How to give better answers to frequently asked questions

Since entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers sold his company, CD Baby, in 2008 for $22M, he’s been inviting—and happily answering—questions over email about business, productivity, and life. After answering a total of 192,000 emails from 78,000 people, Sivers finally announced at the close of 2016 that he was no longer taking questions. But he left his readers and fans with this FAQ page, which I found interesting for two reasons.

1. His FAQs are about the askers, not the answerer.
Too many FAQ sections are actually just promotional material masquerading as frequently requested answers. I’ve never once had a student ask, “What year was College X founded?” Yet I’ve seen that supposed frequently asked question pop up on multiple colleges’ FAQ sections. The same can be said of “What is Y Corporation’s mission?” or “What accolades has Individual Z received?” Sivers isn’t promoting himself at all—in fact, many of the answers really just decline offers for speaking, investing, interviews, etc. Instead, he seems to have chosen the 21 questions that were in fact the most frequently asked. He may be disappointing a lot of people by not personally replying with an answer, but he’s dramatically increased the likelihood that subsequent visitors will actually find the answer they’re looking for.

2. He tries to leave people better off than when they arrived.
Yes, some of his replies are just no’s—he won’t promote your product, he won’t invest in your idea, he won’t be on your podcast (for now). But far more of his responses include recommendations for his favorite book on that topic, helpful advice, or another resource to leave the visitor better off than they would have been with, “That’s too complicated to answer over email,” or even worse, no answer at all. And while the replies aren’t lengthy, I got the sense that many of those answers might be the same that he’d offer to a close friend or family member. Sivers may not be replying personally to each inquiry. But that FAQ page will allow him to help people for a long time.

If you’re a counselor, administrator, teacher, head of an organization, or anyone else who answers many of the same questions over and over again, you likely can’t just stop answering them and let an FAQ do all the work for you. But you could create an FAQ to cut down on your repeat answer performances, and even to extend your service by not making people wait for a helpful reply that could just as easily and effectively have been handled with an FAQ.

Private counselors, what if you took the most common questions potential clients ask and posted an FAQ with honest, direct, helpful answers? “How are you different from your competition?” could include links to your competitors’ websites along with a recommendation that families interview multiple counselors and choose the one that seems to be the best fit. “What type of students do you work with?” could include information not just about your typical student, but also the types of students you don’t typically serve, along with recommendations for where those kids could find good information or support. Imagine the tone this would set for a visitor who’s just arriving at your website and is already being helped before even speaking with you.

High school counselors, what if you picked the 10-20 questions you get most often and posted the most helpful, honest answers you could write, the type you would share if the parent or student were actually a relative? How well-served would your families feel, and more importantly, how much time might you get back to get other work done?

Teachers, what questions do you answer repeatedly from students and parents? You could even turn your answers into mini articles, like, “The best ways to improve your writing,” or “The five best ways to improve your grade in my class,” or “What to do if you need extra help.” Yes, you could still reply to each inquiry and personalize both the message and the advice. But you could also let the article do the work for you when it comes down to repeating the advice that you’ve shared many times before.

Colleges, I’ve even written a past post on how to improve your own FAQ sections.

Good questions deserve good answers. But it’s almost impossible to answer a particular question with the same attention and care the hundredth time as you did the first five times. When those questions cause your energy and enthusiasm to wane, consider adding that query—and the best possible reply—to your “FAQs.” You’ll give better answers, you’ll leave people better off, and you’ll have more time to answer those personal, nuanced questions that aren’t so frequently asked.