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How to Handle Unresponsive SMEs When Outsourcing Technical Writing


We've all been there. You need information from a subject matter expert, and you can't get it.

This happens for a variety of reasons: perhaps they don't know the information themselves because business demands require publications and systems to be developed in parallel when they really ought to be done in sequence, or they simply don't have the time.

I found myself in the latter situation shortly after starting work on one project. We were developing an online help system that had to be formally approved, translated, and delivered to the FDA as part of the publications package. That first step, the formal approval, quickly became a bottleneck, as the approvers (most of whom were managers in other departments) sometimes took weeks or even months to return their comments.

I tried all the usual tactics.

I sent reminder e-mails. Left voice-mails. Scheduled approval meetings to discuss comments in real time (which usually ended up with me sitting alone in a room for half an hour). Hand-delivered paper copies of everything. Once I even brought my laptop over to one person's office and worked from there so I could catch him between meetings, and even that was ineffective at anything except irritating him.

outsourcing technical writing resized 600The usual tactics weren't working, and no unusual ones immediately came to mind. I was composing yet another reminder e-mail and starting to get angry at the faceless username associated with the address when the solution came to me. It was certainly an unusual one, but I thought it just might work.

I bought them lunch.

I realized that part of the problem was that I was just as faceless to them as they were to me. I wasn't a person, or even another team member; I was just the guy pestering them for content that they didn't really have time to provide. I deleted everything I'd written in the reminder e-mail and replaced it with an offer to have lunch. I then did the same for each other approver - even the few who'd been returning things on time. Not everyone took me up on it, but about half of them did. I met with them individually, and we talked about our families, our hobbies, our hometowns - and not work. This wasn't a business meeting, exactly - it was just lunch.

After that, things got better. My responses came in more quickly (sometimes still overdue, but I no longer had to wait months), and more than that, the office environment was more pleasant. Now, when I saw them in the hallway, I could ask the Implementation Manager how her kids are adjusting to going to school, or ask the Quality Analyst how the novel she's working on is coming along, rather than just a terse nod or exchange about how I'm contributing to their ever-growing pile of work.

Most of life comes down to relationships: ignore them at your peril. Business should be no exception, but all too often we can hide behind our digital tools and forget about the power of interpersonal communication. Since this happened, I've accomplished many things for this client, but my biggest accomplishment is probably the relationship building that came out of those lunches. It's not going to show up on anyone's goals or metrics for the year, but the difference has been noticable for everyone.

So next time you're not getting the input you need, instead of asking for it for the eighth time, try asking about their latest vacation instead. You might be surprised.


What are your most successful approaches for getting input from SMEs? Share your unique tactics or stories in the comments below.


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Topics: outsourcing, technical writing