We're interacting and relying upon more applications and more mobile devices today than ever before. That's not a new development. And the help guides for these products started showing up online more than a decade ago, but it wasn't until recently that consumers started accessing this product help content on such a frequent and reoccurring basis.
If it's not already self-evident (or if your customers and prospects haven't already told you so), customer support and product help documentation (such as a knowledge base) matter more today than ever before. Today, this content is often the subject of the very first interaction a customer has with your company after buying your product.
But the disturbing thing about customer support sites today is that they are still primarily geared towards phone interactions, a la 1999. It's really pitiful. Customers hate the experience, and businesses lose the opportunity to build loyalty or cross-sell. We can do better.
There's No Crying in Baseball - Follow These 4 Simple Rules
There are a lot of mistakes that people make with their Web-based support strategy, and that's understandable considering the pace of change in customer preferences and available technologies. That said, there are some basic, modern practices that every company should be working to implement as part of their support strategies.
Rule 1: Build Help Communities With a Social Layer
The bare minimum requirement for enabling discussion and starting a social layer is allowing your users to score content and provide feedback. We have all experienced help articles that are missing a small but critical piece of information that prevents us from solving our problem, and that's okay. But if you don't have these feedback tools, you're never going to improve.
But you really need to get past feedback and meaningfully build in a social layer. It must be the goal of all managers of marketing, product, community and support to establish their company and product as a node on the social graphs of their prospective buyers.
Product help is one of the easiest ways to achieve this. When you give your customers an exceptional product help experience, it is at precisely this moment they are most likely to Tweet, Share, Like or blog about your company or product.
Rule 2: Lose the Ego and Curate External Content
An incredible amount of quality content about your product can be found externally. But most companies tell their users to avoid these resources because they are not the "official" answers to a given issue. In today's world, companies should curate this content and include it in the product help community. This can be done by actively seeking out content in blogs, Twitter and YouTube.
But the savviest support teams will make it easy for community members to contribute that content - with moderation, of course. This means more content that is higher quality for driving traffic and creating engagement.
Rule 3: Make Sure Your In-product Help Reflects Your Help Community
When in-product help is present, most users often start there. This is where I began in a recent experience with TechSmith Snagit's product documentation. That experience was a typical software in-product help experience, which is to say: awful.
In-product documentation is almost always dead and disconnected from the community of users and is consistently out-of-date by months or even years. If your in-product support is frustrating and useless, just remove it from the product altogether and link to online support and docs.
This isn't to say contextual in-product support can't be great - just look at Microsoft Office. But even Microsoft Office's help could be improved by allowing user participation.
Rule 4: Measure Everything
Product help can give savvy marketing and support teams an unprecedented view into user behavior, frustrations and preferences. The way users browse, search and contribute to the help community can be captured and mined.
And it goes without saying that if you know more about how your customers use your product, then you can better develop the next version for their needs, and selling to them will be that much easier.
Even better, allowing users to connect their social graphs to your support community enables you to learn even more about how you can better service them with product support, product developments, and yes: marketing and sales.
Photo by brokenarts