Frequently Avoided Questions

My comrade, sharp tack extraordinaire at a respected academic-centered consultancy, posted the following at his organization’s official blog:

Why isn’t there a FAQ on this site?
Good question. We’ll put one up soon.

I can only assume his post is in response to 1) redundant queries or 2) the suggestion of a FAQ, specifically, to field them. His site receives respectable traffic from all sorts, folks who no doubt inundate his whipsmart cohorts with fairly tedious questions. Indeed, FAQs (in their traditional use) are useful for pre-qualifying clients & associates, redirecting lost interlopers, and translating industry jargon. But here’s why I must dissuade said tack from a FAQ: they’re designed to end a conversation before it begins.

FAQs intercept the organic development of discussion. They transform important issues of customer experience into rote resolutions. They abandon the possibility of greater insight in favor of efficient client interactions. Sure, it’s fair that in Circumstance A, a particular company would prescribe that a client perform Action B, but why squelch the emergence of a more elegant, subtle, or profound solution?
The given case of my blogging friend offers even more powerful reasons for eschewing an FAQ section altogether. Though his field is relatively misunderstood, his organization does not require extensive context-setting or process elaboration. Even were it so, they operate a blog — the ultimate ongoing archive of frequently asked questions and an ideal playground for short and long-term idea exploration. With organization features (entry tags, etc.), visitors can still browse content for need-specific posts. Moreover, their fundamental organizational goal is to start the conversation about their discipline’s philosophy. It seems that — tedium aside — any opportunity to do so should be cherished.
Now, it’s important I differentiate FAQs from dynamic help or troubleshooting guides — well assembled examples of the latter are utterly useful. And FAQ-as-sequential-quasi-interview has particular narrative merit. But most FAQs act as a crutch for inadequate core communications. They acknowledge a recurring audience desire and then satisfy it only in afterthought. FAQs, in an attempt to be exactly the opposite, are the trademark of poorly organized, selfishly commandeered, or haphazard web content. A step above nothing, sure, but diaperstink nonetheless.
Frequently asked questions are not items to be added to a list; FAQs are cues to rethink your core communications or, at the very least, consider the user’s experience with your company, product, or service. Ideally, they are the commencement of a meaningful and mutually beneficial conversation.

4 thoughts on “Frequently Avoided Questions

  1. Matt – great post. Like many other communication practices that have evolved over the years, FAQ’s are just “something you do” to most companies. Agreed that they are efficient and helpful for companies with huge customer basis that may have common problems. But this is another opportuity to create a dialogue and to possibly turn and existing customer into an evangalist. Companies need to think a step beyond FAQ’s. Customer service is broken for the most part in this country. Its an afterthought or necessary evil and companies don’t react in a significant way until there is a problems that forces them to do so. You should do a follow up post highlighting some examples of companies doing it well – if you can find them.

  2. What about the ADD, give it to me right NOW segment of the population? I agree with your core communications POV but not irritating customers has to be taken into account (how many customers will bail if they can’t quickly and easily find an answer to their question?).
    Would I rather have a profound interaction or grab my information and go? Depends. Need to know when the trash company picks up? Grab & go. Need dumpster sizes? Interact – you may not really know how to translate volume to debris.
    I don’t think FAQ’s are bad, companies simply use them poorly and try to substitute them for good customer service – which is a whole different post.

  3. Bad FAQ pages read like scam infomercials, asking questions no discerning customer cares about and are answered with fully-loaded, self-glorifying hogwash:
    Q: Why is your company so great?
    A: Our commitment to excellence is realized in new revenue stream acquisition, diversion and purification. This competitive advantage places us on the bleeding edge of our industry, creating favorable operational variables going forward.
    Q: Your product is the best, right?
    A: Aboslutely.
    Q: Wasn’t there a report of server bodily injury if I use your product?
    A: Next question, please.
    Good FAQ pages, as Lori points out, help the “I need it now” folks find what they need. No muss, no fuss. “Just the facts, ma’am.”
    In the right hands and with discretion, FAQ pages
    aren’t a terrible thing. Matt, you are spot-on though as well in your point that eliminating the chance to communicate with potential clients could be a costly mistake, a missed opportunity that may not present itself again.
    In the end, the simple answer – as with many “Is it good/bad?” questions in life – is: it depends.

  4. Yes, Brent … it depends. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. But it’s important, in my estimation, to note that FAQs are not customer service NOR customer conversation. Under few circumstances is a company doing their customer a favor by answering a question when it’s the question itself that requires the most scrutiny.

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