How to Market a Documentation Department
by Robert King
When you first ventured into the tech writing ranks, marketing the department was likely the furthest thing from your mind. You already had work to do, so marketing was somebody else’s job.
But now that you’re in a position where you are reading newsletters like TechCom Manager , you probably have some concern about marketing. You might even need to be a tech comm marketer to ensure your documentation department survives. To have internal and external customers solicit your services is not always a given, even within the same corporation. At the company where I am Tech Comm Manager, we have a decidedly free-market economy, where the business units can either use our services to provide manuals to their end customers or not. Consequently, marketing our department is actually in my position description. How we market our services to our internal and external customers is the focus of this article.
Here we will discuss marketing by:
- Quality of Your Goods and Services
- Stepping out of the Box for Your Customers
- Saying Yes to Your Customers
- Connecting with Your Customers
- Telling About Yourself
- Showing Value Added
- Your Full Documentation Team
Assuming you have already been entrusted with documentation work, task number one is to do this work well…so well that your customers have no thought of going elsewhere. On one of our largest outside customer’s last major projects with us, they were so satisfied with our lead writer’s work, that in order to get a new contract, they required us to assign the same writer as technical documentation coordinator over the project. So in effect, because of this writer’s superb ability and professional relationship with the customer, not only was he creating and delivering manuals, he was also marketing our department’s services better than any sales call or glossy brochure ever could.
One of our major internal customers developed what seemed to be an annoying habit: They began engineering bootleg products to meet specific customer needs quickly, rather than following the company’s slow, laborious product-development process. For a time, our tech comm group strictly followed procedures, telling this department we could not produce a manual until they performed the necessary product-development functions. Then one day, it dawned on me that our stringent approach wasn’t a good way to market our documentation services. So, for these “unofficial” products, we started producing semi-standard manuals. As a result, both our internal and external customers have received these products with enthusiasm. Our writer on the last bootleg project said she has never experienced such cooperation from the requesting engineers. They actually provided their technical reviews on-time (or early), said amazing things, such as “Your wish is my command,” and even returned phone calls promptly. Bottom line: They needed this material for their end customers and really appreciated our writer’s out-of-the-box efforts to provide a quick delivery.
Of course you can’t say yes to everything. If an assignment requires a lot of unpaid work or it’s out of the contract’s scope, this can lead to overruns, which must be avoided. But when so many small requests by customers today are met with run-arounds or worse, if a request can be met easily, the good-will can be priceless. For example, one of our staff received this note in response to a relatively small task: “ Tech Comm was the one department in the company that we can always count on to help us out – and not just tell us no. ” Obviously, this wasn’t the last time we heard from this internal customer.
Respond affirmatively to the occasional unreasonable emergency . You have every right to tell your customer to forget it if they suddenly need the work done next week instead of next month as scheduled. But if you want to turn the crisis into a marketing opportunity, somehow try to get the work done early and bail your customer out. Usually, customers will not forget such service and will return for repeat business. If you aren’t willing to address these situations, customers will likely find someone else to meet their aggressive demands.
Speak your customer’s language . If you are working with a customer who has a million acronyms, at least try to learn and use the key ones. Lose your own internal terms and use the customer’s. If a customer refers to the DHC and PTS being due 16 WACA per the SOW and TLM, do your homework so you know what they are talking about.
Get to know your customers. Some tech writers have a remarkable network of internal and external customer contacts who like working with them. Not only do writers provide them good work, they’ve also built relationships the customers enjoy and want to foster through continued business. So, learn your customer’s name and remember it. Also, use informal and formal surveys to learn what your customers want. Then, do all you can to give them exactly that.
Go where your customers are. To market our documentation services, other tech comm staffs and mine have traveled not only to local facilities in the area, but also to California , Texas , Alabama , Toronto , Detroit , and Chicago . By doing so, we took advantage of two phenomena, including:
- The perception that the expert is from far away.
- When you travel a long way, people of various levels are more willing and able to set aside time for you.
- Develop a user-friendly Intranet or Internet page detailing your services and make it easy to email requests to you using interactive forms.
- Be proactive with potential customers who might benefit from your services. Offer to talk with them about how your capabilities match their needs, and submit a proposal for how you can serve them.
- Make yourself visible. Network among your potential customers. Just seeing you might remind some customers about the documentation project they had to get done but never get around to. Personal presence can offer its marketing reward—don’t neglect it, even if it is unnatural for you.
- Highlight key capabilities of specific staff. For example, we found a degreed mechanical engineer who wanted to be a tech writer. After he developed his writing skills, I made sure our internal mechanical engineering groups for which we were providing engineering manuals knew that we had “one of them” doing the writing.
Show a value-add for your service, even if it means occasionally swallowing your purist tech-comm pride. We have all run into individuals who think that all we do is “make documents look pretty.” So, to best market your services, help them understand that you can do much more–such as create original documentation based on raw engineering data for delivery in various media. The best way to convince them of this value-added is by doing it. If you get that first chance, surprise them with the depth of your deliverable.
But some will just want you to make it pretty, and as long as they pay for it, what does it hurt to humble yourself and give them what they want? One of our internal customers wrote, “While I don’t mind the actual writing of the document, I find that my formatting tends to be a little flat. I am hoping to get your special brand of magic on a couple of documents that I will be producing in the coming weeks. I was extremely impressed with your staff on the last project.” Even though this was kind of like saying we made it look pretty, he came back, opening the door to more substantial work.
What does the quiet wordsmith laboring in the far corner of your cubicle farm have to do with marketing? Staff in tech comm departments know people the manager doesn’t know. Encourage your staff to speak up about their department’s capabilities, avoiding the temptation of leaving all the marketing to the manager. I have people in my group who are better marketers than I am. One of my remote staff members is so confident of his ability to market his services, he says that if his current workload is pulled away, he would have no problem beating the bushes for more. You don’t need to send your quietest, most reclusive writer out on marketing calls, but expect him or her to do some informal marketing as part of his or her everyday work.
Being a tech comm Marketer can be exciting or frustrating, successful or disastrous, and will often be threatening before it is rewarding. If you don’t do the marketing, it probably won’t get done. Even if marketing your documentation department is not in your position description, why not give it a try? With persistence, you’ll be rewarded with new opportunities for you and your department.