What is a Knowledge Base? How to Build One That Empowers Your Customer Service Team

What is a Knowledge Base? How to Build One That Empowers Your Customer Service Team
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The best type of customer experience occurs when staff are well-trained and have the resources to assist customers. Creating a mechanism for self-serve assistance and troubleshooting information is also crucial to meeting customer expectations. Both require an up-to-date knowledge base that is quick and easy to access and provides a seamless user experience.

This article covers:

  • What is a knowledge base?
  • Why you need a knowledge base
  • The benefits of a knowledge base
  • 4 best practices to keep in mind when building a knowledge base
  • How to build a knowledge base in 6 steps
  • What is a knowledge base?

    A knowledge base is an easy-to-access information source that allows users to find answers on demand. The information can cover any topic or series of topics relevant to the person making the inquiry. Separate from a standard database—which houses information in its most basic form—a knowledge base provides information in searchable context. Knowledge base articles and other tools should be designed to answer common questions so they can be used as a learning tool and to solve problems.

    Many organizations maintain two types of knowledge bases—sometimes referred to as knowledge portals. Internal knowledge bases are designed for internal use so workers can gain easy access to company resources. It’s a repository of company knowledge.

    An external knowledge base—also called a customer-facing knowledge base—is public-facing and designed to be used by clients, customers, and others to:

    • Satisfy their curiosity about product features
    • Find useful information to troubleshoot problems
    • Improve their overall user experience

    A knowledge base can be as simple as a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs), an online user manual, an internal HR manual, examples of workflows, or an indexed encyclopedia. Knowledge bases can also utilize extremely sophisticated computer software, incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) that interacts with the user in real time to answer queries and provide assistance.


    Why do you need one?

    Internally, a robust knowledge base or portal enhances communications within and between departments and functions. Anything that your team needs routinely should be part of an internal knowledge base system. Giving workers ready access to this information saves time for both the person asking the question and the one tasked with answering it.

    For instance, keeping an up-to-date directory of company personnel—especially in environments with distributed teams—will serve as an invaluable resource to your customer support representatives.

    A searchable knowledge base for internal use might include:

    • The name, title, function, email address, phone number, and instant messaging handle for the subject matter experts in each department
    • Which specific questions each individual can answer. For example:
      • The accounting department might handle issues related to billing and payment inquiries.
      • The technical support department might provide assistance with assembly and installation, as well as inquiries regarding logins and passwords.
      • The warranty department might provide information about warranty coverage and how to get warranty replacement parts or where to get warranty work done.
      • The sales department might provide information about service enhancements, subscription renewals, and new product launches.

    What are the benefits of a knowledge base?

    Dedicating resources to creating and maintaining a knowledge base enhances customer service on two important and interrelated fronts:

    1. It serves as a resource for your on-site and remote customer support team members when fielding customer service inquiries.
    2. It serves as a self-serve resource for consumers.

    1. A resource for customer support staff

    How satisfied a customer will be with the support they get from your company should never depend on which customer service representative answers the phone or pops onto the online chat. This is where an internal knowledge base for customer support staff can make or break consumer loyalty and retention.

    Every customer service representative—whether an in-house IT support member or a highly skilled independent technical support professional— should have the resources to provide the same level of assistance. Along with providing information to anyone who answers a call for support, creating a knowledge portal for customer support staff will help level the playing field, allowing every representative access to the same information and expertise they need to assist customers.

    2. A self-directed resource for customers

    Many customers want to solve their product-related problems on their own. They expect to be able to easily access a user-friendly self-serve resource, preferably one provided free of charge. To meet expectations, a self-directed knowledge base geared at customers should provide:

    • Access to information 24/7 provided in the user’s primary language
    • A resource that anticipates and answers user questions in a concise and useful manner
    • Product tutorials that provide step-by-step instructions for all levels of users, incorporating text, screenshots, and video to accommodate different learning styles
    • Troubleshooting guides that provide sufficient detail to resolve most user problems without the need to escalate to customer service

    4 best practices to keep in mind when building a knowledge base

    Anticipating and meeting the needs of your knowledge base users—whether team members or customers—can be challenging. The individuals tasked with building and populating the knowledge base are going to have a much higher level of understanding than the users. That’s why it’s important to consider some best practices when designing and building your own knowledge base.

    Create user personas

    Taking the time to understand who your users are and how they process information will go a long way in streamlining the knowledge base build process. Think about what information your knowledge portal audience will need, what devices they may use to access your knowledge base, and how they’re likely to process information.

    Consider the benefits of engaging a persona development specialist through Upwork to facilitate this part of development. Working with a professional at this stage can help you save on knowledge base development costs later in the process and go a long way in ensuring a good user experience.

    Simplify, then simplify some more

    Online information needs to be simple and scannable. To accomplish this:

    • Chunk text with a lot of white space. Breaking up text into chunks improves readability and helps users process information.
    • Use in-page links. Also referred to as anchor links, in-page links allow the user to bypass extraneous material and jump to the information they’re after. They are great for FAQs and indexes.
    • Make indexes intuitive. There’s more than one way to search for a topic. Research keywords and cross-reference as much as possible.

    Show, then tell

    Take advantage of any opportunity to replace long text explanations with graphics. Our brains translate visual content much more quickly than text. We can process infographics, screenshots, and charts in the blink of an eye, and the information will have a better chance of making it to long-term memory.

    Pay attention to branding

    Be sure to keep your knowledge base on-brand. Pay attention to design attributes, voice, and messaging. When a user accesses your system, they should immediately recognize your company’s tone and aesthetic.

