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Selecting a Knowledge Management Tool for Your Contact/Support Center

The smart support center/contact center manager knows that knowledge management, and not case resolution, is the critical process in support organizations. Good knowledge management ensures that we don’t reinvent the wheel every time a customer asks a question. Indeed, good knowledge management allows the customer to instantly recognize a solution to the problem, if one exists, without having to ever contact the support organization. 

But not all knowledge management initiatives are successful. So what can you do to ensure that your initiative will succeed and you will pick the right technology?

Start with the Process
Technology is important, but never as important as defining a strong process. Even the best technology in the world will not write knowledge base documents for you! Before making any technology decision, you must define in advance how new documents will be created and, very important, how you will manage updates and obsolescence. Too many knowledge bases become cluttered over time with outdated and plainly wrong documents that they become unusable. 

Depending on the type of support organization you run, you will essentially choose between having a small team of knowledge specialists who oversee the knowledge base and asking all the support reps to create and maintain knowledge as part of their normal duties. The knowledge specialist approach works well for lower-complexity support organizations. The decentralized approach is best for higher-complexity organizations.

Bring the People on Board
Imagine you are a service or support rep and you are asked to write down everything you know for the knowledge base. Would the paranoid side of you think that management is just trying to squeeze out your knowledge so it can get rid of you? And in any case wouldn’t you resist the demand that you now must fit knowledge management into your schedule on top of all the case resolution work you have to do?

A great process and great technology will surely fail if you don’t get the team to embrace them. Spend time to convert especially the influential nay-sayers to the knowledge management initiative. Get them involved. Incorporate their ideas.

Look to the CRM
So after taking care of processes and people you can finally look at the tool. The first stop should be with your CRM system. Will the knowledge management module meet your needs? If your needs are relatively modest, chances are pretty good that you can simply use the CRM. The CRM tool has the great advantage of being integrated with the case-tracking side of the business. This means that you can more easily mine case data and transform it into knowledge base articles. It also means that searching the knowledge base from the case-tracking screens should be easy.

What do I mean by “modest” needs? I mean that your knowledge base is not huge (say hundreds or perhaps thousands of articles), that users (which means both internal users, the reps, and the customers) can be trusted to use reasonable search queries, and that you can live without advanced metrics about knowledge management (so nothing as advanced as knowledge gap analysis, only simple volume and usage metrics).

Build or Buy?
If your needs are more complex, or if the limits of using the CRM knowledge management module are intolerable, you will want to look farther afield. Typically at this point you will have a choice of either purchasing a new, purpose-built tool, or cobbling together a solution yourself. This is an important decision and one that you should consider jointly with the IT team, as the performance differentials between the two can be as large as the differences between the price tags.

Here again, start with your needs. Often the main issue is search. The documents are there, experienced users can find them (with some hard work and special magical incantations), but regular users, both customers and less senior support reps, regularly fail to find them. In this situation a good approach may be to simply install a search appliance and direct it against the knowledge base (and, as a wonderful bonus, against other repositories such as the set of product documentation, delivering a unified search experience). Buying and configuring a search appliance is a relatively easy task.

Sometimes, the real issue is the support website. It’s so unappealing that customers hesitate to wander there, and the brave souls that do cannot navigate properly to perform a search. (Hard to believe, but I encounter at least one such support website every year.) In this case the best approach is to hire a good web designer. In other words, it’s not (really) a knowledge management issue.

What if the main issue is a true knowledge management issue? It’s simply too hard to create documents, especially if all support reps are supposed to do knowledge management in their spare time, and it’s even harder to maintain documents. In this situation a purpose-built tool is ideal. With a solid user interface the chore of writing and maintaining documents is much easier and that will greatly improve the likelihood that knowledge management will get done. So do you go for an integrated solution (knowledge creation, search, metrics) or do you bring together the pieces yourself?

When deciding between cobbling together a solution and buying an integrated solution, consider the long-term. Short-term, either route will deliver more documents, because it’s easier to create them, and a much improved search experience, because that’s what you get with a powerful search engine. 

However, in the long term integrated solutions should give you a much better opportunity to mine the users’ experience to improve the knowledge base. Do customers typically escalate to support after reading a particular document? (If so, that document probably needs revising.) Are customers persistently asking for a particular type of information that they cannot find? (If so, let’s write up that answer!) Are some documents that are popular with support reps never showing up in customers’ search results? (If so, they should be re-written in customer’s terms.) Cobbled-up solutions can rarely deliver this value-add level of performance. If all you need is some short-term relief, you can go with a cobbled-up solution. Otherwise, pay up and enjoy the long-term benefits. Run the numbers. A lighter knowledge maintenance burden may well outweigh the initial higher investment if your self-service volume is large enough.

Knowledge Management for the Multi-Channel Contact Center

Looking for more information on building or improving your multi-channel contact center with knowledge management? Join ICMI for a complimentary webinar: Knowledge Is Power: Supporting the Multi-Channel Contact Center With Knowledge Management. (This webinar will be live, with Q&A, on June 30, 2010 at 1pm ET. It will also be archived for later viewing.)

Francoise Tourniaire is the founder of the technology support consultancy FT Works. www.ftworks.com

Francoise Tourniaire is the founder and principal of FT Works. [email protected]