Cinda Daly, with Diane Berry and Ed Shepherdson
When it comes to knowledge management and Knowledge-Centered Support best practices, Coveo has a decided edge. In a nutshell, Coveo technologies harness information from across any system or source in an organization’s infrastructure and transform it into relevant, contextual, actionable knowledge for users. Coveo is positioned in the Gartner 2014 Magic Quadrant as a leader in enterprise search technology.
Talking with Coveo’s Diane Berry and Ed Shepherdson, it quickly became evident that this organization walks the talk. They have robust tools, which they create. But without the philosophy, culture, and processes infused throughout their company, they wouldn’t be much better off than any other company striving to sustain its knowledge management initiatives and bring transparency to its employees and customers.
Coveo is a young company, headquartered in Quebec City, with about 200 employees spread across Canada, the United States, and EMEA. It was simply delightful to uncover how Coveo champions knowledge management best practices, collaborates across the enterprise, and opens the vault for its customers.
Cinda Daly: Who’s the champion of knowledge sharing in your organization?
Diane Berry: There’s no single champion; knowledge sharing is simply ingrained in our culture. We reach into all our systems and share openly throughout Coveo. We’re spoiled: we have our own technology; we use it extensively, and we live inside of it. Based on the kind of work we do and the technology we take to market, we leverage what we call the “long tail of knowledge” within our company. That long tail is knowledge that goes beyond the 20 percent that’s normally curated and shared within an organization. We understand security and trust it so that we’re able to open all of our sources to everyone and know that they’ll only see what their roles and permissions dictate.
Ed Shepherdson: Organizational transparency is at the root of our knowledge management practices. As an organization operating in an era of pervasive socialization, coupled with the fact that our technology enables us to share our information easily, we’re a social company. Our engineers, product developers, support staff, marketers, everyone: we all share. This is what we do, and social collaboration is part of the way we do business.
Daly: You said that knowledge sharing has been in your culture from the beginning. What insight would you share with others that don’t have this culture fully ingrained yet?
Berry: It’s very important to understand that knowledge sharing goes beyond technology. You can’t just put everything in every system and assume people will use it. Be sure that you have the processes in place so that the knowledge that is being shared is the knowledge people need to do their work.
Daly: Ed, you very recently transitioned to a new role from vice president of customer success. With that hat back on, tell me a little bit about your support organization?
Shepherdson: Our customer support organization isn’t large, only about fifteen people. Because of our organizational transparency, we have deep repository of knowledge and a network of people that extends outward to our experts in R&D, in product management, in marketing, all of whom have direct access to the content and the people surrounding it. We’re always regenerating and optimizing knowledge so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So, while the group’s function is customer service, they aren’t limited at all in their scope or access to knowledge.
What this network allows us to do is respond quickly, accurately, and with high quality. We’re interactively driving the customer conversation, guiding them to the answers they need. Our support workflow is seamless, and our customers have a very strong sense that when they have an issue, we’re in control of that issue and will resolve it for them.
Daly: What frameworks do you follow and what toolset underpins your customer support organization?
Shepherdson: The Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS) methodology was built into our products and our processes from the beginning. Everyone takes responsibility for the knowledge they create and use, which is a core KCS principle. For sales and customer support, we use a leading CRM system with an integrated knowledge management capability, a SaaS-based customer service tool, and an “Ask Coveo” technology that drives our community interaction platform.
Daly: To what extent do you make knowledge directly available to your customers?
Shepherdson: We opened our support portal about two years ago. Our goal was to create the same experience for people who asked a question in the portal—and can look up solutions themselves—as they would have if they asked a human being. Our customers have a conversation with the information, and when they use the portal, they have more time to describe the situation. In so doing, since it’s a navigational experience, they start uncovering background information that often leads to the answer they need as a standard part of the self-service workflow. Sometimes they don’t ask their question in a succinct way, or they don’t ask the right question about their problem because they’ve made incorrect assumptions about the problem’s true nature. Through the flow of information that is gathered during the inquiry, we can guide them to better define the issue and, potentially, uncover the resolution.
Daly: How did you encourage customer adoption?
Shepherdson: This environment came about in large part because our customers requested it, so the transition was really not at all difficult. Customers could easily see their own cases, add comments to their cases without having to make a phone call, and access that information outside work hours. That was clearly beneficial to them.
We used the case-logging mechanism to drive adoption and encouraged our customers to use the portal as the most effective way to open a case. When people called in, we directed them to the portal log-in page. If the agents log the case in the portal for them, we let them know that all updates about the case will come through the portal. Once a call has been logged, we send out a portal link so customers can monitor the progress and, ideally, begin searching for answers on their own.
Berry: At the same time we launched the portal, we opened a new community for Sitecore developers, a shared environment where developers and implementers could ask technical questions, design questions, and share ideas about different ways to use solutions.
Shepherdson: The community was the centerpiece, and we marketed the two capabilities together. It’s quite a rich repository that benefits everybody; they share experiences, techniques, and best practices, which builds trust among the members of community and enhances the use of Sitecore.
Daly: How much of your knowledge base is open to your customers?
Shepherdson: There are a lot of cross-references to the Coveo knowledge base, but these are two different worlds. There’s no limit to the source of information, but sharing knowledge involves more than just providing access to technical documentation. Our products are easy to use, but there’s a level of complexity in the interrelationship between all of the variables.
