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Self-service software demands a strong knowledge base

The recession has companies looking harder at customer self-service technology, but the underlying knowledge base must be carefully constructed, according to a Gartner CRM Summit speaker.

There is nothing like a global recession to get organizations interested in self-service technology.

"There are very few people in your organization that have gathered as much knowledge about the company as call center agents," said Johan Jacobs, analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "If you can find a way of harvesting that information and placing it in self service, you can almost cut out the call center itself."

Yet self service requires a knowledge base, and launching a knowledge base to extract full value from customer communication channels like IVR, chat and email response requires a careful approach, Jacobs warned attendees at the recent Gartner CRM Summit.

"Knowledge management [as a market] doesn't exist," he said. "Can I go to any vendor, anywhere and ask for a box called knowledge management? Can I plug it into a server and run an install? No.”

What you can source, however, are access methods and tools such as technology to help manage search entry metadata, he said.

Creating a knowledge base to feed self-service channels depends on a set of best practices, Jacobs detailed in his session. There are many different types of knowledge in an organization, ranging from corporate knowledge to customer service knowledge to the knowledge collected by partners. All together, that knowledge can feed a successful self-service initiative.

"A knowledge base for self service is the fundamental building block of where you need to invest to extract the full value of things like email response," he said. "You can then integrate Web chat with the knowledge base."

Yet the knowledge base for self service must have processes built around it, Jacobs warned. For example, while customer service agents can pull from the knowledge base to provide answers to customers in a chat session, chat is not necessarily a cheaper channel. In fact, a chat interaction can be as much as twice the cost of a telephone interaction, he said. An average phone conversation lasts five minutes, while an average chat interaction lasts 10 to 12. In order to see savings, an organization needs its agents to handle at least two chats at a time, or else it costs more than a phone interaction. Gartner advises clients to conduct no more than five chats at once.

Measuring self service success

Similarly, organizations need to focus on the relevancy of response when queries are made to the knowledge base -- did the person get the answer to the question he asked?

"It is, in the self service world, what first-call resolution is in the telephony and voice world," Jacobs said. "You need, at a minimum, to reach 85% relevancy of response."

That advice, however, flies in the face of many vendor claims that they can get a knowledge base up and running in two weeks, he warned. Better to take a slower, incremental approach. Deploy self service only to certain areas, making sure to reach the 85% threshold before moving on.

"If someone hits your knowledge base and does not get what they want, they may try a second time, maybe even a third," he said. "But then they'll go to the telephone, and they'll complain and you'll create what you're trying to avoid."

Jacobs also recommends establishing at least one person who's dedicated full time to building out the knowledge base -- answering unresolved questions and re-populating it. At a minimum, questions should be answered within 24 hours, even if it requires a rule sending the question up the command chain.

"Do not go live if you can't achieve that," he said.

In addition to corporate and customer service knowledge, organizations need to monitor community or social sites.

"Ignore social knowledge at your peril," Jacobs said. "We have seen many sites talk about the negative issues. What you need to do is start harvesting that information, sift the noise from reality and populate the database or expose responses in those areas you would like to address."

Once established, a knowledge base for self service can use video, surveys and voice.

"You can expand the knowledge base with an incredible number of different types of products," Jacobs said. "Self service has to have at its core the ability to respond to a question without human intervention."

That, he said, is why -- when it comes to measuring self service -- organizations must also track the quality of response. A company can virtually guarantee a high quality of service with a human interaction, but if they make a mistake, it has a small impact. Self service can never reach the same level of quality, but it has a much greater impact on a greater number of people.

"Self service is often about processes: How ready are you to serve a large community?" Jacobs said. "Self service is not the answer to a current poor process, that's just automating a poor process. At all times, you need to focus on customer experience."

Getting started with a knowledge base for self service

The best way to start a self-service initiative is to ask customers what it is they want and need through surveys and follow-ups from any touch point, Jacobs said. In addition, build the business case around more than just cost savings. Demonstrate how self service can improve the customer experience. And, he said, think long-term.

"If you're looking for one self-service channel, whether it's email or chat, don't buy ‘just for now,’" he said. "Build your requirements for the next five years. If you don't know, go to your competitors. They are exploiting these channels." certainly is. Lisa Larson, director of customer care with the online drugstore, was at the CRM Summit. has already done many of the things Jacobs suggests. It has a full-time person dedicated to unresolved queries and has deflected more than 30% of emails by utilizing a knowledge base from RightNow Technologies.

"If you're like me, you have to look through everything," Larson said. "If you have a system up, you can review answers. If you don't, [self service] is not working for you."

The company is looking for a new system to unite its CRM operations. It's the social aspect that caught Larson's attention. is monitoring conversations about the company for marketing and branding purposes but has not brought that into its knowledge base.

"I think connecting the knowledge base with social media is a good idea," she said.

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