Web servicesknowledgebasedesign


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Web servicesknowledgebasedesign

  1. 1. The Insider’s Guide to Building an Effective Knowledge Base Best Practices in Knowledge Acquisition, Management and Publishing By Doug Warner ©2000 RightNow Technologies
  2. 2. 1. Executive Summary 2. Empowering Customers 3. What is a Knowledge Base? 4. Knowledge Base Requirements for e-Service a. Timely Data b. Easily Modified c. Minimum Administration d. Ease of Use e. Organic Growth f. Online vs. Offline, Uptime vs. Downtime 5. Care and Feeding of Knowledge Bases a. Keeping the Knowledge Base Focused b. Keeping the Knowledge Base Current c. Making Use of the Customers 6. Future Directions
  3. 3. 1. Executive Summary Effective customer service is all about delivering the answers customers are seeking. How information is stored, augmented and organized will determine how effective any organizations’ customer service efforts will be. The best knowledge base technology uses customers as the driving force behind the service organization. Using customers to guide the content and structure of the knowledge base improves the level of service and decreases the customer service representative’s workload. This paper examines best industry practices related to collecting, organizing and publishing knowledge with the express goal of delivering superior customer service. 2. Empowering Customers Customers are any organization’s best assets. Also, the Internet is all about empowerment. An effective Internet knowledge base empowers customers to help themselves; that is, find answers to their own questions via a company web site. The results are dramatic: • Increased customer satisfaction – customers get answers faster and without waiting in queues. • Reduced costs – the cost of delivering self-help via a knowledge base posted on the Internet is significantly less than a human answering an e- mail or telephone call. • Increased revenue – companies have found as individuals shop the Internet, the right information at the right time means more orders. • Improved service capacity – shifting repetitive questions to a self-help knowledge base means more resources are available to handle customer inquiries that require human attention
  4. 4. 3. What is a Knowledge Base? In general terms, a knowledge base is an organized collection of information. A common example is the card catalog in a library. The books in the library are listed alphabetically by title, author and subject. Someone searching for the book “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville will find the same entry if they look under the title, “Moby Dick;” under the author, “Melville, Herman;” or under any of the following subjects: “Ahab, Captain” or “whaling.” Unfortunately, this approach works for those few who come to the library with some foreknowledge of its title, author or contents. A more up-to-date example of a knowledge base is the list of frequently asked questions most companies use for their Web based customer service. In its most basic form, FAQs are lists of questions and answers with no discernible order. This format lacks even the simple cross-referencing available in the library card catalog. Some of the more advanced FAQ lists are really knowledge bases with cross- referencing capabilities similar to the library card catalog, but there is a better way. Consider a situation where someone with a customer service issue, such as shipping delays during the holiday seasons, accesses a website and tries to find information within the knowledge base. Since this question is commonly asked during late November and December, the customer visiting the site during this time period should immediately see the answer to their question before they even get a chance to ask the question. Since this question is not often asked in July, other questions should have a more prominent placement in the list when the site is visited during the summer. However, in both cases, customers should still be able to ask their questions in words familiar to them, and receive immediate, accurate answers. 4. Knowledge Base Requirements for Internet Customer Service Internet customer service has demanding requirements for a knowledge base. Customers must consistently receive timely, accurate and easy to find answers to questions. This demanding criterion requires any company with more than one or two products to hire several staff members to maintain a traditional knowledge base. Dynamic knowledge bases, properly designed and implemented, can remove many of the administrative demands and present better information to customers at an even lower cost. a. Timely Data Due to seasonal fluctuations, new product release cycles or unforeseen occurrences, the focus of customers’ searches changes continually. Consider again the timely nature of the holiday season shipping delays example. Most implementations of knowledge base questions/answers require a manual reorganization in the ordering of the entire list to make timely information accessible. Constant manual organization of this list is costly and prone to errors. An additional problem with manual adjustment of the knowledge base ordering is that it requires anticipation of customer questions, yet never truly listens to current customer feedback. Customers should drive the customer service process. In an optimum
