Using a consistent language in your help center
Think about the last book you really enjoyed.
When you finished reading it and needed to find something new, did you search for other titles by that author?
Most people enjoy the familiarity of reading the same author over and over again. It’s the reason authors like Stephen King are so successful. His readers can focus on the characters and details of the story instead of navigating a new author’s voice every time.
The same thing applies for SaaS companies. Keeping a consistent voice and tone across different mediums builds your brand and creates trust with customers. It can even contribute to an increase in revenue — a 2021 survey by Marq shows that brand consistency increases revenue, with 32% of respondents claiming a boost of over 20%.
If you only have one or two people writing and managing your help center, keeping consistency of voice is a relatively easy task. But what do you do when you have a lot of contributors? How do you keep the voice, tone, and style consistent? How do you prevent contradictory information?
Below, I’ll discuss a few key ways to maintain consistency throughout your help center, even when you have a big team of contributors.
Audit your existing help center
If you’re having an issue with voice consistency, you’re probably not starting a brand new help center. Odds are you already have a ton of information that requires cleaning up and honing in.
So start with an audit of your existing helpdocs. An initial audit:
Creates a map of what content you have.
Reveals how consistent (or inconsistent) the content is — in both voice and information.
Identifies what content should be rewritten.
Gets you thinking about how you can create article structures or templates.
If you’re using Zendesk, Help Center Manager is super helpful for this process. It helps you find and fix broken links, reorganize content, and find and replace terms across the entire help center. In other words, it’ll save you a ton of time now and when you’re making future help center updates.
This free Zendesk help center export can also be a great starting point. It exports all of your existing content — including things like tags, timestamps, and authors — so you can easily drop the info in a spreadsheet and start auditing.
What to look for in a help center audit
You may find yourself overwhelmed when you first search your existing help center content. If that’s you, try to pull back and see the bigger picture. Just make notes of a few specific things:
What info is outdated or inaccurate?
What information is confusing?
What language doesn’t jive with the company?
Is there one voice you particularly gravitate towards?
What repetition do you see that creates a natural start for templates?
A full audit goes a bit deeper than these questions, but that’s beyond the scope of this article (but you can check out this expert guide to auditing your help center). For now, let’s focus on maintaining that consistent voice.
After you’ve performed your high-level audit, it’s time to take your learnings and establish a style guide, to create templates, and to develop some processes.
Establish a style guide
Think about how you speak with your best friend, mother, coworkers, or grandfather. In all likelihood, you alter your speech for each of those people.
You’re probably more casual with your best friend, while you might be more careful with your word choice when speaking with your grandfather. Your coworkers grasp your work jargon better than your mom, so you’ll adjust your word choice with her despite using a similar tone in conversations.
Now, imagine you’re driving and have your best friend respond to a text message from your mom. Chances are you’d do one of two things:
You’d provide precise wording for them to follow
You’d instruct them to claim authorship so you don’t get credit (or blame) for whatever they end up saying to your mom.
That’s the basic concept of a style guide. A style guide organizes your brand’s personality to ensure your business can proudly take credit for the words a particular author writes.
Typically, a style guide is a single document covering guidelines for voice, tone, word choice, fonts, and colors (among other things). Not everything is relevant to all team members, but centralizing this information is a helpful practice.
Your marketing team probably already has a robust style guide they’re working from. If you’re creating a style guide for your help center, it’s best to use that your marketing team’s guide as a starting point to ensure your support team’s tone aligns with the rest of your brand.
What to include in your help center style guide
What you choose to include in your style guide will differ depending on your business. The items below are great things to consider:
How to write. My view on good writing may contrast with others. For example, one of George Orwell’s six rules for writing is to “never use a long word where a short one will do.” That’s a great practice if you’re writing to a broad audience with a considerable variation in reading level, but in specialized academia, simplifying language isn’t ideal. What’s your brand’s ideal writing style? Define that for your team in your style guide.
Buyer persona. Every company has the ideal perfect customer. That ideal person's personality, age, education level, occupation, and so all play a role in creating your buyer persona. This ideal person is who you’re writing to in your help center. Think of them like a real person — give them a name (like Sandra) and then have everyone write to Sandra.
Dialect choice. Many style guides overlook this aspect, yet it’s crucial in our global economy. If your Australian company hires writers from England, South Africa, and America, specify which version of the English language to use. What Americans call a “semi-truck” or an “18-wheeler” the Aussies and Brits call a “lorry.” Define your target audience and choose your language accordingly.
Grammar rules. Even the most seasoned writers make mistakes with grammar, so it’s essential to include a refresher on some of the basics.
Punctuation. This section should cover things like when to use en-dashes, em-dashes, or hyphens, when to use parenthesis (if at all), and whether your brand uses the Oxford comma.
Word choice. Companies often use common words to name features. To ensure clarity, think about which words must always stay the same no matter how redundant they seem. For instance, if your product refers to users as ‘Team Members,’ use that term consistently in step-by-step instructions rather than ‘user.’
Voice and tone. This one is key. You wouldn’t market your 5 Michelin Star luxury Italy restaurant in the same way you’d market your local pancake house. While customers could overlap those two markets, their frame of mind differs when choosing to eat at one over the other.
Formatting and layout. Define when someone should use a header (h1) versus a subheader (h2). When should underlines, italics, callouts, and bolding be used, if at all? When and how should writers add images, animated gifs, or videos?
Don’t use the exact same voice and tone for support as for marketing
I’ve stated that you can likely snag the style guide from your marketing department. And while that is indeed a good starting point, the most significant difference is voice and tone.
