Knowledge Management in Practice: Service Center Operations.

One criticism of Knowledge Management is that its practitioners are reputed to be a cloaked brethren steeped in arcane practices and secret terminology.
Well not really, I haven’t actually ever heard any such criticism, but I am sure it sometimes crosses people’s minds when they wonder just what the practical benefit of KM is.

The truth is that KM is very much about the fine details of daily work performed in a way that the big picture says they should be (supporting the corporate mission), and good KM practices interlock across many disciplines in an organization to help an organization deliver on its objectives.

One place where this comes together very visibly is at the call-center where an organization’s customers go for help.

The Business Issue

Poor service at the call center can drive down a customer’s willingness to be a good reference for sales prospects, makes retention of maintenance contracts more difficult, reduces the likelihood that they will increase their use of the product portfolio, and drives up the cost to keep and maintain the customer.

It comes down to putting knowledge to work in the service of organizational objectives.

However whilst people love to know things, they find learning quite hard, and except for when fear is involved, learning takes a lot of effort, repetition, understanding and reflection, as well as needing a context.  Learning is also very expensive to bring about and to maintain – people forget, and memories are subject to mutation, combination, and simple fabrication.

The Approach

A principle in KM is therefore not to teach something unless you really need to – It is far more effective to present the person with the right information in an ergonomic and timely manner, than to teach it to them and hope they will remember it correctly in the future.
Instead of forcing people to remember transaction codes (which might change anyway), or procedures (which may be amended), or details of what products a customer uses (which you hope will change), you could rather present that information in its latest version, if and when they need it.

That means you might want to make judicious use of dropdowns, help texts, or a knowledge base to present the right information at just the right time – In fact, a major source of trouble in call-centers arises from staff who having struggled to find information, will keep a cache of private printouts, cheat-sheets, and code-lists (and then use those rapidly obsolescent versions forever).
At best, private stashes lead to inconsistent experience for the customer, or even outright harm (or at least a black mark on a quality audit).

Elimination of the perception of a need for hoarded information is thus a major objective in applying good Knowledge Management practices, so the information must be reliably at hand and useful to purpose.

Old Habits Die Hard

Eliminating knowledge hoarding is one of those places where learning is key, and needs to be built into the ongoing training of support/service staff.

One way to do this is to regularly hold open-book quizzes that walk staff through a given process or a scenario, and in which the first assessment question tests if they have the right document at hand. This enables you to detect when caches are being used and to provide quiz feedback through eLearning that points them to where the correct information is to be found. It also lets you see where the documentation is misleading or unclear.

Obviously to support this you will be best served by having a Learning Management System to deploy the eLearning material and to automatically grade quizzes etc., and in turn an Electronic Content Management System of some kind to help you keep document versioning and editing under wraps.

It also means that you need to know:

(a) What information is critical to operations, and

(b) Who has that knowledge.

Getting your SMEs to produce the documentation, the cheat-sheets, and the help texts and Job Aids, is the start of building and managing your intellectual assets, which allows you to recognize SMEs, and to reward knowledge-sharing behavior – You can of course limp along just fine without all this, and many companies do but there is a price to pay in ability to execute and in higher costs.

Higher costs can of course be reduced by off-shoring to lower-cost geographies, but then  you will need to quickly ramp up the capabilities of the offshore team and avoid simply creating a “your mess for less” situation in which they simply learn all your habits both good and bad.

The Presentation Layer

The second place that KM practices play a role in this scenario is the targeted use of Knowledge Bases – and that is plural. Unless you implement clever filtering, you will need to keep different-purposed KBs separate but linked.

Here are two principles applicable in a call-center/customer-support environment:

–          The level-one people are the arbiters of whether an article is a good one or not because “good” is whatever allows them to close a call at level one, and “bad” is one that may be technically perfect, but doesn’t put information in their hands in a form that they could use.

–          The level-one staff are also determine the template format and the structure of KB articles for their use, and decide what fits ergonomically in their environment.

Level 2 and 3 support should therefore produce KB articles for use by level 0/1 that would:  

  1. Enable them to close a case at level one, or failing that
  2. Gather the necessary information for use by other levels

The corollary to this is a principle that the higher levels should be trying to only get cases that are either exotic/complex or dangerous, by empowering level 0/1 to increasingly deal with everything else. They do so by giving them information that is ergonomically suited to level 0/1 operational needs.

A good practice to determine content requirements at level s 2-3 is to Pareto the cases being passed on by level 0/1

–          Firstly, by simple description frequency: to find repetitions that could potentially be addressed with a KB article and have a high hit-rate

–          Secondly, by the potential impact: to make sure that there are articles to deal with situations that could lead to a disaster if incorrectly handled.

At level one, a similar Pareto exercise can be carried out to look at cases that caused embarrassment or escalation, or which simply occur frequently and thus unnecessarily drain resources at higher levels.

Where the solution and its resultant KB article is not producible by level 0/1 staff, a Lean Principle approach is appropriate.
In this method the knowledge article topics are determined by level 0/1 and requested from levels 2 and 3 for fulfillment. Rewarding the best submission is likely to drive attention and response to these requests without producing too much “money for junk” behavior. However, it is wise to bear Kerr’s dictum in mind – don’t reward one thing and expect something else.

I hope that this article showed you how very practical and vital good knowledge-management practices are in a function as specific as customer-support.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

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One Response to “Knowledge Management in Practice: Service Center Operations.”

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