  5. 5. situation, the information available to customers is the same information in which they are most interested. b. Easily Modified Due to the varying topics in which customers are pursuing answers, the list of FAQs must continually change. Manual administration of these lists, as noted above, is rife with problems. Manipulating these lists should be easy for the administrator or, even better, not require an administrator at all! One tool to make knowledge base administration easier is a drag and drop style knowledge base editor. With this tool the administrator can adjust the displayed ordering of the question/answer pair with minimal difficulty. These adjustments are made based upon statistics about the current focus in a call center or by Web usage statistics. The best alternative is using these customer-driven statistics to adjust the FAQ ordering without involving an administrator. In both cases, the emphasis is on what customers are asking and focusing on those core issues. With current technology it’s easy to have your website monitor customer questions and automatically adjust the information available for future customers. Such implementations have resulted in customer self- help rates commonly exceeding 50% and sometimes exceeding 90%. Some good examples include; Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Specialized Bicycle and Xerox. c. Easily Used In the world of Internet Customer Service, it’s important to remember your competitor is only one mouse click away. When a customer has trouble accessing information, they will try to find the information or product elsewhere. Knowledge base “ease of use” comes in many areas. First, there is the presentation of the knowledge base. For this, “ease of use” means the answers customers are seeking should be at the top of the list as soon as they load the page. For more commonly asked questions this is easy to do. However, if the answer they’re looking for is not ranked high on the list, they should have searching options available. In addition to the standard keyboard searching, natural language searching should also be available. Natural language searching is a powerful approach, taking into account the contextual elements of written language. Natural language searching helps customers who are using words and phrases differently from those in the knowledge base. Additionally, once a customer finds an answer that’s close, but not quite what they had in mind, they should not have to re-start their searching from scratch. Instead, they should be able to choose from question/answer pairs that are closely related to the one that almost answered their question. All of these techniques are available with current technology. Finally, customers should always be able to ask their question without searching for an answer themselves. They should be able to e-mail,
  6. 6. submit a Web form, or otherwise electronically contact the customer service representative. Optimally, instead of the customer service representative getting barraged with requests, it’s possible to route the questions through the knowledge base by using natural language recognition. With a well-structured knowledge base, even poorly posed questions can automatically mate to the appropriate FAQ if it’s available. If no FAQ is available to answer their question, then the question should proceed on to a customer service representative. An added bonus to answering the question is that the customer’s question and resulting answer can now be added to the knowledge base to help subsequent customers. d. Minimal Administration In the above description, the only time any administration needs to be performed on the knowledge base is when the customer asks a question that has no solution existing within the knowledge base. A knowledge base can be started from the first customer question, or seeded with an existing static list. When customers state their interests, the sorting of temporally important information is handled automatically. How solutions relate to one another can be determined by following how customers search for answers to their questions. The only administration necessary on a well-designed Internet Customer Service knowledge base is in augmenting new questions with concise, detailed answers. e. Organic Growth The customer-driven scenario described above can be termed “organic growth” of a knowledge base. All the FAQs within the knowledge base are entered, sorted, and interrelated solely by customer input. The only time an administrator interacts with the knowledge base is by answering a customer question the first time it is asked. In essence, organic growth refers to “growing” knowledge where it is requested, as opposed to trying to anticipate and build all situations beforehand. Organic growth should be considered similar to the growth of a pearl. The growth of the pearl proceeds naturally from the original grain of sand, just as the knowledge base grows naturally from the original customer question. Alternatives to organic growth include the original description of the manually administered static FAQ list, as well as expert systems and any other system that takes more than a few days to implement. These systems have a “brittle” nature that organic knowledge bases do not. In these brittle constructions, any changes require manual manipulation of the knowledge base. Sometimes, what appears at first to be a minor change in the knowledge base could, ultimately, cause chain reactions requiring a complete restructuring of the knowledge base. Organic growth is the only truly robust method of building a knowledge base that adapts to continually changing environments. Since every customer interaction with the knowledge base changes the knowledge base in a subtle way, the knowledge base is in a continual state of flux. Because this continually changing environment provides the most current information to customers, it never reaches a point where new input would
