Bringing Knowledge To Customer Service
BY ALAN KESSLER, 3COM CORPORATION
"Knowledge is power." In the business world, this simple dictum is repeated
so often that we take it on faith to be true. With the secret of power thus revealed, now
all we have to do is figure out what knowledge is.
Knowledge is a trendy term for business intelligence. In the
techno-vernacular of the 1990s, knowledge refers to the wealth of information that is
gathered by a companys employees and made available to everyone, both internal and
external, who can use it. The collection, archiving and merchandising of thousands,
perhaps millions, of pieces of data is commonly known as knowledge management
KM is more than just a fad. While it can sometimes be challenging and costly to
implement, KM enables companies to leverage useful information across the enterprise. The
enormous upside of such an effort is a dramatic increase in efficiency and productivity
everywhere this knowledge is put to use.
KM Strengthens Customer Service
By definition, corporate knowledge is a cooperative resource. The ability to
share or reuse strategic information places a team, department or entire
enterprise on the same page. Drawing intelligence from a common pool also
ensures a higher degree of efficiency, accuracy and consistency.
Customer service particularly service geared to users of technical products
is one of the business functions that is most enhanced by knowledge management. A
look at the typical pre-KM technical service call center shows a support team faced with a
daily barrage of wide-ranging inquiries. Each team member brings a specific set of skills
and expertise to the job skills that may or may not match the customers
concern. Likely, each also has a distinct manner of addressing issues and explaining
solutions. Some approaches will be more appropriate to certain inquiries than others.
When KM is applied to such operations, the results can be striking. Today, product and
support knowledge is being captured and managed in automated, online databases available
not only to service personnel in home and field offices, but also to customers wishing to
take advantage of self-service support options. Utilizing the World Wide Web
and/or company Intranets as distribution conduits, online support services provide a
common, accessible, convenient informational tool. With these resources now at their
disposal, support staff can identify and convey solutions in a fast, accurate and uniform
manner, shortening the customer-support cycle and delivering a higher caliber of service.
Automated Service Spreads Knowledge, Cuts Costs
In the information technology business, where highly technical solutions may be
difficult or impossible to deliver verbally, a knowledge-based Web service is fast
becoming an industry imperative. Because a vendors technical service engineers,
channel partners and customers can all access a resource of this kind, the resulting
solution is assured of being consistent and correct, time and time again.
This is where the aggregation of knowledge comes into play. A well-constructed online
service program incorporates the input of experts in the production, use, functionality
and replacement of the products being supported. Such a process ensures that all the
information imparted to the user is well-organized, complete and effectively presented.
When executed correctly, an electronic support service enables a vendor to capture
specialized intelligence, communicate it effectively and distribute it instantaneously to
users around the world. In this way, vendors are able to increase the accessibility and
functionality of the knowledge they possess.
Customer service divisions offering an Internet-based program as part of the customer
support mix are typically able to operate more profitably than those offering phone
support only. Because online support vehicles enable customer self-service and promote a
high degree of solution reuse, they create an efficiency that translates into a lower cost
The same is true for users of knowledge-based support services. Customers using
automated support save time, resolve problems and, therefore, save money. These time and
cost savings result from two factors, both due to the immediate and accessible nature of
- Solutions are instantly available at customers fingertips, saving much of the time
they might have spent waiting for and receiving telephone support.
- Customers have access to support during off-hours, when network demands are lightest,
thereby extending system uptime and improving company productivity.
Following the time/cost-reduction assertion to its logical conclusion, consider that
reining-in the cost of technical support allows a manufacturer to manage the cost of
product ownership and operation for its customers. An increased return on investment
further contributes to a customers profitability and competitiveness, and fortifies
his or her sense of vendor satisfaction.
KM Support Shifts Call Center Focus
Among other benefits, knowledge-based support systems play a key role in reducing
the volume of inquiries received at the call center. This is because many of the issues
once raised in phone calls are now easily addressed by a knowledge-based system. As a
result, telephone support engineers are able to spend more time working with customers on
intricate issues that demand more specialized attention. On extended calls, support
representatives ability to explore customers questions in detail permits them
to offer proactive insights that maximize the value of support and identify possible
performance issues in the future.
Being able to reach a support representative more promptly and receive expert personal
attention certainly increases customer satisfaction. However, the reduction in traffic at
the call center benefits the vendor, too. With more problem-solving occurring online,
telephone representatives are now able to capitalize on additional training opportunities
to expand their skills and further their careers. In addition, support engineers now can
work with representatives of product divisions on cross-disciplinary task teams in an
effort to better address customer satisfaction issues.
