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What's your most important sales tool when selling something complex?

I do a lot of work for B2B companies that sell really complex stuff. I interview their customers constantly.

And there is no question in my mind now that THE most important sales tool is something that isn't even on the radar of most marketers: the product manual.

I've been telling clients for years that there is no such thing as a "virgin environment." Someone buying something that is going into his existing environment knows that he has to make sure that it will work with all the other things in that environment.

Greenhorn buyers attempt to find that information on the website or even in PDF datasheets. They try asking salespeople. But the cognoscenti (the majority of your buyers) have been disappointed so often, using these methods, that they don't bother. Instead, they go straight for the manual, which they hope to find on the website in downloadable form.

If you are making your manuals available, you are going to make more sales than the company that isn't. If the buyer doesn't find the manual on your site, he will simply stop shopping at your site and go to a site where he can find a manual.

Manuals help to answer the Really Important Buyer Burning Question: "What's going to happen to me after I buy?" Complex products require installation and customization; this is all part of the process of buying the product and using it successfully. A well-written manual will serve as the guide to the successful installation and use of your product.

Should you be paying more attention to your manuals? Yes. Not in the sense of making them "prettier," which would just act as a red flag for the serious buyer, because it won't look serious enough. Instead, you must make sure that they really do answer the customer's questions, and that they do a thorough job of showing how the product should be installed and used.

Manuals are the most un-sexy, un-exciting project on a marketer's plate, so they're easy to ignore. Big mistake.

Marketing may not even be in charge of producing the manuals; it might reside in the product development department. That's also a mistake, because product developers aren't the ones who hook up the equipment in a variety of environments. That's left to the service folks. And service folks are not good judges of what should be in the manual, because they do it every day, over and over. They know things that a fresh-out-of-the-box user is simply not going to know.

If I were a marketer inside a company selling a complex product right now, and I wanted to increase sales, I would do the following:

  • Make the manuals instantly accessible from the home page. Ditch that irritating, rotating billboard graphic, if you need the space. None of your buyers will miss it. Offer up the manuals with simple links.
  • I would show this article to my CEO and ask that I be put in charge of a Manual Improvement Team, consisting of carefully chosen people from product development and field service. I would ask them what they think should be in the manual that isn't already in the manual - including questions that customers often ask. That will at least cover things they are aware of, but didn't think about putting in the manual.
  • I would interview at least 10 customers who had done a fairly recent install, and ask them how it went - what they expected, what happened, what issues they encountered, and how they dealt with them. I'd record these conversations and have them transcribed, and then put all those comments into a report that was read by the other people on the Manual Improvement Team.
  • I would then meet again with the Manual Improvement Team, and lead them to agreement on the new things that should be included in the manuals.
  • I would make sure it got done - using an in-house or freelance technical writer.
  • When the new manual was ready to be downloaded, I'd send an email out to all prospects - and customers - letting them know that the new manual was available, and highlight the new manual on the home page. In the email, I'd mention a few of the issues addressed in the new manual, as in "The new manual includes detailed instructions on wiring of the PVD-2456 to any standard high-voltage transmitter."
  • On the last page of the manual, I'd include a link to a web form asking the reader to provide feedback - as in, "Anything we should have included in here, that would be helpful to you in your application?"
  • I'd interview another ten customers every six months, to make sure that your manual is keeping up with new issues (and frustrations) that are generated by other technology/systems related to your products.

Paying attention to your user manuals is a prime example of "making it easy for them to buy" and "supporting their buying process," as I discuss in Roadmap to Revenue. Manuals may not seem very important to you, but to your buyers, they are the #1 resource they turn to. They expect to get answers to their questions there, so they can move to the next step in their buying process.

Don't send them away. Give them what they want.


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