  7. 7. damage the existing knowledge and interrelationships as in the non- organic approaches. f. Online vs. Offline, Uptime vs. Downtime Another consideration for Internet Customer Service knowledge bases is how they act upon your data. Two classes of functionality are important for this discussion: online and offline. Online means manipulations to your knowledge base are handled as they occur. New FAQs are added and adjustments to their order are all accomplished in real time. With online adjustments to your knowledge base, customers see the changes as they occur. Offline means changes to the knowledge base are done out of synch with the information available to the customer. This usually refers to a process performed periodically, such as once a day, week or month, or done on an as-needed basis, such as dovetailing with a product release. Because of the periodic nature of offline manipulations, the changes to the knowledge base are usually drastic. In an ideal situation, all actions are performed online. Online actions are preferred because offline algorithms are synonymous with system downtime. Any time your customer service knowledge base is unavailable to customers, or is out of synch with your customers, you experience a downtime for that information. Processes requiring offline manipulation of the information in the database will result in customers finding inaccurate, out of date or unavailable information when they access the site. In addition, because of the possibility of drastic changes offline manipulations might introduce, repeat customers might have difficulty relearning the structure of the knowledge base. An online adjustment to the knowledge base keeps information available to customers without dramatically changing the search patterns to which they’ve become accustomed. This means continuous uptime for the knowledge base. 5. Care & Feeding of Knowledge Bases Even with online organic knowledge bases, there is a degree of care required to keep the knowledge base current, focused and useful. While online and organic knowledge bases are the easiest to administer, without proper information and a proper usage-based focus of the information, the knowledge base is not helpful to your customers.
  8. 8. a. Keeping the Knowledge Base Focused The core of any knowledge base consists of individual information items. It is important that each information item is correct, succinct and on the desired topic for the knowledge base. For Internet Customer Service knowledge bases, this means the individual FAQ items should pertain only to those answers relevant to the service you intend to provide and nothing else. Recall the general service approach described above. First, the customers’ attempt to find answers in the knowledge base; then directly asking a customer service representative, and finally the question/answer pair is entered into the knowledge base. The final step in this process, adding the item into the knowledge base, is the appropriate point to control the focus of the knowledge base. It’s important to keep the knowledge base focused because an unfocused, disorganized knowledge base is like a disorganized desk. The desired information might be sitting right in front of you but impossible to find. The “Ask Jeeves” site is a good example of an unfocused knowledge base. Since their approach is to provide answers to any question, the response provided to a question is inappropriate. Rather than a single, homogeneous knowledge base to answer all questions, a more appropriate solution is to partition the knowledge base for each subject area and support that with an easy method of switching between the various knowledge bases. An organized knowledge base is much more accurate in the answers it provides and far less frustrating to the customers. b. Keeping the Knowledge Base Current The next major administration issue for a well-designed knowledge base is keeping the knowledge base current. Keeping a knowledge base current means addressing two distinct but related issues. The first issue was mentioned in the holiday season shipping example. In that case, the items in the knowledge base that are highly relevant at any given time should be easier for a customer to access. Keeping relevant information accessible can be handled with any of the methods mentioned earlier. Another way of keeping the most current issues the most prominent is by keeping the more dated issues less prominent. Customers are then not confronted with out of date information, which is likely of no interest. c. Making Use of the Customers One way to reduce the workload on customer service representatives while improving customer service is to implement a high quality knowledge base for Internet Customer Service. After implementation, use your customers to drive the content and organization of the information within the knowledge base. Customers often will provide feedback on how to improve their online experience, provided the process is simple. Taking this feedback and acting on it results in your customers helping each other with little effort or intervention by the customer service representative.
