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Knowledge Management & Intranet Solutions - Conference & Exhibition
On-line Learning 2001 Europe

Tools of the Trade

Knowledge management and customer support desks

As more new, high-tech products hit the marketplace, the pressure on help desks increases, and the need for automation grows.

call centreAmong the most well known uses of knowledge management are data mining and customer relationship management. If you accept one of the definitions of knowledge management as being 'getting the right information to the right people at the right time' then in this example 'the right information' is a list of products with the highest probability of being sold and a list of the customers who are most likely to buy them, and 'the right people' are those who make up the sales team. The right time is usually 'now'!

However an alternative way of populating this definition is with 'the right people' being the customers and 'the right information' being the answers to the customers' queries and solutions to their problems. In doing so, we have just defined the role of the support desk or help desk.

Growing pains
The problem help desks face is that, as your business grows, so does your product line and your customer base, and so does your support headache. It has been estimated that 90% of the products that high-tech companies sell have been on the market for less than one year. This means that the number of different product types that are in active use is always on the increase and that the products never get a chance to mature. There are always lots of issues with them. 'You can't scale a help desk against such an aggressive product growth,' says Verity's VP Europe, Hugo Sluimer. 'Without good ways of knowledge expansion and knowledge management you can forget it. You need to automate the help desk.' Automating does several things. It makes it easier for existing support staff to find information. It also makes more information available to the staff. And if you give customers access to the right information, it can reduce the load on the support desk (see case studies).

So how is automation achieved? One of the simplest ways is to publish existing information on the corporate website. For example, putting a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page on your website should, by definition, mean that a reasonable proportion of common questions get answered straight away. It has the advantage of being low cost and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But it has the disadvantage of being limited, dumb, and unable to be updated automatically.

You could publish customer query responses as individual documents, and allow customers to search through the documents using a keyword-driven search engine. However the problem here is that the search engines don't take context into account, and you can end up being guided down blind alleys because the search software is not intelligent enough to know, for example, the difference between light (as in 'lamp') or light (as in 'not heavy') etc. So the next step in the evolution of information retrieval is natural language processing and contextual awareness.

Use your own words
With natural language processing, the context in which the words are used is as important as the words themselves. In fact, some of the natural language processing software can even work in the presence of spelling mistakes. Equipped with dictionaries, idiom dictionaries and thesauruses, the software is able to form relationships within documents and generate patterns from them that can be matched to the patterns within customer queries.

Case Study - KMS at Nikon

When the European technical support desk at Nikon, the Japanese imaging company, wanted to improve their online help, they decided they needed to go beyond a standard FAQ and use a knowledge-based and intelligent front-end software. 'We needed to address the changing needs of customers, and the increasing numbers,' said David Ward, manager of Nikon's European technical office of their electronic imaging division. 'We had a good set of information, but the problem was how the customers could access it.' This was where Knowledge Management Software's Deskartes application came in.

Deskartes combines a natural language user interface with a neural network processor. This means that users can input questions and queries in their own language and Deskartes will find them an answer. 'It's important to allow customers to express the problem in their own terms,' said Ward.

In addition to helping the customers, the Deskartes software also helps Nikon to tune the knowledge base. 'We get visibility of the questions that are asked,' said Ward, 'And we can fill in the holes.' There are a number of ways that this can be done, including updating a solution, adding a solution, training the knowledge base to find the correct solution, or even updating a product. 'Deskartes is fundamental in getting knowledge to customers,' declared Ward.

Most vendors agree that natural language processing is more accurate at determining meaning and locating relevant documents than keyword searching. Users at the Nikon site (see case study: KMS at Nikon) are advised that if they use sentences there is a 75% probability that they will find the answer they were looking for in the top five suggested solutions, compared to only a 55% probability that they will find the answer in the top 20 solutions when they use keywords.

Verity has similar faith in the natural language processing approach. 'The navigation precision that we provide is proven. It's far better than the average search engine on the Internet,' says Verity's Sluimer. 'If users have a good query (and technical people normally express themselves with the right words) they will immediately navigate themselves to the right part of the manuals, FAQs or solution reports.'

In some cases the amount of information that a customer might need to answer a query might not be appropriate for transmission over the internet - a lot of technical support information comes with diagrams, such as exploded assembly diagrams. A more appropriate publishing medium is the CD-ROM or, better still, CD-ROM combined with the internet. (See case study: Verity at Cisco.)

Gauging satisfaction
One of the most frustrating things, from a user perspective, about automatic help desks is that you sometimes can't find the information you want, either because you can't express the problem sufficiently well, or because this is the first time that the problem has arisen and so a solution doesn't yet exist. What you need in this situation is a way to escalate the problem.

Case Study - Verity at Cisco
Like other high-tech companies, Cisco found that they had to automate their help desk to prevent their support costs escalating. Because of the high volume of information traffic that some of their help queries generated, they decided to publish their help database regularly on CD-ROMs. Each month 200,000 CD-ROMs containing a searchable database of technical information as a self-support application are sent out, both internally to Cisco and externally to partners and customers. Even updating them monthly is still not frequent enough or good enough for the rate at which products are changing.