So, opening the knowledge base meant understanding the customer context, the type of information our customers needed, and then packaging that information in an optimal way. Context is critical for guiding people through the knowledge to the correct conclusion.
Daly: What impact has this level of knowledge sharing had on customer satisfaction?
Shepherdson We have a focused set of customers who are quite technical; they’re IT developers. When we opened the portal, it did improve customer satisfaction (although it was pretty high to begin with). What our portal did was reduce the level of customer effort; they recognized that we were not only helping them solve problems, we were making it easier for them to do business with us.
Daly: Some people are skeptical of the information they might share, or uncover, fearful that they might be sharing incorrect or incomplete information, or divulging proprietary information. That’s sometimes a barrier to knowledge sharing. How do you address that fear?
Berry: Open sharing, of course, is based on good security practices and permissions. With that in place, you listen to the crowd; you let them curate knowledge. Let them speak through their use of data, then let the use data speak to the knowledge management champions in each department. Let people know about the state of knowledge curation, and let people tell you what they think about that knowledge.
We’ve embraced this fundamental KCS principle: People are smart, and they want to use the most recent data. If they find benefit from using the knowledge, and if they see others benefiting as well, they’ll start contributing. It’s a very virtuous cycle.
Daly: That’s a good segue. Coveo uses KCS principles in other areas of the enterprise, specifically HR. What drove that migration?
Berry: We have about 200 employees. We grew 50 percent last year, and we’re on track to grow another 50 percent this year. Our hiring organization needs to support this fast growth. One of the greatest contributors to our success is our transparency and the amount of information we make available to people. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel when we introduced that process to HR.
Daly: Your experience is consistent with the findings from a recent HDI/itSMF USA report, Service Management: Not Just for IT Anymore. More than half of organizations are applying service management principles in areas outside of IT, and knowledge management is one of the most common practices showing up across the enterprise. Enabling technology was the primary driver for 67 percent of these organizations.
Berry: It’s important for organizations practicing knowledge management, or any other discipline, to make sure that when they acquire tools, those tools are extensible. But, beyond the tool, when people can’t find information, they stop looking, they use wrong information, or, worse yet, they don’t use any information. At that point, decisions become less than optimal and the products resulting from those decisions are less innovative.
Business strategy and growth hinge on knowledge sharing. Historically, companies have curated about 20 percent of the content they have because it’s really all they can manage to do. In those cases, they have to rely on the crowd, on employees, to help curate that content. If they fail to do so, their KM initiatives will be doomed to failure because people won’t trust the knowledge.
Daly: How do you train your employees when it comes to knowledge management?
Berry: Companies have to help employees gain skills and knowledge as they need them. When you can present knowledge that way, it helps your organization be more adaptive and flexible, particularly in a rapidly changing environment. We have very extensive onboarding training in our R&D headquarters in Quebec City, including a full day of training on our tools and knowledge-sharing practices. We focus on their integration into the culture of the company, not knowledge-sharing behaviors per se, although they are trained in KCS principles.
Shepherdson: When you look at organizations that have many systems of record, they often spend hours or days teaching people what systems to use (SAP for this, Service Cloud for that), where to go, and how to find information in those systems. This is all wasted effort.
We teach people how to find information. They don’t care where the information comes from; they just want the information they need when they need it. It accelerates new employee confidence and integration into the company, and it accelerates the curve for them to start contributing knowledge. We’ve found that this reduces the onboarding effort by 40–50 percent.
Daly: What role did your customer support team play in bringing knowledge management to your HR organization? Was it a planned initiative, or did it happen organically?
Berry: It happened organically, though there have been tuneups along the way. If anyone is feeling a lack of knowledge or information, or if they know what our tools can do but they don’t have what they need, they’re not afraid to speak up. My advice is always to listen to your employee users, empower them to speak up, and, when they do, follow up on that feedback.
Shepherdson: I spend a considerable amount of time with business optimization and adoption. Everyone at Coveo has a voice; they can ask, request, and share information. The most important thing we can do is understand the knowledge our employees are using and the knowledge they’re passing on to others.
The best catalyst for organic growth, or for breaking down silos, occurs at that point when individuals realize that the information they’re producing is being used by someone in another organization (in other words, that the information they’re uncovering is of real value). Understanding how and why people use information gets groups working together on identifying and filling gaps they might not have known even existed.
Daly: How do you measure success and build continuous improvement into your knowledge management program?
Shepherdson: Analytics are the key. When you can identify usage patterns, there are a number of great outcomes. One is the ability to identify training opportunities. Take, for example, a group of customer service professionals that takes twenty searches to find information, while others with the same job function find the same information in three searches. Perhaps the first group simply didn’t know how to ask the right questions.
Another outcome is the ability to identify knowledge gaps. If the analytics show that people are searching for information but aren’t using the content resulting from those searches, those are gaps in the repository. Likewise, if agents are answering the same questions over and over again, those answers should be found in the self-service portal. If your first contact resolution rate is high, that’s great, but you should be asking why it’s so high. If it’s because your agents and customers are asking easy questions, perhaps they should be using another channel to find the answers.
Cinda Daly is the CEO and chief content strategist for Focus Events, where she brings her career achievements as an impact player in content strategy, marketing, customer service, and events to her enterprise clients. Her current projects include a variety of initiatives in global event management, online media, and community building, all built on a foundation of high-quality editorial content, customer advocacy, and knowledge sharing.