What To Do When SMEs Are Unresponsive ft img

When SMEs aren’t responding to your collaboration requests, you could:

  • send polite reminders
  • involve a higher authority
  • offer incentives and rewards
  • suggest alternative collaboration methods

… and so on. 

There’s a bunch of solutions you could try.

But we wanted to hear from professionals who deal with SMEs in their day-to-day.

So we turned to 5 customer education and content leaders to share insights from their experience.

Author’s note: we interviewed all experts in this article without calls or meetings using Leaps 🙂

How to convince unresponsive SMEs to respond

First, a big shoutout to all the amazing education and content leaders sharing their experiences in this piece:

Andrea Zwaschka (Senior Manager, Customer Education @ Attentive), Adam Avramescu (VP, Customer Education @ Personio), Allison Gathard-Esposto (Director, Customer Education & Adoption @ Evisort), Mandy Patterson (Customer Education Manager @ Sprout Social), and Diane Le Strain (Customer Education Specialist @ Honeycomb).

1. Find out why they aren’t responding

Of course, the general reason SMEs are unresponsive is that they have other priorities.

But we all make time for what’s important. Your SMEs aren’t any different.

Once you know why they’re unresponsive, you can figure out how to solve the problem.

For example, if they’re not responding because their manager has tasked them with other activities, you might need to speak to their managers first.

And once the manager highlights your request as something they should prioritize, the SME will quickly consider it an important task to do.

The key is to always find out why they aren’t responding so you can help them see why they should answer your questions.

The VP of customer experience at Personio shared a couple of potential reasons that could hinder SMEs from responding and what to do:

Adam Avramescu headshot

Adam Avramescu

VP, Customer Education @ Personio

“Sometimes we assume that because an SME is committed to work with us “on paper,” that we can use their time. 

“In reality, they have competing priorities and often view being an SME as a “second job” in addition to their other priorities, and may not know the importance of why they need our expertise. 

“In these cases, it’s good to work with the SME to understand their potential reluctance or competing priorities. If they don’t understand why it’s important, we can share the broader purpose of the project. 

“If they have competing priorities, we may even be able to escalate or work with their manager to make this a higher priority. 

“In other cases, SMEs are [unresponsive] because they have highly technical expertise or particular ways of doing things and can’t or won’t translate that to an approach that will resonate with customers. 

“In those cases, we have to break the “curse of knowledge” and help them see the topic from a beginner’s eyes.

“[In a nutshell]:

“1. Do they not know why they need to take the time? Inspire them and give them context.

“2. Do they have competing incentives or priorities? Work with them to unblock those or get support from their leadership.

“3. Is it the “curse of knowledge”? Help them rediscover the topic through a beginner’s eyes.”

The director of customer education & adoption at Evisort mirrors the same idea as Adam here:

Allison Gathard-Esposto headshot

Allison Gathard-Esposto

Director, Customer Education & Adoption @ Evisort

“Most people do not set out to be difficult. Usually, there is a lack of bandwidth or understanding. My #1 tip for working with difficult SMEs is to reset the relationship

“Make sure you take the time to understand their resistance and address any concerns. It may involve rescoping their involvement, but flexibility is key to shifting how you work together.

“I always encourage people to develop relationships outside of the ask for SME support. 

“Understanding someone’s personality and motivations can help build stronger bonds and overall make the working relationship smoother. It can also be helpful to give the SME the larger picture of what you are trying to accomplish and where their input fits in. 

“Showing them what you created together can help get them excited for the next project.”

2. Get comfortable with follow-ups

There’s almost always an icky feeling with sending follow-up messages.

But here’s the reality: SMEs are always going to have your requests in their secondary to-do lists. Their day jobs will always take priority.

So it’s in your best interest to find ways to overlook that icky feeling and send those reminders. 

(Or just let Leaps do it for you. Once you have that first conversation with your SMEs, where you’ve briefed them about what you need from there, Leaps can help you send them questions and follow-up emails — if responses aren’t coming in on time ;))

But the important thing to know here is that SMEs have priorities above fulfilling your requests, so they’ll likely not respond immediately — maybe even ever, until they see your reminders.

I like the perspective that Attentive’s senior manager of customer education shared about this:

Andrea Zwaschka headshot

Andrea Zwaschka

Senior Manager, Customer Education @ Attentive

“Often, customer education leaders tend to ask for SME help once or twice, then move on for fear of upsetting the SME. 

“This is wrong. SMEs are usually incredibly busy and might simply need consistent reminders and some help with making your ask a priority. 

“A better way to work with [unresponsive] SMEs is to:

“[1] Make it clear to them what’s in it for them; how they will benefit from working with you on this. 

“[2] Consolidate the time you need from them — if you’re sharing a doc and want their feedback, highlight specific areas for them to review. 

