Knowledge management and Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS) are gigantic concepts that carry big expectations for financial and business practices. For some, they seem like amorphous ideas that lead to brick walls and inaction. For others, in their eagerness to get started, it’s “pick a knowledge tool and charge.” Still others suffer from the abandonment of a slow-moving project, often as a result of the charge. During the time I’ve been interviewing technical service and support professionals on this topic, the needle hasn’t moved as much as we might have hoped.
Mike Runda, SVP at Avaya and president of Avaya Client Services, came out of retirement to help Avaya write a different history under the company’s visionary CEO, Kevin Kennedy. Eighteen months later, that different history has been written and Knowledge-Centered Support has been entrenched in Avaya’s customer service culture. The underlying principle? Change the work that people do, publish solutions immediately, and give customers the rich media experience they need to solve problems quickly.
Cinda Daly: What is it about knowledge management that’s made it so tough for the many organizations who believe in the idea, but just can’t seem to get there?
Mike Runda: Knowledge management calls for a complete paradigm shift, beginning with the decision to openly share information and solutions to problems. It takes time, and many organizations don’t have the patience to wait for a long-term ROI. You cannot do this in one massive swoop. It’s best to start in a logical place, like customer support, establish the framework for capturing, structuring, and reusing information rapidly and easily, and share that information everywhere, with everyone.
Daly: At the 10,000-foot level, what did you do differently at Avaya to write a different history?
Runda: We knew we wanted to deliver rich media experiences that would help our customers find solutions for their problems without having to call customer support. Our customers’ appetite for rapid, easy-to-digest solutions is voracious. We’re not really doing them a favor with one-on-one phone support when the web can deliver such rich media experiences; the phone can’t show our customers how to solve their problems, but a YouTube video can.
We have known solutions, and we can get to them in seconds on the web. Again, that’s not something you can do on the phone. The technology today lets us deliver a fantastic web support experience; knowledge management is what helped us build it.
Daly: Where did you actually start the transformation?
Runda: We had a vision about the type of work people should be doing. No one really wants to come to work and answer the same questions every day. So we decided to focus our agents’ efforts on problems with no known solutions. This idea changed everything, from the type of work we assigned to our agents to they way we hired and trained people. Before this, we hired and paid agents for knowing stuff, for answering questions faster and faster. We’re not doing that anymore. We’re paying them for the quality of their knowledge solutions, for publishing every solution they develop, for easy-to-find solutions, and for solutions that solve customer problems.
We added tools to speed up the process of capturing, structuring, and reusing solutions. Then we created a new web experience to show customers the way to solutions or route them to agents on the web. It was a huge change, and it’s a long-term play. You disrupt the workforce; you change the way customers get help. But the outcome can be fantastic.
Daly: You must have taken some pretty radical steps to accomplish this transformation in just eighteen months.
Runda: We went all-in. There were two radical notions at the core of our transformation: let customers find answers to known problems, and use agents to solve new problems (approximately 20% of the total workload). We also wanted agents to publish their knowledge immediately. Historically, that’s where the system gets bogged down: “What if the solution isn’t good enough? What if it’s not the right answer? Let’s run it through testing and editorial verification.” That could take days, and in the meantime, a hundred other people could have called about the same problem.
We put a stake in the ground. We create 3,000 new solutions every day, and our goal is to get every new solution into the system within thirty minutes. If the solution is wrong, we fix it quickly to make sure we’ve got good answers on the web.
And when someone finds a good answer on the web, we send immediate feedback to the agent whose name is on the article. This instills a great sense of pride in our agents. When a solution gets 1,000 hits, that means 1,000 people were well served.
Daly: How did you know your service organization was ready to tackle knowledge management? What would you suggest to other organizations that need to assess their readiness—and willingness—to move forward?
Runda: You need a big reason to change. Cost restructuring is a good driver: knowledge management can significantly reduce the cost of support and improve product margin. The competitive advantage a company can gain from unshackling the company from phone support and providing a rich web-based customer experience is another good reason to change. Whatever the reason, you’ll need high-level support from senior and executive leadership, because you will encounter strong resistance from both internal employees and external customers.
Daly: Customer adoption for web-based self-service is typically a significant hurdle. How did you clear that hurdle, and how have your customers responded?
Runda: We completely automated tier 1 support on the web, with knowledge management on the back end, and we restructured our website around a simple vision: draw customers into our website and help them work with Ava, our conversive virtual agent, to answer their questions or solve their problems.
If customers can’t find the information they need using Ava, we let them choose whether they want to chat with a live agent, talk live with an agent, leave us a phone number to call them back, or send us an email explaining the problem they want solved. Our newest option for engaging with our customers is web video, where agents and customers can establish a video connection and speak in person. It’s a great way to establish rapport, and we’re expecting this technology to have a positive impact on total time to resolution because the visual connection will help our agents show customers exactly what needs to be done.
By giving our knowledge management solution an easy-to-use, intuitive front end, we’ve inspired a dramatic shift in customer behavior. Before implementing Ava, eight percent of our of our customers would check the website for answers first, before trying the IVR system; today, 88 percent of our customers seek out known solutions and customer support on our website.
Daly: How soon do you know when a customer’s problem is a new one? Obviously, you want to be able to recommend alternate channels before customers get too frustrated.
