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Stop Your Product Manuals From Killing Your Business
How to turn the typical consumer's nightmare into sweet dreams--and even sweeter profits
Looking for a can't-miss formula for scaring away repeat business? Try this:
1. Make your products as complicated as possible.
2. Pinch a few pennies by skimping on the quality of your product manuals.
3. Save even more money: Stop producing any printed manuals at all.
4. Customer service? Let customers find their own product information. They can discover random bits of information about your products on the Web, can't they? Or let them buy how-to books, written by others, that tell them how to use your products.
Sounds crazy, right? Yet this penny-wise, pound-foolish program is exactly what some of our biggest and best-known products companies are doing today. They are reaping short-term savings by scrimping on product manuals. But they are also losing money tomorrow by jeopardizing their customers' satisfaction, loyalty, future purchases - and their company's future profit margins.
What does producing a poor-quality product manual have to do with profits? Plenty. As any good salesperson can tell you, a repeat sale hauls in far more profits than a sale to new customer. The cost of gaining a new customer is that high. So by turning off today's customers with sub-standard or non-existent product manuals, you're actually risking your company's future profit margins.
Yet the need for first-rate product manuals has never been greater. Today's high-tech business products are feature-laden and complicated. What could be more frustrating and mystifying than trying, for the first time, to format a document with your PC's word-processing software... get driving directions to an important meeting from the GPS in a rental car... or forward a voice-mail message to a colleague from your new cell phone? Consumer products are no better: I've recently been defeated while trying to reset the time on my digital watch, change the pre-set stations on my car's digital radio, and make sense of the 77 buttons on my DVD player's remote.
To be sure, some of the difficulty is due to poor product design. On my DVD player's remote, for example, each tiny key can be shifted into any of two functional modes, including the mysterious "VFP." Hey, guys, I simply want to relax with a good movie! Even the best manual in the world can't help this overly complex design.
Still, there is a great deal that a high-quality product manual can do. More important, business users and consumers want this information and are willing to pay for it. Take computer software, an area where the manufacturers are unwilling or unable to explain their own products adequately. Book publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. Witness the huge success of the "...For Dummies" how-to books and, for the more technically astute, big-selling how-to books from technical publishers including O'Reilly, Que, and Sybex. Even a seemingly obscure book entitled "PC Annoyances" sold 50,000 copies in eight months. Clearly, the demand for clear, helpful written instructions -- in print format -- is there.
But wait, hasn't the Web made print manuals obsolete? No, and here's why. First, if the product in question is part of a computer system that isn't working, guess what? The customer can't use the computer to look up the product information! Second, print is ideal for manuals. The table of contents gives customers an overview of a product's functionality. The index at the end helps them find the precise information they need. And the fact that it's on paper means customers can bookmark frequently used pages, write notes and shortcuts on the pages, and read about a product at their own time and pace.
So what can you do about your own company's product manuals? Start by taking this quick self-test:
1. Is the manual for your product too short?
With today's complex business products, skimpy manuals are a serious problem. Apple Computer, for example, provides a mere 30-page guide to new users of the company's OS X operating system. That's so short, some features are not even mentioned. Meanwhile, a best-selling book on the subject, "Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Panther Edition," runs a full 728 pages.
2. Is the manual too long?
Consumer products should be simple to operate. Yet the manual for one popular digital camera is a stunning 100 pages long - and that's not counting its separate "software starter guide," which runs another 98 pages. A leading cell-phone maker offers a manual that totals 112 pages. The manual for my old VCR, produced by one of the top Japanese electronics supplier, comes to an intimidating 128 pages. These are novellas, not consumer-product manuals!
3. Is the manual poorly written?
How eager would you be to buy another product from a company that provided you the following instructions:
   If you change the [RESUME] setting from [DISC RESUME] to [OFF] or [ON], you cannot resume playback of a disc whose "resuming" position is stored.
   You can specify the orientation of your cross-functional flowchart by using special shapes called functional band shapes.
   You can use EGPRS, GPRS, HSCSD, and CSD data services. For availability to data services, contact your service provider.
These are all examples from actual manuals, by the way. The first is for a DVD player sold by a major Japanese company. The second is for a popular piece of business software sold by a leading U.S. vendor. And the third is for a cell phone sold by a top European supplier.
4. Is the manual poorly organized?
Does the manual first present a clear overview of what the product it helps users...and its major features? Many manuals don't bother with this helpful information.
Is the manual divided into chapters? If so, do these chapters flow in logical order? Or are they arranged willy-nilly?
Is there both a detailed table of contents and, even more important, an accurate and complete index? Both are critical for ease-of-use.
5. Is the manual available only online?
If so, shame on you. First, if you offer consumer products, you're missing nearly three of every five households in the U.S. That's how many households don't yet have Internet access, according to the government's latest figures.
Second, have you actually ever tried to get product information online? If so, you know what a frustrating experience it can be. FAQ lists that mention everything but your problem. Help menus that don't actually help. Then, finally, the inevitable call to Customer Service, only to learn they are "experiencing unusually heavy call volume" -- how can it be unusual when they always say it? -- before being left to die on hold. For your business customers, all this wasted time equals lost productivity -- and a compelling reason to shun your company's products in the next purchasing cycle.
If you answered Yes to any of these five questions, your product manuals are failing your customers. They're also turning off future sales and profits.
PETER KRASS is the president of Petros Consulting (, a firm that helps clients improve written communications to attract, nurture, and develop excellent customers, quality suppliers, committed employees, and long-term partners. Call or write Peter at 718-398-5811,
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