Armed with the knowledge to deliver more complete and prevention-oriented service, call
center engineers now experience a heightened feeling of professional growth, pride and
satisfaction. Increased job satisfaction translates into providing better support, which
in turn creates happier customers. Thus, the reduced call volume that results from adding
online support to the customer service mix creates a positive cycle of satisfaction
between customers and service personnel.
All of that said, it is important that directors of service organizations not forsake
one mode of supporting customers for another. An automated support vehicle should not be
viewed as a replacement for telephony-based methods of supporting customers, but rather as
a complement to them. For users requiring around-the-clock, cost-effective access to a
companys technical information and solutions, electronic support makes it as
accessible as the Internet. For those customers whose issues continue to demand the
personal, voice-to-voice assistance and confidence engendered by a telephone call or site
visit, traditional service methodologies will continue to play a significant role in the
suite of customer support tools.
Web Knowledge Enhances Products, Processes
While Web-based support programs expand the collection of service offerings to
better meet customers ever-changing support needs, they also serve the vendor
itself. By providing support online, a company creates an ideal tool for charting
customers inquiries and support usage. As customers log on seeking help, such
information as visit frequency and duration can be captured in a database, along with any
issues, comments and questions that have been submitted. When placed in context and
distributed to the appropriate parties, this data becomes actionable, producing strategies
whose effectiveness is easily measured through comparisons with future customer feedback.
Todays provider of electronic support must leverage the knowledge it captures
about customer concerns to reinforce its products and processes of the future. By
effectively distributing this knowledge to all personnel who can benefit from it, a
manufacturer, for example, is able to improve product functionality and key strategic
aspects of the business. Once there is a system in place for deploying the knowledge
gained from a Web-based support tool, the improved products and services that result will
be even easier for that vendor to support.
One of the most important ways manufacturers gain knowledge is by capturing information
about their own employees experiences. Increasingly, vendors are encouraging their
field engineers and other remote workers to join traditional home office technical staff
in contributing to and drawing upon the knowledge contained in their online
In an effort to generate and capture a critical mass of information on their
knowledge-based support sites, many vendors have developed rewards programs designed to
stimulate employees to share the knowledge they may have held onto in the past. Such
programs have proven effective not only in helping to seed databases with a large volume
of solution-related information, but also in raising the quality of that information.
Increasingly, companies are creating internal-only versions of their knowledge-based
systems, through which both public and confidential solutions can be accessed. While
classified or in-process information cannot be applied to solving customer inquiries, it
can be used by field staff to gain contextual understanding and up-to-date knowledge of a
range of technical issues. Moreover, by converging technical communications through a
single informational resource, users are able to derive maximum value from the
companys knowledge reserves.
In an age ruled by information, knowledge of users support needs is highly
advantageous to the company aiming to learn more about its customers, gauge the usage of
its products and services, and improve its own competitive position.
Marketing Drives Web Activity
Offering knowledge-based support programs is not enough to ensure their success;
companies must be enterprising about informing customers of their existence. Todays
savvy vendors capitalize on a wide range of marketing and promotional opportunities to
create awareness and drive usage of their automated support services.
Some of the strategies being used to communicate the availability of a new support
resource include print advertising in trade magazines and public relations activities
aimed at garnering editorial coverage. Many providers of Internet-based support also
participate in industry trade shows where they showcase demos of their knowledge-based
systems. Banner advertisements on vendors own Web sites, as well as those of
co-vendors and channel partners, have also played a pivotal role in pushing would-be
service users directly to the site.
Speaking of the channel, much emphasis is placed on educating members of this community
since, as agents of the manufacturer, they are well-positioned to positively influence
users. Many manufacturers heavily market their online support capabilities to their
resellers and sales partners. They rely on mailers, marketing collateral, user manuals,
release notes, product packaging and face-to-face meetings, among other vehicles, to
deliver this important message.
Companies are also using call center representatives and prerecorded on
hold messaging as opportunities to expose customers to information about alternative
support resources. Likewise, sales representatives, network consultants and other
personnel interfacing with prospects and customers are well-versed in how to communicate
both the sales and service implications of a leading-edge online support program.
KM Makes Sense And Dollars
What is the proverbial bottom line? It is, simply, that the effective
management and deployment of corporate knowledge in the customer service arena can have a
significant impact on the literal bottom line. Every day, countless companies are
realizing the efficiencies and profitability of incorporating the Internet into their
customer service program. Those failing to do so risk being caught on hold.
Alan Kessler is senior vice president of 3Com Corporations global customer
service organization. His responsibilities include managing customer service solutions for
all of 3Coms served market solutions including large enterprise, small/medium
business, small office/home office and consumer customers.