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Knowledge Management: The One Essential but Often Missing Tool in the Agent Desktop

Originally published on Forbes.com on December 6, 2021

Working as a contact center agent was never for mere mortals. You needed to be Einsteinian in brains and Clintonian in empathy while working within often Taylorian management techniques. I believe the job has gotten even harder now for a variety of reasons:

  • As self-service systems got smarter, agents were (and are) left with much harder customer queries to handle.
  • In my experience, Covid-19 triggered a customer service meltdown as contact centers got flooded with calls relating to the pandemic itself, lockdowns, local regulations, paycheck protection plans, loan forbearance programs, vaccinations — and the list goes on.
  • When working from home, some agents were likely also left to fend for themselves with no “next cube to walk over to” to get help from colleagues.
  • The forgetting curve theory suggests that humans retain only a small amount of the information they take in a month after they learn it.

The Current State

According to Gartner data reported by Smart Customer Service in 2018, “Only 16 percent of representatives find that systems and tools actually help them handle customer issues and even fewer — just 12 percent — say tools simplify their day-to-day work.” Clearly, agent experience (AX) is still in the doldrums at many companies and is often passed onto the customer.

Identifying the Root Cause

My company set out to find out why agents were getting stressed out at work. Not so surprisingly, here is what 465 agents said their top challenges were when working with customers on the phone in our 2017 survey:

  • Finding the right answers to customer questions: 26%
  • Different systems/information sources giving different answers: 25%
  • Hopping from one application or window to another: 20%
  • Hard to keep up with all the new information and changes they need to know about: 14%
  • Other issues: 15%

In other words, 85% pointed to some issue that is often related to knowledge management as their biggest barrier to delivering good customer service.

Knowledge Management Technology

However, modern knowledge management (KM) technology (my company offers this, as do others) developed and designed for the new digital, remote-first age, is one tool that can help companies transform experiences for the customer, the contact center agent, and the business by:

  • Improving agent trust in the knowledge that is served to them at the point of customer interaction.
  • Improving their performance.
  • Improving training time.
  • Reducing requests for human-assisted service with smart self-service.

The Baggage

If modern KM is the next best thing to sliced bread, why don’t many contact centers have it? In my experience, the reasons are manifold.

  • There is a lot of confusion in the market as to what knowledge management is, thanks to market obfuscation and false claims some vendors make.
  • Some companies carry negative baggage from the past due to the failure of faux and legacy KM systems.
  • Many organizations took a point product approach to building their KM tech stack, which has resulted in disparate and inconsistent content, context, and process silos and never-ending integration and version-synching projects.

As a result, KM can slide down over time to the trough of disillusionment from the peak of inflated expectations, to use Gartner’s hype cycle terminology. Though they realize they have an albatross around their necks, I’ve found that many businesses with dinosaur systems are hesitant to chuck them. Meanwhile, agents likely lose faith in them and choose instead to guess the answers to customer queries.

What is the result? It’s likely answer-shopping on the part of the consumer if they do not trust the answer from one agent (or do not want to hear it and hope for a better answer from a different agent), rage and defections.

The Bright Spot

Throughout this period, there have been bright spots. Some organizations have successfully used KM tools that have gone through continuous modernization and are complemented with vendor domain expertise and best practices.

Defining Modern KM and Choosing a Partner

You might wonder what a modern KM system is. In my view, it is a system capable of unifying the building blocks of content management, content access, search methods, conversational guidance (what to say next), process guidance (what to do next), analytics, and personalization. I recommend looking for a system with rich functionality and connections with third-party systems out of the box (as opposed to developing them over the course of a multiyear project). Beyond the technology, you should ask for success stories from clients with use cases similar to yours, that are in your industry or are of a similar size and scale to your company. Equally important are the following:

  • Make sure you have a model in place for evaluating the business value of the system, both to secure the budget and to assess its value post-deployment.
  • Consider the vendor’s approach to implementation and customer success. What will they do to create and expand value over time? Do they have a quarterly, one-year, and/or three-year plan, and which option will work best for your organization? What is their progress-review process?
  • What is their implementation team’s background?
  • Do they put skin in the game by offering a risk-free production pilot — not a toy sandbox — so you and your team can experience the solution free of charge and obligation? Does the company offer access to expert advice to help you succeed?
  • How do they make innovation easy?

Riding the Renaissance

I believe the KM renaissance is upon us. What are you waiting for?

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