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How End User Documentation Becomes a Sales Tool

Nothing should be sexier to a technology marketer than well produced end-user documentation.  Found within such reference materials are clear examples that show value being delivered in a very concrete manner, though the context of the value is not the same as you might require to reach the niche audience in question through a marketing channel.

Good technical documentation lacks the positioning statements, the insistence of need, and other aspects that denote introductory content designed to reach a market segment. It is that stripped down, unqualified treatment of process and outcome which technology marketers should be looking toward when contemplating how to communicate the value their product or service provides.

Whatever technology related business is being marketed, if it has a user guide (I use that term generically to mean ANY reference material, printed or online) it has a way to help the customer climb back down the ladder of abstraction and lay eyes on a concrete process. This means the customer is now able to evaluate the offering in a far more meaningful way. However, serving up a user manual is probably not the best approach to marketing, unless of course the audience is highly technical. In that case, seeing the user guide might be required before the customer’s decision maker will agree to a meeting or purchase.

Perceived Complexity Is The Enemy

If the target audience is a large corporation or organization contemplating spending several million dollars on what a tech company has to offer, they likely have internal staff charged with evaluating the feasibility of whatever it is the tech company is offering. In the case of software license deals, such as are common with many SaaS MRP/ERP systems, poor technical documentation will be equated with poor consideration for the cost such systems impose on the adopting organization by way of expensive learning curves and delays as real time technical support is leaned on to makeup for the lack of professional reference material. For the technology marketer who may have spent months trying to get a meeting with the C-Class decision maker or at least the gatekeeper that would introduce them to the C-Class decision maker, this situation puts all their efforts on very thin ice the moment questions about “how easy is it to use” start getting asked.

For technology solution providers,  user guides (which could be graded training materials, context-sensitive help, or actual printed literature in rare cases)  are the last word on how value is actually delivered. Remembering that value is only as authentic as the promises it keeps, the user guide shows what is promised, and how that promise is delivered. This last part is critical when it comes to creating happy customers. Managing customer expectations is a huge concern that every good sales person (and marketing person too) knows will create attrition if how the value is actually delivered is different than how the customer expected that value to be delivered. The end-user documentation addresses this, though it’s not intentionally a marketing piece nor should it ever be. It shows in detail how a promise is delivered, and that alone can help eliminate a lot of unreasonable or erroneous assumptions on the part of the customer whom might have their own ideas on how a certain technology should work in order to be considered useful. By taking a queue from the documentation, accountability and expectation management become built-in to the marketing message.

The biggest communication challenge daunting technology marketers is abstraction. If something is highly abstract to a client, it will also be perceived as having high complexity; and complexity is not a welcome addition to any organization’s operational environment.

Technology businesses usually deliver value based on the automation of a process of some kind, and the means by which to make it possible for humans to interact cost-effectively with those processes. In other words, their value to a customer is that they reduce the complexity of doing a thing so much that it now becomes something the customer can cost-effectively benefit from.

In fact, an argument could be made that all technology can be distilled down into process automation, with human guidance, toward a desirable outcome not economically possible before the technology was introduced to the organization’s environment. For example, if you are Value Added Re-seller (VAR) that leases computers and network infrastructure to an insurance company, you are automating desktop management and network connectivity. You likely do this by putting a thin client of some kind at the workstation node, and setup hardware in the client’s offices that are configured to perform the functions required to secure the connections that create the service you are providing. When software is updated, that update occurs through automated processes that furnish the most recent version through the thin client desktop experience. The end-user, the customer, never has to understand a thing about how to update software on a desktop computer much less deal with such processes on a network wide basis. The process is automated, and the end-user interacts with the result in order to get their work done.

Education Reduces Perceived Complexity

Depending on the problem a tech company’s solution solves, the processes involved might be very difficult to communicate in a compelling manner to a non-technical potential customer. This communication challenge maps directly back to the level of abstraction involved, which is largely itself determined by how educated the customer is about the problem being addressed and how much they understand about how competing solution providers help. Education, it turns out, is the best way to eliminate abstraction. This explains why reference material can become a powerful marketing tool, and a powerful sales tool. It is also why many technology marketers recognize that educating the client has to be a priority when considering how to reach the right audience with the right message.

So, reducing abstraction through education is a means by which to lower the resistance to the value message and increase the perception that value actually exists in a given tech company’s solution offering. After all, if people cannot understand the benefit of something, that it exists will be meaningless to them. An extreme example of knocking down abstraction is the demo or trial period some tech companies offer their potential customers. This is similar to being given a vehicle for a week (or however long the trial period lasts) from a car dealership in order to decide if it’s the right one for you. Hands-on, rubber-meets-the-road experiences like this are incredibly powerful ways to eliminate abstraction. In the case of a software trial like the one imagined here, the potential client is fully engaged and immersed in the solution. They can read the user guides, test performance, decide if how the solution solves their problem fits their expectations, and more. If the client is extremely judicious, they might even create problems just to test technical support’s ability to address their problem without getting kicked around different “levels” of technical support, having to repeat the problem to different people, and clocking how much time was required to solve their problem.

If they are an IT professional being asked by their boss (the gatekeeper and C-Class team respectively) they will also multiply the time spent solving the problem by the cost of having themselves as an employee.  They will then multiply that cost by the average number of support incidences they can expect to have in a given time period (which tech marketers know is a must-have metric if they want to retain any sort of credibility), then multiply that by the number of employees expected to work with the software to derive the actual Cost-of-Ownership the solution imposes. Balancing this Cost-of-Ownership against the cost of doing nothing and keeping the status quo becomes their baseline feasibility metric. IT professionals are asked to do this sort of analysis all the time for their less technical bosses. Tech marketers count on it, as it is usually a sign they are about to be introduced to the C-Class decision maker.

Respecting the Customer

At this stage in the technical sale, a lack of solid, coherent, and easily understandable reference material that is readily accessible can greatly diminish the odds the tech marketer has worked so hard to tilt in their own favor. The reason isn’t just the frustration it imposes on the evaluating employee, but on the way it makes that employee look when it comes time to report their findings to their boss. In this case, there are really only two possible conclusions that the employee’s boss can come to: either the software is not ready for prime time, or their IT person is not qualified to make the evaluation. It is reasonable to surmise that the employee is not going to think fondly of a given solution provider that makes them look like an idiot in front of their boss.

It comes down, once again, to respecting the customer. Creating technical documentation that educates, as well as serves as a reference for the already-expert, communicates not only respect, but technical competence on the part of the solution provider that cannot be understood any other way. By leveraging the very hard work required to produce really good technical reference material, the tech solution provider establishes credibility, and top-of-mind leadership, simply by reducing complexity, and therefore the level of abstraction the tech marketer has to contend with when attempting to reach the market space.