- Accessibility - Your customers might not even know the documentation exists, where to find it, or how to access or navigate it.
- Presentation - The document layout is uninspiring, or doesn't effectively use visual "attention-grabbers" to draw the reader towards important information.
- Usability - Information isn't presented in an easy-to-follow manner, or the manual is written in very technical language your customers may not understand.
The best people to talk to in this situation are your customers. The next time a customer doesn't want to read your product manual, politely ask why. (If you have several technical support staff, you can write "scripts" for them to follow when dealing with customers so they don't forget to ask these questions.) Is there a problem with accessing the file? Is the installation procedure too confusing? Perhaps the instructions aren't clear, or a step is missing in the procedure.
Always take the time to record customers' feedback on your documentation. Not only is this good customer service practice, but within a short time, the top concerns customers have about your documentation should become clear.
Your next course of action is to resolve the most critical issues. If your customers don't know where to find the documentation or how to use it, perhaps it needs to be marketed more aggressively or the format of the material needs to be changed.
If document presentation is the problem, perhaps extra graphics or a jazzy new layout will attract your customers' attention. And if usability issues are preventing your customers from getting the most out of the documentation, working with an experienced technical writer or "information designer" to re-work the style or content can really make a difference.
Whether you've re-worked your documentation or have just released your first product manual, actively marketing it to customers is key. Make it clearly and easily available on your website; mention the documentation during customer contacts whenever appropriate; include a short blurb about it in your e-mail signatures; and mention it in your support line's voicemail greeting or on-hold message.
Remember, product documentation is for the benefit of your customers - and therefore your customers are your most valuable source of information about whether your documentation is doing its job! By actively encouraging feedback and taking their suggestions to heart, you'll make your products and business more successful... and you'll be known as a company who truly cares about their customers. And isn't that the kind of reputation we all want?
Tanja Rosteck is the owner of Words4Nerds, a documentation provider specializing in the needs of small businesses. With extensive experience in customer support management and IT service delivery, Tanja is committed to providing effective and affordable self-help solutions to companies across the globe.