The range of customer self-service experiences is today very broad. More than ever, people have choices when it comes to answering questions and solving problems on their own. Despite a heavy preference toward quick Google searches, branded websites, and chatbots, customers are still forced to interact with a familiar relic of yesteryear:

Portable Document Format (PDF).

Yes, our old friend lives on in the world of self-service, for better or worse. And many customers are still asked to trek into the curious land of PDF to solve problems and answer questions.

Here are three of their harrowing stories.

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Misadventure 1: A case of appliance troubleshooting gone wrong

Our friend Carol recently purchased a shiny new washing machine from a leading consumer goods brand. Before handing over her credit card, Carol read the latest from Consumer Reports, peppered a floor rep at her local brick and mortar with detailed questions, and even perused a few user manuals. Finally, she bought her washing machine of choice, only to find herself tussling with the dreaded error code just one month into ownership.

3 Curious Misadventures from the Land of PDF – How Carol searches Google for her washing machine error code

As most consumers do, Carol headed straight for Google to search for her error code. After failing to find anything specific from the washing machine brand, she then searched for the model name hoping for a quick answer. Instead, all she found was a generic knowledge base article linking to a humongous PDF user manual for the washing machine.

Once the PDF finally finished downloading, Carol searched the document for her error code (Control + F), which she happened to locate on page 89. Unfortunately, all she found was troubleshooting steps she’d already tried (and that didn’t work). Though she didn’t want to, Carol finally had to call customer service for help.

Misadventure 2: Big trouble in the little knowledge team

Tanya is the knowledge base manager at a software company. Her team of technical writers is in charge of updating all of the setup guides and user manuals for her company’s entire suite of software products. All of these assets are published and made available as PDF documents. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process. And with new versions rolled out biannually for more than ten distinct products, Tanya constantly finds her team neck-deep lengthy and outdated PDF manuals.

3 Curious Misadventures from the Land of PDF – How Tanya's knowledge management team is inundated with PDF update requests

Unfortunately, Tanya’s troubles extend beyond her own team. Colleagues in customer support depend on updated documentation while assisting customers. Technical leads from new and existing customers reference PDF documentation when launching the product in large-scale environments. Both groups struggle with PDFs, complaining that they are hard to find and often out of date. Eventually, it all comes back to Tanya and her team in a flurry of complaints, feedback, and document update requests.

Misadventure 3: He’s got a bad case of pinch-to-zoom (and that ain’t good)

And then there’s Reggie. Catch him if you can! He’s constantly on the move and relies on his smartphone for everything. Weather updates. Client communications. Social media and news.

One morning, while Reggie is scrolling through Spongebob memes on the subway, he receives an email from his new homeowner’s insurance provider. The email contains instructions for setting up access to his online account, which he needs to do quickly so he can change his billing address. One problem: the instructions are buried in a PDF setup guide attached to the email.

3 Curious Misadventures from the Land of PDF – How Reggie attempts self-service using his mobile phone

Reggie sighs audibly. It’s not the best experience for a mobile user sitting in an elevated train barrelling toward downtown. Reggie pulls the screen closer to his face and squints at the PDF, pinching to zoom with two fingers, double-tapping to zoom back out, scrolling and then pinching and zooming again. Sweat gathers on his furrowed brow. How is someone supposed to read these PDF instructions and follow along on his mobile phone? Nevermind, thinks Reggie. I’ll figure it out when I get home.

Either that or he’ll email the company directly.

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Each misadventure in PDF land shows how easily this kind of self-service experience can pigeonhole customers and lead them down frustrating dead ends. The question is, what would have been a better self-service experience for each of these woebegone wanderers?

Take Carol, for one. What if that KB article she arrived at was dedicated to the exact error code she was looking for? And what if that article included a quick step-by-step solution right then and there, without making her open a PDF? She might have even found what she needed using a simple Google search.

For Tanya, things would be so much easier if her team could keep and update content in a single system. This would limit (or eliminate) the need for constantly revising and republishing lengthy PDF documentation. Not to mention, her team could extend these smaller pieces of content to all the places that agents and customers use to find digestible product knowledge.

Finally, there’s poor Reggie. What his insurance company should have done was send him a direct link to setup instructions that were simple, mobile-optimized, and easy to follow. He might have set up his account right then and there on the train instead of waiting until he got home, where frustration might have led to a support call.

3 Curious Misadventures from the Land of PDF - Customer self-service, mobile search, and a central knowledge management platform

The self-service woes facing all three of our antiheroes could be mitigated by a standalone knowledge management platform. It’s a way to centralize, update, and keep content current across all self-service channels. And it ensures that customers, agents, and knowledge workers alike—all the Carols, Tanyas, and Reggies of the world—can easily find right answers, at the right time, no matter where they are.

The land of PDF is a curious place, indeed. Although the PDF might still have its place in places like sales and marketing, it is a thing of the past in terms of next-generation customer engagement and proactive customer self-service.

It’s time to lend Carol, Tanya, and Reggie a hand—to unlock those PDF documents by moving their content into a comprehensive knowledge management platform.

Additional categories: Customer Experience, Knowledge Management