Writing an honest FAQ

by Tom Albrighton 10 June 2013 Copywriting

What will we do there?
We’ll get high
What will we touch there?
We’ll touch the sky
Small Faces, lyrics to ‘Itchycoo Park’

Recently, I worked on a new website for a medium-sized professional services firm. Along with their agency, they were wrestling with an age-old problem: how to ‘slice up’ or categorise their content and reflect their structure in the site’s navigation.

There’s no single correct answer, and many firms try different approaches in different iterations of their site. Having previously opted for a ‘what we do’ category structure, determined by service type, my client decided to switch to a ‘who you are’ approach, with sections devoted to different types of customer. And they also decided to populate each section with answers to the questions that each type of customer usually asked.

Cover image from 'Why are there more questions than answers, Grandad?' by Kenneth Mahood (Puffin, 1974)

Cover image from ‘Why are there more questions than answers, Grandad?’ by Kenneth Mahood (Puffin, 1974)

Infrequently asked questions

On the face of it, orienting the content around the user’s concerns seems like a classic customer-focus tactic. But as ever, the devil’s in the detail of the execution. It’s still possible to create self-regarding Q&A pages that leave the customer completely out in the cold.

Some FAQ pages are so blinkered that they border on narcissistic wish-fulfilment. Rather than attempting to address any concern of the customer, they’re actually a leading question for things firms want to say about themselves: ‘What are the benefits of working with Acme Rivets?’ or ‘How long have you been in business?’

Such Qs are more IA than FA. They’re rather like the classic lyric I quoted at the top of this piece, where the frankly implausible query ‘What will we touch there?’ serves as the flimsy pretext for Steve Marriott to bellow ‘We’ll touch the sky!’ In other words, they’re all about what the answerer wants to say, rather than what the questioner wants to know.

Irrelevant services

Mindful of this trap, I and my client resolved to develop FAQs that reflected what people really ask. We started out with a set of questions directly linked to the firm’s services, so we could link through to the relevant page. But during discussions with client-facing staff – who actually field questions from prospective customers – it became clear that people weren’t necessarily that interested in the firm’s actual services. If anything, they took it for granted that the firm would ‘do what it said on the tin’. Where they had service-related queries, they tended to be rather entry-level or generic.

Rather than trying to assess service quality, most prospects were more worried about ‘hygiene’ questions such as cost (and transparency over cost), the geographical location of the firm’s branches and the general ‘fit’ between themselves and the firm in terms of company size and culture. In many cases, new clients make an approach because they have been referred by a third party, or because they’re become disenchanted with their current provider: they’re driven by neutral or negative factors rather than lured by benefits.

Where are we now?

Reflecting on that, we decided that most prospects would not yet be in the right place to engage with standard-issue ‘what we do’ content. As a result, we didn’t get much chance to trumpet the firm’s sophistication or depth of knowledge. That stuff was relevant, but not until a later stage in the buying process – most likely, after the prospect had decided to become a client, at which point they would no longer be browsing the website anyway.

So we dealt with ‘service’ questions as briefly and concisely as we could, without trying to cover every angle. Often, we were able to allude to issues around the question that the asker might not yet be aware of: gently pointing out, usually by implication, that there was a little bit more to it than they might have thought.

As an aside, I found it interesting how far we ended up from an orthodox content-marketing approach, which might have seen us furnish the site with informative articles designed to help the user make an informed decision. But my client felt that posting generic or me-too background info wouldn’t particularly help them.

After all, they reasoned, the website visitor would be looking for them to know about these things, not to learn about them for themselves. So they opted to assert their credibility, back it up with one or two choice nuggets of advice and move to close the sale. And that felt right to me.

Show me the bridge is safe

The thing is, people don’t know what they don’t know. They have to walk before they can run. And if they’re taking their first steps in a market about which they know nothing, reassurance is more useful than information. (Indeed, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing if it instils a false sense of confidence, or gives the prospect an incomplete picture of what they’re trying to buy.)

Often, when people approach me, they want to know how the relationship is going to work. Not my branding philosophy, or my take on the digital marketing mix, but what is covered by my price, what will be delivered and how we will work together.

Basically, they won’t come across to my side until they can see the bridge is safe. By banging on about the things I might think are important, I risk talking at cross purposes at best, completely alienating them at worst. Instead, I have to answer the questions they’re actually asking, no matter how obvious the answers may seem to me.

Just say it

Of course, dealing with queries like this in isolation, and in person, is one thing. Compiling them all into a single document, and putting them down in black and white, is another.

When we’d finished the FAQs, I was concerned that they were not particularly elevated or edifying. In terms of tone of voice, they were practical and prosaic, not poetic or inspiring. Arguably, they made the firm (and maybe its customers too) look preoccupied with petty concerns at the expense of the big picture.

Set against that, though, is the meta-message of honesty and the willingness to engage the prospect on their own turf. Provided we really had anticipated the questions they had in their heads, we’d be well on the way to creating a bond of trust with visitors to the website. An attempt to anticipate what people really ask, made in good faith, has to carry some weight.

There’s also the subtler effect of posting a range of questions all together: people can read the ones they hadn’t thought of as well as the ones they had. If all the questions are plausible and close to their concerns, they’re going to feel that bit better disposed to the firm that created them.

Some may say it’s a brave approach. Personally, I don’t think you can go far wrong with ‘just saying it’. If you’re going to have FAQs, honesty is the best policy.

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