401-423-2400 Kristin@Zhivago.com

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.



  1. Brilliant! This is what we’ve been seeing with our customers at MindTouch. Specifically, significant traffic increases from technical and product docs. These can be fantastic for SEO when used correctly. Furthermore, these are commonly being used to generate leads and drive customer engagement. I wrote about this for Forbes here: http://bit.ly/forbesdoc

    I’d also like to add that these technical and product docs can be used to power contextual help within web applications as a way to effective improve the user experience.

    Obviously, the old PDF and static metaphors for delivering technical and product content do not deliver the above benefits.

  2. You are so right, Aaron. Thanks for mentioning more interactive docs/applications for delivering the “manual” experience. And SEO. Both excellent points. Thanks for such a helpful comment.
    Kristin Zhivago

  3. I love this recommendation Kristin. I tried to pull this off in one of the technology companies where I was Marketing VP (in the 90′s). Our software managed “directory services,” a part of computer operating systems, and our target buyer persona was a very technical guy.

    Our user manuals were organized around the screens in the system, with pages devoted to explaining the functions of each of the tabs and fields on that page. Who thinks that way? The company’s developers, not the users. But documentation reported to the development team, so this approach made sense to them. As a marketer I wanted a manual that was organized according to the problems the user could resolve using our software. The Table of Contents would have a list of problems and the user could navigate to the section that explained the solution to that problem — more of a “use scenario” orientation. I thought that this orientation would be very useful for buyers, and that it would also help with customer retention, as users could easily see other problems that could be addressed using the software.

    I never got anywhere — the documentation person continued to report to development and nothing changed. I’d forgotten about that experience until I read this post. Great suggestion!

  4. You know, I am so determined to end these Stupid Marketing Tricks once and for all…I may die trying. The real “chasm” in the business world exists between the people who make/sell stuff and the people who are trying to buy/use it! And even now, with all the “communication” going on, and the customer content being generated, companies are still pathetic about listening – and responding. I understand why; I’ve worked inside big companies and know how insulated you can get from the customer’s reality. But there are such simple solutions (hint, hint, they’re in my book!), it’s quite sad that we are still where we are.

    Thanks for contributing…always love to hear your ideas.


  5. this is pretty thought provoking. The primary reason I have not seen this done is the level of competitive info that can be gathered by downloading and studying a competitors manual.

    I’m in a B2B design software market space with very few customers (less than a dozen) and 2 other competitors. It seems pretty risky to enable downloads.

    This could be overcome by creating a registration process but does that not in itself create a barrier that undoes the good will of making the manuals downloadable?

    Instead I think I’d rather hand deliver the manuals on a thumb drive as part of the sales call, along with the product brochures.

  6. @Russel,

    We hear this a lot at MindTouch. We commonly help our customers make a subset of their content public while the majority is kept private.

    While we have addressed this concern because it comes up so often I’d like to add my opinion is that this is mostly overblown.

    Lastly, downloads? Why downloads? That’s a horrible experience. Your technical and product docs should be used to drive customer engagement, improve the user experience (http://www.mindtouch.com/blog/2011/08/10/5-reasons-why-your-ux-strategy-… ), drive site traffic and create leads (http://bit.ly/forbesdoc ). Downloads are often necessary, but are, frankly, less important.

  7. Hi, Russell. You bring up some excellent points. If you really, truly only have less than a dozen customers, you’re not in the same category as companies that have dozens or hundreds of potential customers. So I think we have to put you in the “exception” category.

    If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t limit the manual sharing to a personal sales call. Puts too much of a damper on their initial investigation process. I’d compromise. I’d make it very clear on the website that detailed manuals existed, and that they were available to anyone who called and/or filled out a simple form requesting a callback.

    I am finding that very technical buyers are more than happy to talk to a KNOWLEDGEABLE person on the phone (and obviously NOT interested in talking to a clueless person), because they believe they will get their questions answered.

    In fact, many of them tell me they aren’t even bothering with email anymore, because they want to get the question answered as fast as possible – and the phone is the fastest way to do it.

    Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

    Kristin Z

  8. most important sales tool? Product Manuals? i did a little bit surprised, but also within the expected, many people are always selling complex products that need a good program, a viable plan, unexpected ways, the customer’s needs is the best marketing tool.

  9. Great post, Kristin. Really out of the ordinary and useful stuff.

    In the article, you say:

    “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.”

    Is there any data to go with this? I’m curious if this is anecdotal or if there’s some relevant research on the topic.

  10. Hi, Jay. Thanks. Really enjoyed your recent piece on negotiation.

    Yes, there is supporting research. I have a method that I have perfected (and cover in detail in my book), that I use to interview existing customers in depth. I have been interviewing techincal types for a couple of clients lately, and they are all telling me the same thing about manuals. I have also heard this throughout the last year, as I’ve done research.

    However, there is one caveat. The research I do for clients is designed to find out what is working, what isn’t working, and what could be working better – for EACH INDIVIDUAL CLIENT. Research I do for a client selling an electro-mechanical device will return completely different results than the findings I uncover for a client selling, say, an enterprise software program.

    The best way to find out if this would be true for an individual client would be to interview current customers for that client and ask them where they expect to find the most useful answers to their techical questions.

    It was only after customers from several clients were telling me the same thing that felt I had enough evidence to write this article.

    I hope that answers your question.


  11. Perhaps the main reason why buyers turn to manuals is because they are usually the only documents that describe what the products actually do.

    For most companies, nothing else they offer does that:
    • Data sheets list non-descriptive features like: Enhanced graphical interface… Supports Java… Complies with all known standards.

    • Marketing collateral speaks of abstract benefits: Faster, better, cheaper… Lowers TCO… Boosts revenue.

    • Technical white papers get caught up in product architectures.

    Manuals spark the “ah ha” moments that let buyers visualize how products solve – or don’t solve – the problems at hand.

    So in addition to claiming responsibility for manuals, marketers might take the opportunity to address the underlying issue and make sure all of their product content answers the question, “What does this thing do?”

  12. This is an interesting statement however I would like to respectfully disagree that having a “prettier” looking manual would be a red flag to a serious buyer. I do think that having a clean user experience in your manual is key. That might mean that they’re “prettier” and more (dare I say) social but at the end of the day, the user experience of your manuals (along with relevant content, obviously) is going to have a profound effect on persuading your prospects. Think about it – if you were down to 2 vendors (content being the same for both) and one manual was hard to read/navigate but the second manual had a good flow, was easy to navigate and read, do you really think you’d go with #1 because you thought #2 was “too pretty”? Yah I didn’t think so. We’re all human and we pick products based on the psychological effects (experience) they have on us; feel, color, community-feel, taste, smell – the manual is no different.

    On that same note, the social experience is also very important. If you make the content socially accessible (tagging, sharing, commenting, cross-referencing via social networks, dynamic), it gives your prospects the unique opportunity to cross reference with their own friends (people with whom they trust) and others (people they don’t know but will trust more than marketing jargon on your website) who went through the same process you are going through now.

    Experience is everything. Take a lesson from Apple. Just because it’s a manual doesn’t mean it needs to be boring and lifeless. Exert the same energy and passion you would for your website UX into your manuals and buyers will take notice – heck, they will probably think you’re more committed to their success – and it all started with that “pretty” little manual.

    Your post here inspired me to write this one “5 Reasons Why Your UX Strategy is Incomplete” http://www.mindtouch.com/blog/2011/08/10/5-reasons-why-your-ux-strategy-

  13. What I object to is an insufficient manual – in terms of usability – being dressed up graphically in an attempt to “improve” it – without improving the substance and usability. That was my point. Apple is the best example of form AND function. Or even function turned into an art form. Most companies don’t even come close to that standard. Again, the point is, don’t just dress up a substandard manual with new pictures or graphic design, without finding out what customers really NEED in a manual.

    Your article is great.


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