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Customer Relationship Management
October 2001

Cleaning Up The Customer Experience With Online Knowledge Bases

BY RAMESH JAYARAMAN AND ROHIT KUMAR


The desire to off-load customer service requests to online self-service knowledge bases and the databases of technical information, problem solutions and frequently asked questions (FAQs) is understandable and obvious. An online knowledge base can lower call volumes, reduce staffing demands, shorten training cycles and reduce contact center operating costs. These benefits all flow to the provider of the knowledge base. What is less obvious is the extent to which customers will opt for online self-service.

Many firms have already instituted Web-based self-service applications with online knowledge bases. But a significant proportion of these services have failed to achieve their goals. Many are simply technical manuals or standardized FAQs keyed into a database, offering little more value than the help button on a PC. Customers become bored or frustrated long before they find the answers they need. Most then log off and call the toll-free customer service line.

The result is a process that irritates customers while producing longer calls. Contact center agents must first listen to customers venting their frustrations as they repeat the stories of their search efforts. Only then can the agent learn the nature of the original problem and respond with a solution. Customer satisfaction goes down almost as fast as call durations and operating costs go up.

Industry observers have identified poor customer care as one of the major impediments to the growth of e-commerce. If firms want to experience all of the efficiencies e-business processes can produce, they must find ways to provide more satisfactory customer care. They must give customers a much stronger set of incentives to use self-service knowledge bases and a much more satisfactory experience when they do choose to contact the interaction center.

The only way businesses can persuade customers to rely on automated, self-service facilities is to build more customer value into their knowledge bases and customer interaction centers. The strategies outlined below can help businesses leverage their online knowledge bases to provide this value, thereby improving the customer experience while simultaneously reducing the total cost of customer care.

Introduce more added value. As a first and essential step, make sure your knowledge databases are capable of storing large amounts of both structured and unstructured information. Media may include videos, interactive demos, animated graphics or detailed schematics as well as typical text and drawings. Of course, the quality of information presented is even more important than the range of media offered. Make sure all knowledge base files are complete, accurate and up-to-date. Demos, video clips and graphics should be of professional quality and appearance. Review your knowledge base content regularly to ensure that your customers are getting the best and latest information available.

Develop processes for gathering continuing feedback from customers and service agents. Building these kinds of processes is even more important than building the customer service infrastructure or the knowledge base itself. Your customers will tell you the most important problems and most successful solutions if you let them.

Provide interactive capabilities like customer bulletin boards and chat rooms. Give customers ways to interact online with you and with each other. Host regular online sessions with your top troubleshooting technicians and service engineers. Record these sessions and add them to the knowledge base.

Evaluate online service requests against the knowledge base to offer immediate responses. Contemporary technology enables your online customer care system to check an online service request against the knowledge base as the customer composes it. The customer then has the option of notifying you that the knowledge base has resolved the problem or proceeding with the request. Such a system allows you to track the success of the online knowledge base in satisfying various service issues. It also ensures that customers do not log service requests until an online search has failed to yield a solution, obviating the all-too-human tendency to initiate requests before checking the knowledge base.

Track knowledge base activity by customer and tie activity records to CRM files and service histories. Service agents should be able to immediately identify who the customer is and what he or she has already seen in the knowledge base. Access to this knowledge will shorten calls as well as improve customer satisfaction.

Use common standards and a common data model throughout customer service, knowledge base and CRM systems. A common data model, common standards and a single robust database will make the task of integrating CRM and customer care information pathways easier, faster and less costly.

Tie all interaction channels together so service agents can see the customer's knowledge base track and contact history. A service agent should be able to act as the single point of contact through any contact channel a customer chooses, whether telephone, e-mail, online and even "snail mail." The knowledge base and interaction center systems should support this capability.

Leverage knowledge base to train/upgrade agents and retain best/most knowledgeable. Remember that use of the knowledge base should not be restricted to the customer. You should make it available to your own personnel. It can be used to train new service agents and certify existing agents for higher skill and pay levels.

The knowledge base can provide the instrument through which service agents feed what they learn from customers back into the firm, particularly if the firm offers them incentives to do so. This ability to contribute feedback and earn extra benefits and recognition can increase job satisfaction and employee retention rates -- an important consideration in tight labor markets.

Develop incentives for customers to try self-service facilities. If you can figure out ways to sell a customer a multimillion-dollar server or a jetliner, surely you can figure out some interesting ways to get them to try your online knowledge base.

Monitor knowledge base activity to anticipate interaction center demand. Prolonged search activity on the knowledge base may indicate some sections are not readily providing the answers customers need and may telegraph demand for person-to-person responses. Monitoring search activity levels may provide early warning of demand surges to call management systems and supervisory personnel. Tracking the knowledge base search activity may thereby help companies manage interaction center operations in real-time.

As these examples suggest, leveraging the knowledge base system can provide added value in a variety of innovative ways. By enhancing the customer experience, a properly implemented knowledge base can improve customer retention rates, generate more repeat business, lower returns and disputed items and produce higher overall customer satisfaction. In the process, it can also generate significant improvements to both current and future profits.

Ramesh Jayaraman is senior director of development and Rohit Kumar is senior director of marketing for Oracle Corp.

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