  9. 9. Methods exist to prompt feedback from customers that are easy and work well within the organic knowledge base paradigm. These include explicit customer feedback on an individual FAQ or group of FAQs, customer questions asked directly of the customer service representative or surveys sent shortly after a question is answered. These methods include “implicit” and “explicit” ranking of FAQs, which refers to the dynamic ordering of question/answer pairs based upon what customers find most helpful at any given time. The “implicit” rankings are collected by analyzing the path customers take through the knowledge base without actually asking for help from a customer service representative. Since all customers automatically provide this information, this method returns the bulk of the information. The “explicit” rankings are collected by requesting multiple choice-style feedback on the usefulness of a particular information item. A reasonable percentage of customers will provide feedback of this nature. Assuming a customer responds negatively to the multiple choice style “explicit” ranking, the customer can be prompted for a short answer about why a particular FAQ was not helpful. Reponses to this prompting will arrive in lower volumes because only those customers providing negative explicit feedback are being asked to respond and because only a portion of those customers will provide detailed feedback. A customer asking a direct question of a customer service representative can be considered feedback about the knowledge base. A question here says either the knowledge base contains the question and it’s difficult to find or the knowledge base does not contain the question. In the first case, it’s possible to use a match between the customers’ question and an existing answer in the knowledge base to adjust the ranking in the knowledge base for that answer. Or, the customer service representative can reword the question/answer pair to this particular question, making it easier to find in the future. However, when the answer is not found in the knowledge base, a customer asking a direct question of a customer service representative is an important piece of information to a company. This is the first case where a customer service representative actually influences the knowledge base. Since asking a question requires more effort on the part of the customer, these requests should arrive fairly infrequently. Finally, a questionnaire sent to customers who accessed the knowledge base can be used to adjust the rankings in the knowledge base, but surveys often require a fair amount of customer effort and will likely result in the lowest level of customer feedback. Consider all these feedback methods from a larger perspective. With the largest bulk responses coming into the knowledge base, the amount of information relayed is rather small and easy for the customer to provide. As the responses become more intensive for the customer to provide, the number of them available for updating the knowledge base decreases. The weight given to the customer responses of each type should reflect this relationship by putting more emphasis on the responses that require more customer effort and less on those requiring less customer effort. The result is that the more effort customers spend on the knowledge
  10. 10. base, the better the knowledge base becomes for future customers and the workload for the customer service representative remains low. 6. Future Directions With the advent of the World Wide Web, customer service evolved into an entirely new dimension. Customers suddenly became able to answer their own questions by reading a list of frequently asked questions. As techniques for improving Web service advanced, the Internet Customer Service knowledge base appeared. However, early knowledge base implementations did not use the wealth of information available from the customers because the knowledge bases were crafted in brittle fashion based upon expert systems and similar approaches. With current technology, knowledge bases contain features allowing customers a larger role in shaping the information available online. In the near future we should expect an even greater shift toward customers finding their own answers, helping other customers and only relying on customer service representatives for relatively complex questions. Knowledge base improvements will include better searching accuracy using natural language processing. Natural language remains an open research topic with advances in speed and sophistication continually arriving. Products are also available which attempt to determine the emotional content of the individual’s request so that different answers or service options are offered depending on the emotional state of the customer. Another area ripe for explosive growth is the presentation of related information. In even the most advanced Internet Customer Service knowledge bases, there exists only a simple list of FAQs. Since this helpful information exists in the knowledge base, it makes sense that a more advanced method for customers to find answers would be to “surf” through this related information with greater ease and comprehension. It might be much easier to see a relationship between two pieces of information given a graphical presentation of the relationship. Following that example, it should be possible to view the entire knowledge base as one large network of related information. Finding the answer to your questions is then as simple as following a path toward questions more and more related to the information you’re seeking. Further improvement to Internet Customer Service knowledge bases will come from integration with other e-Commerce tools like surveys, marketing and shopping carts, elements generally outside the traditional area of customer service. To the extent that information from customers can be gained and used, customer service knowledge bases can only benefit. The field of Internet Customer Service has come a long since the days of static FAQs. Powerful new systems are available using organic knowledge bases to reduce the customer service representative’s workload while increasing service to the customer and the volume of questions answered. The future holds even more
  11. 11. advances and opportunities to strengthen customer loyalty for those companies that implement the most intuitive and customer-friendly systems. About RightNow Technologies Founded in 1997, RightNow Technologies automates customer service and technical support operations for Internet-connected organizations. RightNow Technologies' customers include Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream, Nortel, Air Canada, Deutsche Bank, PictureTel, Sprint, TDK, Vivitar, Xerox and more than 600 other organizations. The RightNow Technologies home office is located at 77 Discovery Drive, PO Box 9300, Bozeman, MT 59718, with the England branch office at Abbey House, 18-24 Stoke Road, Slough Sl2 5AG, United Kingdom, and can be reached by phone at 888-322-3566, by fax at 406-522-4227, by e-mail at info@rightnowtech.com or on the Web at http://www.rightnowtech.com/.