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Published on November 9th, 2009 | by Rahel Bailie


Consequences of not having a good content strategy

Yesterday, I bought a phone from Staples. I chose the AT&T brand, for no particular reason other than the physical interface looked like it could be straightforward and it had the features I wanted. When I got the phone home, I unpacked it, attached the base, then took one cordless headset upstairs and plugged it in, and another headset to the ground-level home office and plugged it in. Then I started to configure the phone’s options. Things went well – the schema was generally to press “Menu/Select”, scroll to find an option, then press “Menu/Select” again to choose the option, and press Menu/Select again to confirm the change.

So when it came time to changing the answering machine greeting message, I followed the instructions only to discover that there is no option to select. I tried all the little tricks to see if the option got hidden elsewhere in the menu tree, but it was definitely missing. Well, that’s fine; I will tough out the pain of contacting customer support, through the phone number in the back of the book. The phone number works in Canada – always an iffy question – so that’s encouraging, and after listening to all the preambles, I press 1 for English, enter my product number, and go through the various menus but there is no option for “menu items are missing”. It seems that all the options end up the same way, leading to an end point of “visit our website at …”.

Now, gigantic corporations all have us trained to despise having to call in; in other words: Don’t you think I’d have checked the website first if I thought I could find the answer on your website? It would have been so much easier: go to the site, choose the model number, and  But of course, the user experience was quite painful. Here is an encapsulation of the frustration points:

  1. After doing a Google search for AT&T 84209 (the model number) phone, I kept getting routed to the site, which was obviously US-based, and geared to telephone service subscribers.
  2. I redialed the number from the instruction book and was given as the URL. Typing in 84209 got me to a shopping area. Do I want to buy a replacement cordless battery? I must say that if I happened to know the model number of a phone I wanted to buy, I’d be in luck because the second shopping option is to buy the very phone that I’m getting annoyed over.
  3. There are links to the manual and Quick Start guide, which I consulted and had the same incorrect information.
  4. Filling in the Contact Us form field promises to net a response within – depending on which of the messages you believe – 72 hours (on website), 2 days (on-screen auto-reply message), or 3 days (auto-reply email) but I doubt that I’ll get a meaningful answer. It may be too late anyhow, as I’ve run about the house, disconnecting telephone bits and bobs and tossing them into a bag to return to the store.

Now, I admit that my question is not one of the top ten questions, and it might be embarrassing to put it on the automated reply options (Press 8 if the interface  doesn’t work as per instructions.) but surely someone has asked this question before, and somewhere, a content developer has tackled this discrepancy. The point is that there needs to be a strategy around content that goes beyond the basics. Now that I’ve calmed down and revisited the situation with an industry insider’s eye, the support site is lovely – beautiful colours and the navigation to the FAQs is quite simple. But when a customer is searching content, and can’t find it, then all the other niceties fall away. The laser beam focus on finding the content, which is needed to complete their task, overrides all other aspects of the user experience. Task-based analysis at its best.

So to AT&T, I would ask: if one of your questions is “Who is Charlie Johnson and why is his name displayed on my phone?” surely the question of missing menu items could be addressed, as well? This site is a classic example of focusing resources on the usability side of the support site, but not having a content strategy befitting such a site.  In this case, I did receive an email a few days later, referring me to a “real person” in another department, but by that time, my answer was, “Thanks, but too little too late. I’ve exchanged the phone for another brand.”

Seeing as how returns of electronic consumer products is a multi-billion dollar problem in North America, companies could definitely benefit from having strong content strategies, not just on their website, but across the product line, from instructions to training to their support site.

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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,

3 Responses to Consequences of not having a good content strategy

  1. Your story is also a great reminder that executing an effective customer experience takes proactive decisions from product design to content to operations to service to brand strategy. It’s too easy – but misleading – to think customer experience is just about the direct interaction.

    Companies like AT&T often complain of being commoditized by their customers. Imagine if all of the detailed content, etc decisions that created your missing menu item were focused on proving a promise that was uniquely something AT&T could solve better than anyone else. Now that would be some customer experience.

    You might be interested in this AT&T customer experience post too: Thanks for your useful post. LCI

  2. If you analyze the call records for a typical support organization, you’ll probably find that roughly half of the total volume of incidents are caused by easily-fixed issues like the one you just encountered. Yet there’s rarely any process in place for identifying and eliminating these issues. “Serious” bugs get fast-tracked
    to the engineering department, but I have yet to find a company
    that assigns much priority to resolving usability issues, missing
    drivers, bad FAQ answers, and the like.

    Worse, the ROI for almost all of these fixes is so easy to
    calculate. I’m sure a company like AT&T gets literally tens of
    thousands of calls per year (at a cost of perhaps $25 each) for
    just one the one issue you encountered. Cost to fix: negligible.
    Multiply by all the equivalent issues that aren’t getting fixed…
    well, it’s a lot of zeroes.

  3. Grant Hogarth says:

    Having set up and run a couple of TS groups, I agree that usability is almost always viewed as a “nice to have” rather than a “have to have” item *unless* Senior Management is championing it. Then it gets foregrounded. As I see it, there are two priomary reasons, one cultural and one systemic. The cultural reason is that programmers/engineers/developers generally see usability as a low-status activity as it is seldom a technical challenge; as long as the widget works, who cares? The systemic reason is that accounting/sales (and to a certain extent marketing) usually have no metrics for losses due to deficient usability (or wins from good usability). Although some inferences can be drawn (as Mr. Tarter notes above) from TS call logs, these seem to seldom get out of the TS group (which has its own reason to protect its turf/budget), save as the increasing number of FAQ pages. There is seldom an examination of what the calls are indicating about the product, other than that “the customers seem to be getting dumber/lazier every year”.

    So … as it can’t be directly measured, it’s probably not important. Beyond that, usability is not seen as “sexy” — there are few internal political bennies from improving usability. This same thinking also (in my opinion) has driven the dumbing-down and evisceration of user manuals.

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