So Cisco collaborated with Verity to develop CD-Web publisher to enable them to disseminate large amounts of information directly to their users through CDs. The system combines the inexpensive packaging and presentation advantage of CD-ROMs with access to abundant on-line information of the web. The Verity solution provides the best of both worlds by allowing the customer access to most of the information they need direct from the CD-ROM.

Over the past few years, the load on the Cisco help desk has grown by a factor of five but they still have the same staff. Most of the problems are solved by the customer base itself and the number of live incoming calls to the Cisco call centres has reduced dramatically, leading to considerable cost savings. In addition there have been $50 million in printing costs saved each year. Product information, marketing materials, technical specifications and manuals need only be published and maintained once for the web, and shared between CDs and the web site. If the user is on-line to the internet then any information that is more up-to-date can be provided transparently when available. 'The user always sees the most recent and most correct information,' says Verity's Sluimer.

There are several ways that this can be done. For example, each time customers get a response they can be asked how well their question was answered. 'If the question wasn't answered immediately we also want to provide a way of escalating the problem,' says BrightWare's Brian Tuller. 'We want to improve the knowledge base and the operation of the software'.

Some software systems let you log the fact that you didn't find a solution and as soon as a solution is found to match your problem, the help desk will email it to you. A similar approach can be taken when a customer problem is reported that might affect other customers. The software can be proactive and automatically email all other customers who could have the problem.

Not perfect
Automated help desks are generally successful in what they do - they provide a front line of support and they help keep support costs down, especially in high-growth, high-tech companies. Automation works well with technical customers who like to solve their own problems. They are used to doing so and are normally very successful. Although automated help desks are not perfect yet, they are improving through the use of natural language processing and self-learning techniques.


Links - Knowledge Management Software - Verity - Brightware - NETg

Case Study : Brightware at Skydesk
Skydesk provides an on-line storage service - @backup - that automatically backs up your files when you are on the internet. 'The most important thing about a subscription-based model like Skydesk is the first experience you have,' says BrightWare's SVP of marketing and business development, Brian Tuller. 'Because once you are set up you are unlikely to change things. The first few interactions are critical for establishing customer satisfaction.'

Skynet uses the BrightWare 2000 eCustomer Assistance software. 'When you ask it a question it will answer based on what it knows about you. So if you are a Gold-level customer you might receive a different answer than if you were a Silver-level customer.' Other clues used by the software could be the wording of the questions, the web page the questions are coming from, etc.

BrightWare 2000 can respond in a number of ways - it can provide the answer in real-time, pushing a webpage that already exists somewhere on the site to you. It can route you to a chat solution, to an email solution, or to a voice solution. It can also generate a dynamic answer to a question. So, for example, if you have a question about a particular order or technical configuration, it can create a web page for you with various specific information embedded in it. It can also automate the handling of email requests. These typically get routed to an automatic answering service because, 90% of the time, the questions come from the web and are from people who can't find an answer to their problem. But most of the time the answer is there and they simply haven't managed to find it. Typical requests that get handled automatically are customers looking for a particular backup disc, account cancellation, credit refund, account signup, error messages, wanting to know how much space is left, how to start the service, how to install the service, etc.

Profile - NETg and Just-In-Time Learning
NETg believes it will take the evolution of the automated help desk one step further when it launches its new just-in-time help desk software later this year. The product is aimed at corporate users who might normally call their support desk for help on how to perform a particular task. Whereas the response from a standard automated help desk to a query such as 'How do I print my Word document as a PDF file?' or 'How do I cast in Java?' might produce a web page for the user, the new NETg training help desk would search through NETg's 50,000 learning objects to find the ones that most suit the question being asked. Learning objects are small learning modules of between three and eight minutes in length that focus on a particular topic. They can be strung together to build a complete on-line training course or, as in this case, taken one at a time. When the user inputs a query, the software will send back a list of those objects that have a high percentage match. 'When the user gets to the one which they think best matches what they want,' said NETg's Director of Strategic Deployment Jon Butriss (pictured), 'They click on it, it launches the learning object and 20 seconds later they're right in the middle of the training course.'

NETg's learning objects have two features of that set them aside from the standard web page response. First, they can be customised using tools supplied by NETg . So, if a particular company has its PCs set up in a special way, perhaps with a particular background, the learning objects can be likewise customised. And the customisation is simple to do because of the generic way that NETg's learning objects are created. Secondly, the objects use simulation techniques to enhance the learning. Users are not simply told the sequence of steps to perform, they are led through them and given the chance to perform them to ensure that they are capable of performing them in the real situation. 'It's not the final step,' said Buttriss, 'But we believe it's the next step.'



2000 Bizmedia Ltd under licence from Learned Information Europe Ltd

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