Improving Customer Service with FAQs

FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions – are documents that contains support information for the most sought out questions. FAQs came about in the early days of the internet and quickly became a popular self-help tool. They continue to be widely utilized today as a reliable and effective customer support and knowledge management tool. In this article we take a closer look at how FAQs were developed, how they work, and where they stand in the world of customer service and knowledge management.

The History of Frequently Asked Questions

The FAQ tool and its abbreviation came into existence with the advent of the internet. Especially significant in the field of online customer service, an FAQ was one of the first commonly used tools for providing self-help online. Easy to set up and cheap to maintain, FAQs quickly became a standard in customer service and continue to be widely used today.

While novel as an online feature, the concept of an FAQ and its distinguishable format of delivering support information are quite old. For centuries, writers have used the question and answer formula to present content in a way that would be easy to understand. For instance, some Renaissance authors have been known to include sections titled ‘Certain Queries Answered’ in the beginning of their work as a way of quickly addressing common questions and concerns.

The First FAQ

The emergence of an FAQ as a self-help text file originated from the technical limitations of early mailing lists used by NASA in the mid 80′s. Mailing lists were used to distribute support information and to seek out help from within the mailing group. The presumption was that new users would join the mailing list, download archived messages and search through them to find answers.

However, users were too clever to go through all that trouble. It quickly became apparent that it was much easier to post questions to the mailing list instead of downloading and searching through old archives. As a consequence, mailing lists began to get spammed with frequently reposted questions and answers, making them redundant and expensive to maintain.

The initial response to this was devised by a NASA employee Mark Horton who started to periodically forward an 18 question post to quell impeding “dumb” answers; answers that entered the mailing list were often poorly written, inconsistent, and uninformed and as a result bogged down the system. Mark’s posts would rectify these mistakes and provide a credible answer base.

Two other NASA employees, Eugene Miya and Jeff Poskanzer, took the idea further. While Mark focused primarily on correcting misinformed answers that entered the mailing list, Eugene and Jeff developed a format of sending out the most sought out questions along with the best answers to those questions. This approach circumvented storage expenses created by burgeoning mailing lists and offered users quick access to answers by eliminating the need to download and sift through large archive files.

This became the FAQ format as it is known today. Through gradual evolution of finding the best way of delivering support information NASA employees developed a method that quickly and efficiently helped new users find answers.

FAQs Gain Popularity

The FAQ format was soon picked up by other mailing lists and Usenet groups. Posting frequency varied depending on the type of users the mailing lists were catered to. Some went out weekly; others were distributed on a monthly basis.

With internet emerging in the coming years, websites started adapting FAQs and trying different approaches. For instance, a type of FAQ called Periodic Posts was developed to answer trivial questions that would surface on a daily basis. No matter what the implementation was, the goal of an FAQ was to reduce reposting of duplicate information and to provide reliable and intuitive support.

FAQ Etiquette

As FAQs gained popularity, proper ways of using them also started to emerge. Reposting questions that have already been answered in the FAQ began to be considered poor etiquette. It showed that a user was too lazy to read an FAQ and do some independent research before requesting help.

This formality lived on. Today, the condescending acronym LMGTFY (Let me Google that for you) is often used to mock users who asks for help when the answer can be found with relative ease.

Modern Developments

Originally, the term FAQ referred to the questions themselves. A compilation of these questions and answers was called an FAQ list or a variation of that. Today the term FAQ usually refers to the compiled list of all the questions and answers. Moreover, pages in the question and answer format will often go under the same moniker regardless of whether the questions are actually frequently asked or not.

To avoid the ambiguity of the abbreviation, many popular websites now refrain from using the term altogether. For instance, Twitter, Facebook, and Google all label their FAQ sections Help. Another common alternatives is Support. Both terms are well understood and often times easier conceptualized than the term FAQ.

FAQ have also spread offline. Often times printed instruction will contain FAQs to facilitate the use or assembly of a product.

Creating an FAQ

Creating an FAQ can be an advantageous strategy for any organization looking to improve its support capabilities. An FAQ offers newcomers to the website a wealth of information. Often times it can help resolve issues that otherwise would require the input of a customer representative. FAQs therefore help users become more self-reliant and reduce customer support spending.

How to Develop an Effective FAQ

Effective FAQs anticipate procedures that might be confusing or information that is difficult to understand to a user and offer an easy way of understanding and resolving these problems. The best way to determine what information to put into an FAQ is to identify questions that get asked the most. The customer support department tend to have a good grasp on this.

When creating an FAQ it is very important to ensure that it is easily readable and well organized. While there is no set format, some standards exists. The most common way to organize an FAQ is, as the name suggests, as questions and answers. In other cases, it may make more sense to organize an FAQ as a reference, listing answers without the questions being specifically stated. Some FAQs can use both techniques in same document, one part asking the questions and second part listing the answers.

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

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