Since the goal of a how-to guide is to allow customers to help themselves, most businesses only think of documentation in terms of how it will impact their customer support.
But your how-to guides and documentation can also communciate a lot about your business.
Whenever I am getting ready to start using a new product or service, I instantly look at the company's help site. Granted, I develop online documentation software, so I am probably a bit more aware of this than others, but a company's help/documentation site can tell me a lot about what it will be like to work with them.
Here are three things I know about you if you have a great documentation site:
1. You are organized
I have never seen a disorganized company put together a great documentation site. A great documentation site sends a clear signal about how organized your company is.
A great example of this is the Van Halen Brown M&M's. Van Halen used to have a rider in their contract that required the promoters to provide a bowl of M&M's with all of the brown ones removed. A lot of people thought this was just them being divas. But Snopes explains the real reason:
The legendary "no brown M&Ms" contract clause was indeed real, but the purported motivation for it was not. The M&Ms provision was included in Van Halen's contracts not as an act of caprice, but because it served a practical purpose: to provide an easy way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read (and complied with).
The Brown M&M's were a signal about how detail oriented the promoters were.
In the same way, your documentation site is a signal about how organized your business is. If you have a great documentation site, there is a good chance that your business is very organized simply because disorganized businesses aren't able to create and maintain great documentation sites.
2. You care about helping customers
If a company has created a great documentation site, then it clearly cares about helping customers. Creating a documentation site is an investment of time and money. Companies don't do this unless they really care about making their customers successful.
3. You have time to help your customers
When I see a company that has great documentation, I know that they are going to have time to help me with the areas that aren't documented.
Inevitably, when I use a product, no matter how good the documentation is, I will reach a point where I want to do something that isn't documented. If the company has great documentation, then I can be pretty sure that they will have time to really help me.
Because companies that have great documentation sites don't spend a bunch of time answering the same questions over and over again. This frees up their resources to deal with "higher level" problems their customers have.
The inverse is not necessarily true
If Companies have poor documentation (or no documentation), it doesn't necessarily mean that they are disorganized or unhelpful or time constrained. But the fact is I don't know that they are organized and helpful. Their documentation hasn't sent a positive signal so I am going to have to use other methods to find out how easy they will be to work with.
If they have great docs, then I don't need to do quite as much investigation. Their documentation sends a strong signal about the type of company they are.
Unless of course they are delivering their documentation in a Word file. Then I know it's going to be a rocky relationship.
Photo courtesy of Michael Thom (Flikr account thom.michaelj)