How Do You Build Successful Relationships with Your SMEs?

Getting a steady stream of good information from your SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) is not a given. It’s something that occurs over a period of time and is based on a work relationship, built on the same ingredients as any other successful relationship: mutual respect, trust, and if you are lucky, as I have been on lots of occasions, comraderie & fun.

Most of my SMEs work very long hours, always under deadline, and always in crunch mode. Though as a technical communicator I often step up, crunching especially long and hard nearer to the product’s delivery, I think it’s only fair to state that our more technical colleagues, more often than not, are *always* in crunch mode.

When I approach engineers or testers and ask them to review my work, I am respectful that reviewing the documentation often requires my SMEs to help me on their own time–either their own personal time, or work time, when they could be completing assigned deliverables. So, if I ask SMEs to help me in such a way, I better make sure that I’ve done as much legwork as I possibly can, on my own, to make the draft as reasonably complete as I can, and to help guide my reviewers to the places in the doc that I know are probably the weakiest. I also stagger my reviews in small increments and find out my reviewers’ commenting preferences (e-mail, hardcopy, PDF, etc.) In other words, I try to make the review as painless as possible, for the people who are helping me.

Building a successful work relationship with your SMEs also means convincing them that you are worth making the investment of their time, and that you will actually incorporate, or at the very least, strongly consider their feedback. Good technical writers want feedback. Good technical writers aren’t defensive about feedback and incorporate most of what they receive, perhaps not verbatim, and not always that release, but as much as possible. When reviewers come to trust that you will incorporate their technical feedback, and that you are willing to work as hard as they do, especially near the end of the cycle in crunch mode, then they are more willing to continue helping you.

Finally, people tend to help people, whom they like as much as respect. How do you be “likeable” in the work place?

  • Showing an interest in your co-workers, not just at review time.
  • Avoiding the blame game.
  • Being pleasant.
  • Helping out your reviewers when the occasion arises (offering to proofread their documents, helping them with Word questions, pitching in on formatting tasks that may take you no time, but them a lot of time, pitching in on ad hoc assignments that often come up, from the other disciplines).
  • Hanging out once in awhile (lunch, holiday parties, at the gym).
  • Showing reviewers that you incorporated their comments, so they see the difference their comments made.
  • Keeping a list (in a centralized place) of comments that you did not incorporate, either because of time constraints, or the need for further discussion. (Don’t let your reviewers feel like they have been unheard, or that their review efforts were wasted.)
  • Saying thank you, both personally, and in public.

A lot of these suggestions may seem like common sense, but relationship-building is one of the most important, and I think, often overlooked parts, of successful technical communication.

Do you agree? How do you build rapport with your SMEs?

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