The Evolution of Knowledge Management
Here's how on-line knowledge bases are evolving beyond help desks to emerge as essential resources for all types of call centers.
By Adam Throne
Call Center Magazine
04/01/2000, 12:00 AM ET
When you make a knowledge base available from your Web site, you make it easy for your company to update information about the products you offer and you give your customers a way to access this information.
Knowledge bases used to be the domain of help desks, but with the proliferation of corporate intranets in many different types of businesses, including call centers, all parts of a company can publish information they possess on-line. Unlike customer relationship management software, which enables a company to look up information about customers, knowledge management refers to software that makes it easy for customers and agents to look up information about your company.
Companies can use knowledge management tools to give customers the option of looking up answers to questions that they ask most frequently. Companies can apply knowledge management to the creation of service manuals that agents view from their Web browsers. But you may not necessarily want to let customers view the same information that you allow agents to look up. Matt Harbin, senior VP of knowledge management for Technology Solutions (TSC; Chicago, IL), recommends that companies establish security measures to make sure information is available only to the agents, customers or business partners who need to see it. TSC is a systems integrator that offers knowledge management software.
Creating a knowledge management system can be a strategic challenge in itself, says John Heath, senior product marketing manager of Peregrine Systems (San Diego, CA), the parent company of knowledge management software company Knowlix (Draper, UT). "You must do things in a call center with technology that won't inhibit a knowledge-sharing culture," he points out.
Like customer relationship management, knowledge management is a process, not an end in itself. "Rather than a goal, it's a tool that allows customers to get the service they need," says Brian Ladyman, director of corporate marketing for Primus (Seattle, WA), a company that recently introduced e-mail routing software to complement its tools for building knowledge bases.
Although on-line knowledge bases simplify the way that customers and agents can look up information, the process of implementing knowledge management requires that you plan how you partition your knowledge bases. "You need to break it into digestible chunks," advises Daren Nelson, founder and CEO of GWI Software (Vancouver, WA), a company that provides a knowledge management module within a suite of customer data management tools.
"Companies that don't develop effective e-service wind up spending more on customer support than competitors and as much as 20 times more per incident," says Greg Gianforte, CEO of Right Now Technologies (Bozeman, MT), a firm whose software includes tools for building on-line lists of answers to frequently-asked questions.
Companies that use knowledge management software have the responsibility of updating on-line information regularly and applying the same care to it that they do to the hard-copy documents they distribute to the public. "It's like publishing a book," says GWI's Nelson. "Writers submit it and put a face on it that is usable by the general public. People then have to make sense of it, so it must remain fresh and current. If it is not massaged and readable by the general audience, it won't be of any value."
Right Now Technologies' Gianforte agrees, adding that a company can run the risk of creating an on-line knowledge base whose content reflects what members of the company believe to be important rather than what customers need.
Michael Charney, product director at ServiceWare (Oakmont, PA), says that as knowledge management moves beyond the immediate realm of tech support, it places greater demands on other parts of a company.
"They must get to another point from any one point, and they have to be able to escalate to the next level if they cannot find answers," asserts Charney. "For example, you can deliver knowledge through tools, but what you deliver may depend on some other department. Bringing in technology will not necessarily wake people up to contribute just because there is new technology under their roof."
ServiceWare offers a set of pre-packaged knowledge bases for solving problems with products from software companies that include Apple, Novell and Microsoft. Known as Knowledge-Paks, these tools complement ServiceWare's tools for creating knowledge bases.
Peregrine's Heath agrees that the overall purpose of knowledge management tools is to simplify the process that agents and customers use to gather information about all parts of a company. Such efficiency not only reduces the time companies devote to answering questions. It also cuts down on the time they need to train agents. Heath points out that Lockheed Martin was able to reduce training time for support reps by half after it installed Knowlix's software. "The average help desk tenure up until that time was 11 months, with five to six months to train them. We helped cut this down."
Terry Holland, a product manager at Remedy (Mountain View, CA), finds that when businesses employ knowledge management successfully, they can shorten the amount of training time for new support reps.
Right Now's Gianforte concurs, and observes that knowledge management systems make agents' jobs "more challenging."
"A traditional call center is measured in how many calls it gets and how many it has helped," he says. "Now we are able to reward agents who actually answer a question and recognize their ability to update the content of a Web site."
Different Approaches to Knowledge ManagementPrimus' suite of knowledge management software includes a module known as eServer, which functions as the knowledge base and enables your company to tap into third-party knowledge bases. Primus' eSupport gives your customers access to all or some of your on-line knowledge base. In addition, Primus also offers Primus Interchange, an optional module that routes e-mail messages to agents and gives you options for generating automated responses.
Primus' Ladyman says that Primus uses its own products to enable visitors to its Web site to look up information about the company's products.
ServiceWare's rightanswers.com is an on-line service that functions as a more frequently-updated version of the company's Knowledge-Paks. Help desks can use the basic version of this service to find out the latest information about how to resolve issues with software from companies that include Apple, Microsoft and Novell. rightanswers.com starts at $500 for the basic service. If you need assistance resolving problems associated with certain products, such as those from SAP, there is an additional cost of $250. You can sign up for free 15-day trials of the service by visiting www.rightanswers.com.
Another option available from ServiceWare is eService Suite, software for building your own knowledge bases besides those that ServiceWare offers. eService Suite starts at $50,000 and includes the basic version of the rightanswers.com service.
Although this article focuses on knowledge management tools for call centers that communicate with customers, keep in mind that companies can use on-line knowledge bases to assist employees and customers with technical issues. Remedy, for example, is best known for offering software that helps companies resolve internal support problems, and it is among the companies that re-sell ServiceWare's Knowledge-Paks.