Runda: Ava presents customers with a few questions to guide their knowledge base searches. If customers don’t find a solution after three searches, Ava presents customers with the option to keep working or connect with a live agent. All of our agents are on the web, and the entire transcript of the problem and resulting searches are captured and carried forward to the live agent through the channel of choice. Most people are stunned that they don’t have to go to an IVR and start over. (As a side note, about 30 percent of the workload is handled in chat, with most agents able to handle about three customers simultaneously.)
Another part of the knowledge management loop is feedback to sales, marketing, and development (e.g., the price is too high, a feature/function isn’t available, there’s a bug in the software). We want to eliminate the need for the call, and knowledge management has enabled us to do that.
Daly: What frameworks or methodologies came into play?
Runda: We adopted KCS as our framework for effectively capturing, structuring, and reusing knowledge and for publishing everything immediately. Most knowledge management cultures still have specialized teams that pore over a tremendous number of solutions every day, cherry-picking the ones might have the most impact for customers, validating the answers, and then publishing solutions externally days, sometimes weeks, after the initial solution was found.
We retooled our workflow so that as we work with a customer, we’re capturing the specific context about the problem and the customer’s environment, the troubleshooting steps, the solutions we tried, and the solution that worked in the end. We’re dynamically creating knowledge that is publishable almost as soon as a solution has been found. We make it seamless, building the article on the system as we go, cleaning it up, and making it available immediately, all in one process.
Daly: How did you train your agents to adopt this new approach, and how does it work?
Runda: We trained all of our agents in structuring an effective problem statement, including key details about the customer’s environment, providing a solution, and publishing that content externally, all within an hour. Agents look for known solutions first, to ensure they’re not duplicating efforts or publishing solutions that have already been published. Then they make sure customers can find the new solution using our search tools. The knowledge management system is always learning, selecting the right known solutions based on customer inputs. We’re constantly culling out solutions with outdated answers to improve the odds of finding the right solution.
Daly: You have some pretty impressive metrics around business and productivity gains. How do you measure and track those metrics?
Runda: We use a network of peer coaches to raise the skills of all engineers. It became apparent early on that engineers advanced their skills in a particular order, so we developed the KCS Proficiency Path: Transaction, KCS Participation, Search & Reuse, Capture & Create, Modify, and KCS Master. We use a proprietary KCS Proficiency Assessment Tool to track and assess about thirty metrics, using visual aids like spider charts and colored flags to automatically identify the next most likely learning opportunity for each individual. This is one of the secrets to our success.
We measure the system’s effectiveness at reducing internal labor costs by tracking the reduction in the amount of “work on time” people achieve as they reuse solutions more often, and more quickly, instead of troubleshooting the same issues all over again. For external effectiveness, we measure the number of cases that are resolved via self-service due to reuse of our published knowledge articles.
Daly: What gains have you had in agent productivity, and what long-term impact has this strategy had on employee satisfaction?
Runda: We experienced a 44-percent improvement in productivity in the first eighteen months. The total time to resolution dropped by more than 50 percent in the same period, from 3.2 days to 1.55 days on average. This result alone has driven higher customer satisfaction and NPS scores.
But employee satisfaction is higher, too. By automating tier 1 support, we reduced our support headcount by 30 percent, which could have had a negative impact on employee satisfaction. But that headcount reduction left us with a core team of solid, tech-savvy professionals. These are deep, deep troubleshooters, and they’re developing solutions to really tough problems, working at deeper levels in the organization. They’re getting more in-depth training, and they find the work satisfying. It challenges them and gives them a sense of pride.
Daly: While tools are certainly critical to any knowledge management program, many companies adopt a tool and proclaim they have knowledge management. In the end, their programs struggle to take hold.
Runda: In our support vision, the tool is secondary. You have to change the type of work your agents do, and you have to reward them for both finding and publishing solutions and making it easy for others to use those solutions.
Daly: What did you look for when you selected your knowledge technology?
Runda: The most important tools in our toolkit are a database/search engine, the KCS Proficiency Assessment Tool, and real-time reports and analytics.
We wanted to be able to integrate the tool with our ticketing system, and we wanted it to be conversational on the front-end and fast on the back-end. A simple, easy-to-understand information display was essential. We also wanted to have a robust search engine that could isolate the top three solutions from the massive amounts of data we generate ourselves, but also data from other knowledge repositories. We wanted our tool to provide a single point of access to all relevant support documentation.
Daly: What advice would you give to companies that are struggling with knowledge management?
Runda: Get buy-in from a high-level sponsor. Get customers involved in the transformation effort, and make it easy for them to find known solutions. Get your team leaders to buy into channeling only new, unknown problems to their teams. Get your workforce to buy into the sense of pride and accomplishment they’ll get from publishing their solutions so that all of your customers can benefit from their shared knowledge.
This is about changing the vision of what customer support can be. Knowledge management is just another way to provide customers with a fantastic, nearly three-dimensional, interactive web experience that facilitates collaboration. We couldn’t have done this even ten years ago. But today, everyone is so connected, and we need to support people where they are.
“Show us, tell us, collaborate with us, and give us fast answers to known solutions”—that’s what customers want. “Give us new stuff to work on, let us publish solutions immediately, and encourage us to take pride in our work”—that’s what agents want. That’s the change, and that’s how we’ve written a different history at Avaya Client Services.
For more than twenty-five years, Cinda Daly has managed teams, written dozens of industry articles and thousands of pages of technical documentation, developed training courses, conducted sales and service training, and consulted in the technical support and customer service space. As HDI’s director of content, she is responsible for HDI’s virtual events, research, and electronic publications.