Frustrated housewives seek satisfaction online ... why FAQs (sometimes) work

Housewife with kids

No. This blog has not been hacked.

The title simply summaries one of the notable findings we made during a recent project to improve online help for a telecoms company.

The challenge facing our client was to reduce call volumes to its Help Centre by diverting activity online – but without reducing the quality of service experienced by customers.

And therein lies the rub.

Is it possible to produce an online support experience that matches the standard available via a 1-to-1 phone call?

Pleased to meet you

The first part of our research was to interview customers to understand their expectations for web service. Among our discussion points was the following:

"Imagine you have a problem with your mobile phone. It won't send text messages. All your usual tricks to get it going (turning it off & on again, asking a friend, etc.) prove unsuccessful. You decide you need some extra support from your service provider. Describe how you would you go about getting that help."

Over the course of the interviews, we discovered a number of interesting things. For example:

  1. Calling the Help Centre is the first response for most people when they have a problem. This is mainly due to convenience, but also because service quality via that channel is so high (at least for our client).
  2. Email is also favoured as a means of support, particularly where complaints are involved, as it acts as a useful record of correspondence.
  3. There is a willingness to use the web for some support, but there is a perception that online help is often difficult to use and that answers are 'generic'.

The experience of the homekeepers (or 'housewives' as they described themselves) we met over the course of our research provides a good example of this.

Kids crying

They explained that in a busy household with several small children running around, it can be very difficult to take the 'time out' necessary to explore a website – especially one that requires some new learning & figuring out.

In contrast, it is much easier to look after children whilst talking on the phone. Not only that, on the phone you are conversing with an expert who can 'work the system for you'.

For a busy housewife, that's a formula that is hard to beat. And for 'busy housewife', we could also substitute 'busy office manager', 'busy shop owner', etc.

So while the door is open to web service, in many cases audiences remain to be convinced. This means that quality of implementation needs to be particularly high to attract attention.


Consider the 'Frequently Asked Questions' content format.

The concept of 'Frequently Asked Questions' (FAQs) first arose back in pre-Cambrian days of ListServ discussion forums. In order to avoid continually responding to similar posts, moderators would create 'FAQs' to which new members were directed. This model was then adopted by many websites.

As stated by Jonathan & Lisa Price in their book 'Hot Text: Web Writing That Works'

"When guests get stuck they often turn to the FAQ, because the style seems friendlier than the average help system, and the genre promises answers to real questions from users."

Well, that's the theory.

But, in many cases FAQs are actually symptoms of failure. They are created – not as a system of support - but as an alternative to core content that fails to address customer needs.

As a result FAQs are now known to be one of the worst ways to deliver information online. From a user's point of view they offer very low 'scent of information' (cues) as to what they contain. This has been compounded by years of poor implementation that have trained users to distrust them.

As such, FAQs are often the last place users go when looking to solve a problem. 

Nevertheless, when implemented as part of an integrated support system (covering online & offline channels), FAQs can have some value. Examples from some of our client's sister companies prove the point:

  • Following a revision of FAQ content in the Netherlands, the percentage of customer queries dealt with online grew from 23% to 35%.
  • Online support satisfaction ratings in Portugal were boosted from 7-out-of-10 to 8.9-out-of-10, following investment in the web experience.

Getting it right

It is important to bear in mind that FAQs are not a "free for all" where any type of content can be published.

Many organisations serve a wide range of customers, but the goal of improved support will not be achieved if they attempt to serve everyone & answer all queries online.

FAQs work best when they are carefully selected and presented according to a number of web experience guidelines.

These include:

FAQs must reflect genuine queries It's obvious but worth restating. FAQs must contain things your customers want to know, rather than things you want to say.
They are few in number This is important for the user. Don't attempt to answer absolutely everything. At some point, increasing FAQ volumes will push the complexity of the experience beyond the point at which the user can cope. (This point varies based on the quality of the design & content)
They are high in volume This is important for the service provider. The more high volume FAQs that are put online, the fewer calls should be receive (provided they are well presented).

In addition, not every query can be readily answered via an FAQ. The graphic below shows the types of question that are best dealt with via FAQs, and those that should be served via other channels.

FAQs on a blackboard

(Note: The range of questions that can be served broadens as content innovation grows. For example, a short video can easily answer many questions that in the past would have required long-winded descriptions.)

Measuring the benefit

Putting it all together, how will you know if you are building an online support experience that meets the expectations of customers?

As shown in the case studies above, the key measures are activity and satisfaction.

All else being equal – if you find that your support traffic is increasing at the same time as call volumes are falling AND customer satisfaction remains steady (or increases), you are probably on the right track.

This blog post was originally appeared on

(Image credit: A woman uses smartphone while sitting with children, working mom. Vitolda Klein on UnSplash.) featured in today's IRISH TIMES newspaper!

Whoo Hoo!
In a feature about Cost of Living on page 12 in today's Irish Times we say amazingly erudite & insightful things like...
"We’re hoping to gather information on every major residential area in Ireland so that we can get a better insight into Ireland overall."
“It would be great if eventually people could say: ‘I’m interested in moving to this small town in Munster – what is the cost of living like?’ and get a straightish answer.”
Our thanks to the journalist who interviewed us, Patrick Freyne.
(The Irish Times is Ireland's leading broadsheet newspaper.)
Incidentally, you can see a list of places with the lowest-rated 'Cost of Living' in Ireland on our advanced search page.
You can also refine the search to see lowest rated in your county.