“[3] Set clear expectations for the time commitment you need from them and do the work outside of that engagement to fit what you need into that time frame. Telling an SME ‘I only need 1 hour of your time this week, and 1 hour of your time in 3 weeks,’ makes it less overwhelming to them. 

“[4] Make sure they understand this is a partnership. It’s mutually beneficial. 

“[5] Do your research before engaging with the SME, so you can cut down on the input you need from them. 

Andrea further shared a story that shows why other customer education and content leaders should get comfortable with follow-ups:

“I once had an SME tell me that the mistake I made was dropping my ask of him after he didn’t respond after two asks. This taught me we’re all very busy and SMEs have daily deliverables expected of them. 

“That doesn’t mean they don’t want to help, our ask just might not be a priority. So, do everything you can to cut down the time you need from them, then continue to remind them regularly (be obnoxious) that you’re waiting on assistance from them. They will oil the squeaky wheel.”

3. Become a partner who supports their goals

Motivation is always a strong precursor to action.

One of the easiest ways to motivate your SMEs to respond is to:

  • identify the company goals they’re trying to hit
  • see how your collaboration with them supports those goals
  • educate them on how your work supports their goal

That’s what being a partner with SMEs looks like. 

Sprout Social’s customer education manager put it like this:

Mandy Patterson headshot

Mandy Patterson

Customer Education Manager @ Sprout Social

“My #1 tip is to be a partner. 

“Goals are always going to conflict or not line up, but if you can look at the larger scale of what the company’s goals are, tie that to what the SME is responsible for, and use data points to back up the impact of your education content for that SME, you become someone who they enjoy working with.

“Think about how to connect with your SME on a personal level and build that relationship up through trust. Hold up your end of the deal, even if sometimes that means going above and beyond in your initial interactions. 

“Then find those data points; here’s how this learning course or educational copy will increase adoption and reception of the product or features that you’re working on. Here’s what’s going to happen without it. 

“It’s all about maintaining the person-to-person relationship and finding the ways you can elevate each other. 

“If you’re able to highlight how you’ll make that SME’s work life easier, all while tackling company objectives, chances are that SME is no longer “difficult” or “unresponsive” but can become a strategic partner for you.

“It makes for a better working environment all the way around. If I can share my struggles and how an SME can alleviate them and then help elevate an SME’s work, then we’ve found something magical. It takes away those “difficult” interactions and turns them into a genuine bond.”

Mandy shares a bit further about how she handles situations where SMEs don’t see the value in education content:

“I usually have had a “difficult” time working with someone who might not see the value in education or views it as a hindrance. 

“But yet, they’re also seeing low adoption numbers for their features or products. If I can show an SME an example to say, “Before we had educational content on this similar feature set, we had poor adoption numbers. We saw X number of support tickets coming in monthly. 

“But after we created learning content, we saw the number of support tickets drop by X percent and adoption went up.” 

“Now putting that in context of what it means for our business helps us to work together to realize a larger goal than my goal of getting content out the door that drives adoption and their goal of getting a new feature out the door to delight customers before moving onto the next.”

4. Show up well-prepared

You get two levels of win with every SME.

The first win is when they give you that verbal commitment that they’ll provide you with the information you need. The second win is when they actually do it.

The first win is easy, but the second is where you need to be careful about showing up prepared.

Make it super easy for them to share the information you need.

I like how Honeycomb’s customer education specialist put it:

Diane Le Strain headshot

Diane Le Strain

Customer Education Specialist @ Honeycomb

“Always come prepared with enough information to help them share their expertise in a way that does not require a ton of time and/or energy from them. 

“They often have jobs of their own and duties they have to take care of, so asking them for their time and expertise can be a lot. 

“Get a lay of the land before requesting their help, prepare good, purposeful questions, and firmly — but kindly — correct the course if things start to go awry.”

Diane further added a point about helping SMEs understand why you’re asking for their help before you get to asking them questions:

“My #1 tip would be to take the time required to explain what the outcomes and objectives for the learning materials are and why they matter to the success of the materials and the learner’s experience. 

“It’s difficult for an SME to stay within the boundaries of learning objectives if they don’t understand why we use them and why they are so important for the learner’s success in mastering the information.”

How to engage unresponsive SMEs — in a nutshell

  • Find out why your unresponsive SMEs are… well… unresponsive.
  • Educate them on how your work supports their goals
  • Once you get a verbal or written commitment from them, send follow-up reminders to keep them accountable (you can use Leaps for this:))
  • Once they show up, you also show up prepared with easy ways for them to give you the information you need.
Victor Ijidola
Co-founder at Leaps | Website

Hi, I’m Victor 👋🏽 — co-founder @ Leaps, a tool that makes it super easy to get insights from multiple SMEs & execs at the same time — without calls & meetings.