally dealing with fire, I expect some sort of emergency line to get a much-needed answer.

According to Jeffrey Tarter, Executive Director of the Association of Support Professionals, “Tech notes should be the heart and soul of a great Web support site.Yet painfully often, users encounter a tangle of hard-to-understand, poorly maintained knowledge base documents that fail to solve their problems–and may even discourage users from ever coming back to the site. In fact, many knowledgebases were originally written for internal use by support reps, not customers, and hardly anyone ever seems to ask: Is this approach really working for us?”

I can answer that. No, it’s not working. It’s not working for either party. As a customer, the experience left me cold. I certainly wouldn’t buy from them, and could never recommend them in good faith. As an industry professional, I can’t imagine it’s pleasant or productive to have irate customers calling for information that support staff are ill-equipped to answer.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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