Making Self-Service Work

The dream goes something like this: "Now that we offer our customers Web self-service, they answer their own questions. The phones are quiet and the email flow has dwindled to a trickle." This self-service dream includes images of a 24/7, personalized, customer-enabling, transaction-completing, purchase-facilitating, automated wonder.

At the very center of this dream are mighty and magical FAQs. These FAQs reflect the questions that customers do ask. And they answer the customers' questions, solve their problems, and enable them to take action--without a follow-up email or phone call.

An impossible dream? You'll probably never dream up all the questions your customers might ask, or write answers to respond to all situations. But carefully written FAQs will build a solid foundation for Web self-service. Here are five tips for writing FAQs that will enable your Web site visitors to easily help themselves to the information they need.

1. Choose the Appropriate Question Word
It may seem obvious, but each question word--who, what, when, where, why, how--requires a particular type of information for a complete answer. Why questions should be answered with reasons; how questions should be answered with procedures or steps in a process; when questions should be answered with times or dates, etc. For example, Amazon's FAQs on electronic banking for its Advantage program members provide the right information for each question word:

  • "Why must my financial institution be in the United States?" has a reason answer: " can only disburse payments using U.S. dollars, and the systems we use are only set up to handle payments within the U.S."
  • "How will I know that I've been paid?" has a procedure answer: "The bank that uses to send payments will send you a paper direct deposit notification by mail..."

    2. Organize FAQs in a Way That Is Easy for the User to Grasp
    CitiFinancial Mortgage does a confusing job of organizing its customer service FAQs. It presents 10 FAQ categories: Account Maintenance, Documents, Escrow, Insurance, New Loan Servicing, Payments, Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, Payoff, Taxes, and Year-end. How are these categories organized? (Perhaps alphabetically, once upon a time.) How can users predict where to find the answer they need when the categories differ so much in scope and overlap? Let's say a customer has this FAQ: "Will CitiFinancial Mortgage pay my taxes before the end of December?" Should he click the Taxes category or the Year-end category?

    On the other hand Postini, makers of spam and virus filters, does a better job by organizing FAQs into three logical groups: "General Questions about Postini," "End-user Questions," and "Privacy and Security" questions. Users can instantly determine where to find their answer.

    3. Place the FAQs Section Near Other Kinds of Help
    If customers can't help themselves online, you have to help them in another way. Norelco does a good job of offering other help options. Norelco's two FAQs sections--"FAQs Before You Buy" and "FAQs After You Buy"--are grouped with other help in the Customer Care area of the site. Other help options include contacting Norelco (phone, e-mail, mail, or fax), using a glossary, and chatting with a live representative.

    4. Integrate User Questions Into Page Text Throughout the Site
    Why segregate user questions in the FAQ silo? Excellent Web self-service provides answers when and where they are needed. The Janus Roth IRA page, for example, anticipates three questions IRA investors often ask, including "Want information on moving a Roth IRA from another financial institution to a Janus Roth IRA?" These frequently asked questions about Roth IRAs appear where users will want them: in the upper right corner of the Roth IRA page.

    5. Link Answers to Other Relevant Information on the Site
    The FAQs section should not be a final destination; it should be a gateway to detailed information on other parts of the site. Link answers to the rest of the site to take users to exactly what they are looking for. For example, the National Institutes of Health's Questions and Answers About NIH does a great job of linking. The answer to "Can I volunteer for NIH research studies even if I'm healthy?" links users to the pages that explain what kinds of studies healthy volunteers can take part in.

    So, to wrap it all up: Regardless of how hard you try, you can never anticipate and answer all of your customers' FAQs. Consider the FAQ we found at Pennsylvania House furniture: "What if I have a question that isn't answered here?" For customers, the ultimate in self-service includes contacting the company if the online content hasn't served their needs. Let customers know that you'll answer their infrequently asked questions with a personal email or a phone call.

    Leslie O'Flahavan and Marilynne Rudick are partners in E-WRITE , a training and consulting company in the Washington area that specializes in online writing. Professional writers and trainers, O'Flahavan and Rudick write Web content, revise Web sites to emphasize a customer focus and support self-service, and train marketing teams and entrepreneurs to write dynamic Web sites and selling email messages. Rudick and O'Flahavan are authors of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.
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