Five Tips for Working with Offshore Writers

February 26, 2014

by Cale Shapera

Offshored technical writing is an established industry that continues to expand. In the last 30 years, Western firms in many industries have been lured to India, China and other developing nations by the promise of inexpensive workers and round the clock development. This is also the case in the field of technical writing, with one Indian writer costing about a third as much as a North American writer. So how best to take advantage of this situation? Here are five tips to help you set up a successful offshoring arrangement and avoid potential issues.

1. Ensure Your Firm is Ready for Offshoring

Offshoring can be done either by hiring foreign workers to become company employees, or by outsourcing work to a contractor. In both cases, a successful operation will involve a local manager and a team of local writers. Is your firm large and organized enough to commit the money and work hours necessary to hire and train an offshored staff? The initial investment is far from negligible, and there are always unbudgeted surprises.

Keep in mind that successful offshoring hinges on scale. One industry veteran estimates that if you expect to retain less than six writers, offshoring might not be worthwhile. Before jumping into offshoring, ensure you are ready to seriously commit. The significant savings will come only after months of setting up a solid arrangement.

2. Use Online Collaboration Tools

During the hiring process, video conferencing is a great way to see if you have a rapport with the offshore team. Resumes, references and work samples are all important, but a face to face meeting is useful in determining personal compatibility — a factor which shouldn’t be overlooked. Skype is the most common video conferencing application, but Google Hangouts is a fine alternative.

While the project is underway, video conferencing should also be done at regular intervals. Things are complicated by the fact that India is 12.5 hours ahead of the West Coast (or 13.5 in winter) with China being ahead by 15 (16 in winter). You may find yourself staying late at the office in order to have an occasional conference with your team at the start of their working day.

Another great collaboration tool is Google Drive. You can easily set up Word documents which can be edited by both you and the contractor. This can be useful for brainstorming, copy editing, or just for observing a writer’s work in real time.

3. Colocate Writing with Development

Like technical writing, technical product development is also frequently offshored. If your firm’s product development team is already located offshore, the technical writing team should be embedded there. The benefits of having development and documentation under the same roof are increased efficiency and agility. Documents can be updated and edited quickly by workers who share the same language and workspace. Even if you find cheaper offshore writing options in another place, the advantages of colocation will outweigh that price difference.

4. Handle Final Edits Locally

Offshoring can have great benefits in terms of productivity and cost, but to ensure polished copy, edit locally. Standards for layout and document usability should remain as high for foreign writers as they are for local ones. However, a foreign writer can’t really be faulted for small issues (unusual vocabulary, American vs. British English, etc) which a local editor can quickly resolve.

5. Be Aware of Cultural Differences

Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings and poor results. When offshoring, inform yourself of potential cultural differences. Of course, one shouldn’t prejudge, but corporate culture experts claim that cultural tendencies exist which remain static over time. You and your employees should be aware of this.

To promote awareness, you may want to run a training program in cross-cultural communication. A recent poll of business executives suggested that these programs could increase productivity by an average of 26 percent. It is better to deal with this issue preemptively than to risk a costly miscommunication later on.

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Delivering Happiness Through Customer Support

September 7, 2013

The book Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh is a surprising uplifting read. It is the story of his entrepreneurial career; primarily his time at Zappos the online shoe retailer that is famous for exceptional customer support and was sold to Amazon in 2009 for ~$1.2 billion.

Some interesting notes:

– When discussing his experiences playing poker and the parallels with business, he notes that table selection (business market opportunity/opportunity in) is the most important decision you make.

– Believes that the Zappos brand, culture, and pipeline are their only competative advantages

– Zappos created a culture book written by all employees for employees; each contributes and the text is printed verbatim

– Quotes the book Good to Great; great companies have a greater purpose and bigger vision than just making money or being number one in their market.

– Ask anything newsletter; employees send questions, and they are collected and anonymously published in question and answer form in a newsletter

– Branding through customer service; took most of the money that would have been spent on advertising and spent it on customer support.

– Books he mentions: Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, lose sense of time, self-consciousness, and even self; Happiness Hypothesis and Happier


Designing service

August 13, 2013

Service Design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service, in order to improve its quality, the interaction between service provider and customers and the customer’s experience.

It appears that service design is gaining traction in many design schools, and even has an international network of academics and professionals.

Three main directions:

  • Identify the actors involved in defining the services
  • Define possible service scenarios, verify use cases, sequences of actions and actors’ role, in order to define the requirements for the service and its logical and organisational structure
  • Represent the service, using techniques that illustrate all the components of the service, including physical elements, interactions, logical links and temporal sequences

Yet unlike traditional design, a service is both tangible and intangible. From the Wikipedia article:

“It can involve artifacts and other things including communication, environment and behaviours. Several authors emphasize that, unlike products, which are created and “exist” before being purchased and used, services come to existence at the same moment they are being provided and used. While a designer can prescribe the exact configuration of a product, s/he cannot prescribe in the same way the result of the interaction between customers and service providers, nor can s/he prescribe the form and characteristics of any emotional value produced by the service.”

Just finished This Is Service Design Thinking which provides a great overview of the topic and is generally a luscious textbook.


Social media for service and support

January 31, 2010

There is tons of information out there about using social media tools such as microblogs, wikis, communities, and mashups for starting marketing conversations (my brother and his partner recently published a very useful book on the topic:  Friends with Benefits). I haven’t found as much on using social media for service and technical support. I hope to capture some of these resources on this site.