Show Me the Documents

One of the things I find very peculiar is the tendency of companies to hide their documentation. Sometimes the documentation is available only to existing customers, behind a login on the support site. At other times, the only documentation is the online help. Often the only things available to prospective customers are a few shiny marketing documents and maybe an equally shiny case study. At the same time, we hear that 67% of the buying process happens before talking to salespeople. Personally, I find that the technical implementation guide gives me a better understanding of a product than a lot of marketing slides. I also like to read a few support documents to get an idea of what issues I might face if I deploy a product.

One of the critical things for me is that I do not trust marketing materials. The purpose of the marketing materials is to convince me that a particular product is right for my situation. Good marketing material will tell me what it assumes my requirements are. Most will not even acknowledge there are assumptions. I also find that the marketing documents seldom tell me what the product does, or does not do, in any language that I understand. While I’m being a grumpy old man and shouting at clouds, let me add my latest annoyance: web-based products that don’t even tell you what they do before you sign up. They have a single-page web site with an aspirational image and a sign-up/sign-on link. Clearly, they don’t need to market themselves but can rely on others explaining what the service is and why you want it. I like clear, open, and complete communication. I seldom get this from the marketing materials.

As an example of open access to documentation, take a look at Microsoft and VMware. Both have all of their product documentation freely available. Both go even further: their support knowledge bases are public. There are even public discussion forums where customers raise product questions. Both of these companies have found that having almost every piece of information out in public removes fear. Other companies seem to fear that if they publicize the details of their products, then they will not make sales. That is a secret that will not be kept. No amount of NDA will prevent an unhappy customer from talking.

I think we are all grown up enough to know that no product is perfect. Every product could have improvements, both fixes and new features. If this weren’t true, then we wouldn’t buy new product versions every few years. I hope we also realize that there is no one solution to every problem. Customers have different requirements, and so they require different solutions. Even within one company, there may be different business units with different requirements. Even within each business unit, there may be different projects with different needs. So, we should realize that a particular product cannot be the solution to every problem. If every product is imperfect and there are multiple different sets of requirements, then knowledge of requirements and products is important.

At least the companies who hide documentation have documentation to hide. One company I was talking to recently provides a web service and told me that the only documentation is the online help. So again, you can only access the documentation after you have signed up for the service. The service also needs an agent installed on my network. I could download the installer, but not the documentation for the service. Of course, there is the big missing piece in the middle: the architecture documentation. Where should I install the agent? What prerequisites are there for the agent? What internal and external network access does the agent require be enabled on my firewall? And very importantly, what data is the agent going to be sending to your cloud service? I have to think that Edward Haletky would simply laugh at a vendor that doesn’t provide security architecture along with its product.

I know that good documentation is hard work, and keeping it up to date is even harder. But documentation is extremely valuable to potential customers as well as to existing customers. Making a variety of product documentation freely available can be a great part of your sales strategy. If you hide your documentation away, I have to think that you are afraid of what I might find out about your product before I give you a purchase order.

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