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Showing Returns on Your Documentation Investment

Hello again readers!  Last time we “met,” I had the pleasure of walking you through a quick primer on the Kirkpatrick model and how to best use it to assess the effectiveness of a given training program or set of training materials. My main argument was – whatever you do – make sure to focus on metrics that allow you to show measurable positive impacts that can be easily translated into $ savings. The bottom line is… well, that’s what your manager will be looking at, the bottom line. What’s the return on this documentation investment? At the end of the day, how many dollars does it put back in our pocket?


This is not always a trivial calculation. You might need to get creative. Since most companies treat documentation as a value-added item and NOT a revenue generator, you’ll need to look at how the “net benefits” term incorporates the resulting savings. What cost reduction does your project bring to the bottom line?

Let’s take a look at some common types of documentation and some of the ways they can positively impact your business:

  • User guides / online help. For consumer / retail products, chances are you won’t ever hear from the end user unless something goes wrong, so it’s tough to show revenue increases unless you can establish a relationship between documentation and increased sales or decreased number of returns. You’ll want to focus on support costs instead – have you noticed dramatic reductions in helpdesk call volume, or in the average length of those calls?  If you can make the case that using your documentation allows agents to to shave 3 minutes off each call, over a total of 1000 calls a month, at a cost of $300 a minute… that’s nearly $1 million in savings in just a single month.  Have you observed sales engineers spending less time pulling their hair out and more at the water cooler?
  • Requirements specifications. Business, technical, functional, or otherwise, a spec describes a design with enough level of detail for others to implement it. It could be an object, software, an organization, or some other concept. Sadly, managers can be ignorant to the benefits of robust specification in this post-“agile” world, and it’s typically up to folks like you and me to remind them. One way to quantify impact would be comparing development times for similar projects implemented with vs. without a spec, especially taking into account the number of revisions / versions / point releases needed to drive the project to completion. Or consider the case of a product that must integrate with a third-party accessory – showing reduced expenses coordinating with the vendor is another possibility.  When you consider the expenses that can be involved in building and testing a single point release, the savings can add up very quickly.
  • Product video / web-based demo. Unlike some of the other kinds of documentation we’ve discussed, marketing documents are sometimes easier to tie to increases in revenue, although you might need to dig for the right metrics to account for your company’s business model. If you sell a physical widget, look for increases in sales volumes that can’t be attributed to other factors.  If you sell a service, look for improved customer retention or reduced “churn.”  Even if you can’t show an actual increase in sales, it’s certainly possible to show a positive impact through increased sales contacts, even if they don’t all end in a sale.

Remember, just because documentation is difficult to tie to revenues doesn’t mean it’s not important or it doesn’t help your bottom line.  Something as seemingly insignificant as a three-sentence paragraph on an obscure product feature can sometimes translate into millions of dollars in cost savings, if you know where to look for them.

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