By Rahel Anne Bailie, special to TheContentWrangler.com
If you think a FAQ page is where customers find handy information about their needs, a place where customers go to look for answers to frequently asked questions, think again. In an informal survey of infrequent to always-on computer users, respondents unanimously agreed that FAQ pages were generally of little to no use in actually answering their questions. The feedback included frank comments: The information isn’t organized so I can find anything. I keep going around in circles. It’s just recycled information from the site. I don’t know whose questions they’re answering, but it’s never my question. I stopped looking at FAQ pages because they’re usually useless.
What FAQ pages have become are elephant graveyards of non-information, the equivalent of the Miscellaneous file folder, the place where information-we-didn’t-know-where-to-put was dumped. The challenge of creating a FAQ page that customers will find useful has several aspects to it, but can be accomplished with a lot of planning and a little strategic work.
The first step toward creating an FAQ page is to understand what an FAQ page actually is. FAQ stands for Frequently Asked Questions, and implied in that acronym is that the questions are frequently asked today. Frankly, if you’re still answering the same questions today as you were last year, your customer will likely assume that the problems your product or service still has last year’s problems, and that’s an entirely other set of customer service problems. So let’s assume that the questions being asked are not due to poor product design or bad service practices. Let’s assume these are questions that fall within the normal range of experience of people who are generally satisfied but need more information, either while considering your product or service, during setup, or as customers.
First, you need to find out what questions your customers are asking. If you have a customer service department, support center, or call center, what simple questions do they regularly answer? Do you have a feedback form – one that works! – on your website where customers can pose questions? These are all valuable sources of information, both in harvesting questions and in providing answers. If you need to answer it for one person, you can answer it for multiple people at the same time. The following tips will give customers hope that the FAQs are usable and useful:
- Make sure the questions are written with a specific topic. “What about images?” is too vague to be of use to a customer with a burning need for an answer.
- Make sure the answer addresses the question accurately. If you want customers to use the online FAQ instead of clogging up your telephone support lines, check that the instructions actually work – especially after you’ve made code or product changes. And please, resist the temptation to introduce marketing-speak into the answers. People are there to fix a problem, not be sold a bill of goods.
- Have the questions written consistently. This makes the questions easier to scan, and more likely for a customer to keep looking for an answer. Some customers will think of using the browser search function, but often not knowing the industry jargon prevents customers from figuring out what to search for.
- Have the questions professionally written. Nothing will turn off your customers faster than getting a techno-geek answer when what they need is well-written, plain-language instructions.
- Sort your questions by audience type. Complex questions might be inappropriate for a FAQ page for beginners, but straightforward questions are definite candidates. For the techie customers, you might have a section called Questions for Advanced Users that isolates the otherwise intimidating answers in one place.
- List the questions alphabetically. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to search through a haystack of questions for the needle of an answer.
- Group your FAQs by question type, and give each group a heading. This helps customers find their information faster.
Now that you have a great FAQ page, you’ll face a related challenge: how do you get customers to use the page? It may be hard to get past the presupposition that a FAQ page is a dust-covered museum of questions from the late 1990s. Just as FAQs change, so should your approaches to FAQ presentation; what works today may be obsolete in a year or two. That said, here are a couple of approaches that work in today’s Web world:
- Use a software utility to extract the top questions and list them as a sidebar. The Help with FAQ section of MySpace.com does an excellent job of re-assuring customers that the information there is current and accurate.
- Don’t call the FAQ a FAQ. If you have lots of questions, consider a more useful name that tells customers what the questions are about. If your questions supplement your support, call it a Support Center, as Symantec does. Or, if your questions are all about how to set up an account, call your page Getting Started.
- Make the FAQs printable. Particularly when an instruction calls for a system reboot, it’s handy for the customer to be able to refer to printed instructions and to return to the URL once they are back online.
- Refer to the FAQ page from elsewhere. For example, if you have a FAQ section on Return Policies that limits returns on certain clothing types, you can link to it from those types of clothing. This indicates to customers that you respect their time enough to point out their obligations before they buy.
- Include a link so that customers can ask questions that don’t yet exist in your FAQ repertoire.
Checking a company’s FAQ page is a little like peeking into a family’s kitchen during a dinner party. It reveals the personality of the household: smooth and organized or neglected and disheveled. A dynamic FAQ page can be a valuable part of your Web site, particularly if it’s considered a knowledge asset and maintained with the same care as the rest of the marketing material on the site.
About the author
Rahel Anne Bailie is a content management consultant and content development strategist helping organizations analyze their business requirements and spectrum of content to get the right content management fit. Coming from a technical communication and user experience background, she understands the complexities of structured authoring and matching performance to user need. A self-professed geek, Rahel is drawn to technology like a moth to flame, and embraces technologies that serve to improve the performance of communication products and the processes to create and maintain them. She is principal of Intentional Design, a consultancy focusing on content management requirements, content analysis, and user experience activities for small- to medium-sized organizations, and a managing partner with the Strategy A Consulting Group in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Bailie sits on the Management Committee of Content Management Professionals and co-founded the Canada West community, is an Associate Fellow of the Society of Technical Communication, and holds memberships in related professional associations.