Key Considerations for Implementing an Online Knowledge Base

Jay Grady

"The shortest distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line. The shortest distance between a customer with a problem and a customer with a solution to that problem is Google."

What’s a Knowledge Base?

Simply stated, a knowledge base is a searchable repository of information. As the Web has evolved, the phrase has generally become understood to mean a Web page that allows a user to enter a word or phrase and obtain a set of germane results that are stored in a back-end database. If you are a company like Microsoft or Dell, this is a massive set of information delivered with enormously sophisticated applications. If you are a small furniture company, this may only be a single database with a modest set of capabilities that meets customer needs. They are all called a "knowledge base" despite the many differences in complexity.

The Role of the Knowledge Base in Customer Service Excellence

As we kick off 2009 and look at the area of knowledge bases, we must focus on a few key areas within the knowledge base discipline, including how a company or organization chooses, implements and ultimately yields measurable results from available solutions in the marketplace.

The key to success in any knowledge base effort is clarity about the objective of the knowledge base. This includes how you know if you were successful in meeting that objective, and what aspects of the business processes and organizational culture contribute to meeting that objective in ways that are measurable and demonstrable.

Identifying Goals and Outcomes in the Knowledge Base

"What are we trying to do, exactly?" is a question that is all too often skipped over because it’s assumed the answer is obvious. But is it? As painful as the discussion may be across a wide range of functional business unit owners/managers, it’s a critical component.

If you don’t know your goals for the knowledge base, you won’t know how to measure success. Some simple examples might be:

  • Lower customer support call costs by lessening the volume and complexity
  • Provide key business partners with detailed product information to enable sales
  • Address customer feedback that finding information on our web site is difficult

While seemingly straightforward, all three of the above have decidedly unique criteria for measuring successful outcomes. This also must be combined with the line-of-business owners who have a vested interest from different parts of the company. Any organization examining this topic should make sure they have a firm grasp on what it is they are trying to accomplish. It can be easy to get wrapped up in conversations and sales cycles for a wide-range of knowledge storage issues as well as distribution and consumption products that overshoot their needs, fall short and cost too much.

Measuring Future Success by Measuring Failure Now

I’m amazed this doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Many organizations make the leap of faith that the sheer presence of a knowledge base stuffed with content must be successful. They start adding articles all day long generated by any number of people and systems, and pat themselves on the back because there’s a good process for putting content in the system by lots of people.

You need to look at what your customers are consuming as well as adjust thinking or workflow to calibrate the process. What if 85 percent of the content you generate is never viewed by anyone? Would the effort be justifiable? What parameters would you employ to measure the cost of that content?

Suppose in hard dollars you could simply divide the cost of your knowledge base solution to date by the number of articles read and not generated. Is that useful? Not likely. You’re spending soft-dollars on bright people who are typing and formatting.

Here’s the thing that is critical. A company has to know that the criteria used to indicate their investment in technology, time and talent is on target. More specifically, knowledge management must start with a baseline set of metrics that support a knowledge base initiative (new, improved, re-start, etc.). The metrics will ensure management knows where they went right and wrong.

Be sure you are able to determine whether your knowledge base is working or not with measurement criteria that’s repeatable, scalable and actionable. Examining the results is a key part of weekly performance management reviews.

Improve Customer Satisfaction By Successfully Defining the "Ideal Customer Experience"

Remember, it’s 2009 and there are online communities, forums, social media technologies, blogs, developer support for software companies (Facebook or Twitter), online documentation, and yes, knowledge bases.

Service teams are notoriously guilty of "Starting with the Start" instead of "Starting with the End."

Define the ideal customer experience first. Think of the experience from their perspective and not that of the customer service or content generation teams. Get detailed about it too. Learn from focus groups, outbound surveys from the call center, e-mail campaigns and face-to-face conversations with Sales, Marketing and customers.

Once the "Ideal Customer Experience" has been carved out you can begin to walk backwards from it and determine what’s required in order to produce it or rule it out due to cost, complexity or lack of commitment.

Content Factories

Bear in mind that the teams, typically "service" related, that generate the bulk of the content within a knowledge base solution are producers of a product in ways that are analogous to factories that make toothpaste or telephones. It’s a process that requires a supply chain (questions and answers), an assembly process (content creation and workflow) and sales and distribution (knowledge base publishing and content consumption).

Think of the online knowledge base as being a product with as much significance as that which your company or organization sells. The knowledge base is that valuable.

Imagine you own a retail store that sells clothing. In all likelihood the store is neat, the clothes are well arranged and the staff is friendly and attentive. The obvious thinking here is that the customer will return to a store that pays attention to detail, and makes it easy for the customer to locate the item the customer wants, and clears out the item the customer doesn’t want.

The Online Knowledge Base Maps the Physical World

Presentation and organization is everything. Your online knowledge base maps to the physical world more than you realize. It represents all of the information that those in your company or organization deemed important enough to publish. So the question of how much attention is being given to managing that content on a daily basis is important.

Just as important is the need to remove content that is no longer relevant in the same way bad fruit gets removed from the grocery store shelves, or last year’s winter coats are removed from The Gap.

We place tremendous amounts of value on knowledge base article creation. We forget that every time new content is added, old content is diluted. This makes it harder to find what’s needed. Who doesn’t hate searching for something in Google and getting a bazillion outdated results? That’s not Google’s fault. In conclusion the content you generate for your customers should be regularly pruned for freshness.

Key Considerations For Deciding on a Knowledge Base

Before any solutions get examined a company must know what they want to accomplish, how they would measure success and who in the organization is responsible for delivering that success. Those are three very big components to sort out before you go shopping.

Inevitably several groups will play a role: Service, Marketing, Sales, Engineering or Product Teams, etc. Additionally, the number and diversity of staff that can make a customer-facing knowledge base successful will vary wildly by company, industry and business model. Knowing who the key players are, and what their willingness is to be measured on their performance and gaining their agreement on the processes is critical.

Lastly, weighing the costs in technology, time and talent against the perceived benefits to a customer and future sales is paramount to the thinking process. Know what success looks like and identify how you’ll demonstrate that success.

First published on Call Center IQ.