Think back to Sandra. What mindset is she in when looking to purchase and use your product? Perhaps your voice needs to be friendly but professional. Maybe down-to-earth works.
Now take it one step further.
Your knowledge base is intended for a different stage of product usage than your blog. In a help center, your customer is looking for how to do something rather than why they should do something. You’ll want to use more direct, authoritative language than you might use in a blog post or a marketing email.
Process, process, process!
Treat your help center like any other ongoing project for your company: plan, implement, and maintain it with thorough processes. Set up a Kanban board that allows you to track what needs writing, when, and who’s doing what. Even better, create some automation so everyone on the team always follows the same steps.
I use a Trello board with one card per article. When someone assigns themselves to a card from the ‘Needs to be written’ column, automation moves that card to ‘Outline’. Another automation then adds a checklist for the writer to follow, including the appropriate template and a reference to the style guide.
Processes will be different depending on the product(s) and the project management tools you’re using. However, most project management tools offer templates with writer workflows as a good starting point.
Make use of templates
Let’s say I’ve audited the knowledge base for a software company that requires integrations with other software for it to work. That means the integration articles are vital, and I want to be sure they include all the necessary information.
Digging through the existing documentation, I identify three integration types with five triggering methods. I also notice three or four major steps for every integration setup.
I’ve just uncovered an excellent opportunity to create a template.
To make your template, find the article that’s most robust and useful. Then determine if the other articles can fit into a similar format. If they can, use the robust article as a template to restructure your existing and future articles.
This has the double impact of improving the consistency of your help center today, while also making it easier to publish new content next time your product team enables a new integration.
Editing is vital
No matter how good your writers are, remember that even Shakespeare needed an editor. When your writing team struggles to maintain a consistent voice, having a dedicated editor or two is essential.
This doesn’t mean that writers aren’t responsible for proofreading their own work. On the contrary, an editor should do very little when it comes to proofreading. Instead, an editor ensures the content makes sense, is easy to follow, remains on topic, drives home the point, and ensures that voice and tone remain consistent from one piece of work to the next.
In addition to being The Keepers of Consistency & Tone, your editors should also be willing and able to coach your writers. Have your team use collaborative word processing tools so your editors can leave feedback and make suggestions rather than having them simply make changes. Remember, your writers can’t learn and improve if they don’t know what they’re doing incorrectly.
How you choose to go about this depends upon your company’s structure. It often works best to have dedicated editors who are experienced writers but who don’t currently write. In this scenario, it’s best to choose editors who are fantastic at writing in your company’s preferred voice and tone.
Alternatively, you could set up a system where people buddy up, with everyone writing and editing. This setup would require that all of your writers are exceptional at writing (so they can help improve one another’s work), rather than simply being asked to write as a duty of their job, without being very good at it.
Other things to consider
The above items cover most of the bases regarding how to maintain consistency of voice, but there are a few other small things worth considering.
Not everyone is good at writing
I wholeheartedly believe that everyone can write — if they want to. Unfortunately, many people don’t want to write or are convinced they’re incapable, so what they come up with either doesn’t make sense or isn’t very good.
If you’re implementing something like knowledge-centered service (KCS), you’ll have every member of your team involved in creating new documentation. That’s powerful, but it may require extra reviews and editing work to ensure consistency.
You’re more likely to have a seamless, on-brand, and overall more helpful help center if you put the task in the hands of people who are already good at writing, actively want to improve their skills, and are good at receiving and applying feedback.
Training, communication, and collaboration
Processes, style guides, and templates are all well and good, but they aren’t very useful if people don’t know how to use them.
In addition to creating these tools, you may need to create training materials for how to use them. Remember that everyone learns in different ways, so one team meeting might not be enough. Record the meeting and write bullet points on how to use the process you’ve put into play until your team gets used to things.
You’ll also still need to encourage collaboration and feedback, as well as deliver regular updates. If you consistently see more than one person making the same mistake, it might be a process issue. Continuously review, revise, and improve your processes until you find something that works for your entire team.
Monitor and improve through the use of metrics
It’s always a good idea to develop some key performance indicators to help you know if things are working or what needs improvement. Using a tool like Help Center Analytics, you can track article engagement, content helpfulness, and ticket deflection — key metrics that enable you to understand how your help center is performing.
Suppose an article doesn’t receive a lot of views.
That might indicate no interest in the topic, meaning the feature works well enough that it doesn’t bring about questions. But it could also mean the article isn’t very discoverable. You should check that the keywords, tags, and headers you use in the article align with the terms your customers are searching for.
If your content is consistently rated as unhelpful, this could signal that you’re missing vital information or that your explanations aren’t clear enough.
Maintaining a consistent voice and tone in your help center is essential for building brand trust. An initial audit helps you identify areas for improvement and establish a style guide, templates, and processes.
Remember, the right voice and tone can vary slightly between different parts of your business, so appropriately tailor them to your audience. And don’t underestimate the importance of editing!
By following these strategies and monitoring metrics for continual improvement, you can ensure an effective help center that maintains a consistent voice and tone — no matter how many contributors you have. And if you’re looking for the insights and tools to help you understand and improve your Zendesk help center, you should take advantage of a 14-day free trial of Swifteq’s Zendesk apps today.
Anne-Marie is a customer success executive focused on communications and scalability. She specializes in driving process & product improvements, creating thorough and easy-to-understand product documentation, and teaching others how to communicate more effectively through the written word. You can find her on LinkedIn