GWI's GWI Collaborative Front Office includes a module called c.Knowledge, a knowledge base that includes more than 24,000 solutions to software problems that help desk reps most frequently encounter. This module, as well as other modules within GWI Collaborative Front Office, works with IBM's Domino Web server software.
GWI's Nelson says that c.Knowledge presents a series of questions to support reps or customers to help them narrow down what they're looking for.
"End users won't know key words or phrases, so we can't expect them to use the same tool as support," he explains. "The question and answer interface leads them to a solution." The cost of GWI Collaborative Front Office starts at $7,000 per module and goes up to $150,000 if you allow an unlimited number of customers and support reps to view your company's knowledge bases.
Applied Innovation Management (AIM; Fremont, CA) offers several knowledge management products. Its HelpDesk Expert is an on-line tool for tracking and assigning support requests, as well as for building knowledge bases and lists of frequently-asked questions. Visitors to your Web site can generate trouble tickets by sending e-mail to a primary address that you use to collect requests for technical help. The software automatically generates trouble tickets from these e-mail messages.
With HelpDesk Expert, you categorize different types of problems and indicate the groups of agents to whom you assign these problems. The software enables you to report on the number of problems of each type your help desk resolves. HelpDesk Expert starts at $1,500 for a minimum of three seats.
Silknet's (Manchester, NH) eBusiness System lets you determine which portions of your on-line knowledge base customers, agents and your company's business can view. The cost of this system is $150,000 and will soon be available from Kana Communications (Redwood City, CA), which was in the process of acquiring Silknet at press time.
Knowlix offers iKnowAuthor for creating knowledge bases, iKnowWeb for making these knowledge bases available on-line and iKnowBuilder for incorporating electronic documents into your knowledge base. The more often support reps or customers refer to specific items in your knowledge base to answer their questions, the higher the ranking the software assigns to these items.
Inference's (San Francisco, CA) k-Commerce Support Enterprise enables you to incorporate existing solutions to problems within suggestions for responses, which it presents to support reps who receive e-mail or live text messages from your customers.
Inference offers k-Commerce Enterprise for $0.25 per inquiry or for $2,500 per seat. The company can also host the software from its servers at a cost of $0.40 per inquiry.
Right Now Technologies' Right Now Web 3.1 lets customers indicate how successfully a particular suggestion resolved their technical problems, whether it comes from your on-line knowledge base or your on-line list of answers to frequently-asked questions. The best suggestions ultimately appear on the top of the list as a result of this cumulative feedback. The cost of the software starts at $29,995 and it includes two years of updates and support. Right Now can also host the software at a monthly cost of $5,000 per server.
The Role of Routing In addition to enabling customers to view your company's on-line knowledge bases, an increasing number of knowledge management software products allow on-line customers to send electronic messages to agents at your center.
Interactive Intelligence (Indianapolis, IN), for example, offers e-FAQ. Here's how it works. A customer requests information by sending an e-mail message to a generic e-mail address that appears on your Web site, such as firstname.lastname@example.org. The software automatically responds with an e-mail message that contains a list of answers to questions that your center receives most often. If these answers aren't sufficient, the software directs the customer's on-line inquiry to specific agents. e-FAQ starts at $5,000 per e-mail server.
"Anyone with e-mail can be an author," explains David Fuller, call center product marketing manager for Interactive Intelligence. "The system looks up and matches parts of speech, keywords and synonyms, and is sent back in a very personalized way. When the system can't find a match, or a reply is insufficient, it is sent to a specific mailbox for an expert to look up."
Servicesoft Technologies (Natick, MA) offers eCenter, which lets customers direct e-mail messages and live text messages to agents if they need more information than what is currently available on your on-line knowledge base.
Jeff Whitney, Servicesoft Technologies' VP of marketing, acknowledges that e-mail presents some limitations for customers who need answers right away. "It's like leaving a message on an answering machine and then having someone get back to you," he says.
That is why he recommends that companies focus on building knowledge bases that present enough information on their Web sites so that customers can find what they're looking for by themselves. "Eighty percent of knowledge management should be self-service to empower you to answer your own questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week," advises Whitney.
New Directions for Knowledge Management Peter Dorfman, founder of the consulting firm KnowledgeFarm (Lebanon, NJ), says that knowledge management offers numerous tangible benefits, including more and faster sales, greater customer satisfaction, greater margins on each sale and higher first-call problem resolution rates.
Dorfman is a former marketing manager for Molloy Group, which developed software that applied pattern recognition to categorizing tech support problems. Last year, ServiceWare acquired Molloy Group and incorporated that company's problem-solving methodology into the way it builds on-line knowledge bases.
Dorfman finds that companies often create knowledge bases with the assumption that they already know in advance how to categorize customers' requests for information, including those for help in resolving technical problems.
"My argument is that this approach is backwards," he says. "If you have a symptom, you must start with the symptom and work your way back. A search is what everyone is used to, but you don't always get what you need. It works for a knowledgeable person, but not for the rest of us."
He warns that companies risk running out of space to store answers to questions or resolutions of previous technical problems because of the number and complexity of issues that their support operations deal with. "The problem is that there is no new technology or technological advances and no particular leaps of technological brilliance on the Web," says Dorfman. "You can do some of this with HTML, but the problem is that you tend to run out of patterns you can recognize."
One way to resolve this issue, Dorfman says, involves using software to recognize patterns associated with support requests. He argues that a "backward search," as he describes it, is intuitively correct and performs a better job of narrowing down possible solutions to problems.
"The methodology of case-based reasoning is labor-intensive, but this is something companies must decide when looking at their own domain," suggests Dorfman. To this end, he feels that hybrid methods of organizing on-line information that combine case-based reasoning with other approaches, such as pattern recognition, are best. "They can prioritize the results that you get. To this end, case-based reasoning models have adapted this," he points out.