    How to build a knowledge base in 6 steps

    Let’s say you create and sell at-home workout videos streamed through your website. Users subscribe to your platform, pay a monthly fee, and can access all the workout videos they want on your site. You’ve decided to create a knowledge base for your customers. Here are the steps you should follow.

    1. Analyze your audience and their needs

    You’ll likely have already examined your user personas. You know they’re health-conscious consumers who prefer working out at home. They’re also cost-conscious—your workout program is very competitive as far as pricing—and tech-savvy enough to stream videos from a website.

    You’ll want to gather information about the reasons customers are seeking service support. You may opt to:

    • Survey your customer service reps to determine the types of issues they’re facing.
    • Review help desk tickets to see how often issues are escalated to management and the reasons for escalation.
    • Look at online inquiries to see if a pattern is developing with respect to the types of questions users are asking.
    • Run a focus group of subscribers to see what their experiences have been with the website and gauge their levels of satisfaction versus frustration.

    You’re looking for clues to help ensure your knowledge base is relevant.

    • Are customers able to easily access the website?
    • Is the website performing as promised? If not, what are the glitches?
    • Are users able to access their account information when needed?
    • Do they understand how the subscription process works and how to terminate their subscription if desired?

    2. Identify your core topics

    Now, you can begin the task of identifying the core topics to include in your knowledge base. The topics you include will need to align with the product or service you’re offering.

    With respect to the online exercise website, you may include topics about:

    • How to get started with your exercise website programs
    • Best practices for beginning a workout program
    • Troubleshooting information for each type of device a customer might be using to access the website
    • Information about the cost of use and billing cycles, including how to subscribe and unsubscribe from the website’s premium service

    3. Choose your knowledge base content

    Once you’ve decided what you want to cover, you’ll need to determine how to present it. Usually, a knowledge base will contain one or more of the following:

    Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

    Almost every knowledge base should include a FAQs page. It’s often the first place users will go to find answers. When designing your FAQs page, consider incorporating a keyword search function.

    Video tutorials

    Consider creating video tutorials that walk users through how to get started with the website—how to use the website to search for particular workouts or how to access the website on different devices, for example—and troubleshooting problems. Keep each video tutorial short and stick to one subject per video.

    Infographics

    Like video tutorials, infographics can be used to walk users through various tasks and troubleshooting. The static nature of an infographic is useful when streaming video isn’t a viable option.

    Glossaries and indexes

    Often, users won’t know where to start when seeking information. A glossary of terms that cross-references to the FAQs page, videos, or infographics will save them time in finding the information they need.

    White papers

    Any white papers that cover product functionality or go in-depth about a topic of interest to your users can be included as a searchable resource.

    Internal wikis

    If your company maintains a wiki for internal collaboration, consider including it in your internal knowledge base tools.

    4. Choose the right knowledge base software

    Now that you have an idea of the depth and breadth of the information to include in your knowledge base, it’s time to choose the right software. Some aspects to  consider:

    • Affordability. It’s a good idea to know your budget before you begin comparing systems.
    • Search function. Users need to find what they need when they need it. That means the search function is as important as the content on the site. A robust search function needs to be high on your priority list.
    • Simple backend management. Consider who’s going to be managing your knowledge base system and their level of tech expertise. Some systems are easier to manage than others. You will want to be able to upload documentation, videos, and other information as quickly as your information needs change. You need a system that won’t bog down dashboard managers.
    • Categorization and archive system. Here, flexibility is key. You need to be able to keep your knowledge base organized and intuitive to browse.
    • Design flexibility. How important is it to have design options? This might be extremely important for public-facing portals but less so for those exclusively used by internal team members.
    • Reporting and analytics. It’s important to understand the efficacy of the information provided. Look for a basic analytics function that helps you track and analyze user behavior.
    • User feedback. Many systems allow users to provide feedback about whether a certain article or tutorial proved helpful. This is something to consider including in public-facing knowledge portals.

    While certainly not an exhaustive list, some software options that might prove suitable when building your customer service team’s knowledge base are:

    • Document360 is a highly-rated knowledge base platform that focuses exclusively on content. It’s suitable for private knowledge bases—such as the one you are building for your at-home exercise website’s support team—as well as customer-facing public knowledge bases. Plans start at less than $50 a month, although multiple team accounts and additional storage incur extra cost. The system works with Google Analytics and Segments, Freshdesk and Zendesk ticketing systems, and other tools like translation services and commenting software.
    • The Helpjuice platform makes it easy to scale your knowledge base as your company grows and your knowledge base needs increase. The software is customizable, heavily focused on analytics, and integrates well with common platforms like Google Chrome, Slack, Salesforce, and Freshdesk, to name a few.
    • LiveAgent’s help desk and live chat software integrates with over 40 third-party applications. Along with a knowledge base of customer portal management tools, LiveAgent offers over 175 additional help desk features including a call center, an in-app ticketing system, and multilingual capabilities.
    • KnowAll is a WordPress theme that touts an all-in-one package that provides everything you need to build an effective knowledge base. Marketed to business owners looking for a drag-and-drop solution, it leverages the ease of the WordPress platform. It’s easy to customize and works seamlessly across all types of devices.

    5. Create and develop your content

    Once you’ve decided what to include in your knowledge base and how you want to present it, it’s time to get down to the business of creating and developing the content.

    You may need to bring in subject matter experts to assist with this step. Going back to the fitness website example, it may be helpful to consult with exercise physiologists or personal trainers for knowledge base entries that pertain to the ins and outs of specific exercise programs. For other content—such as anything dealing with technical requirements to stream the videos—use your tech team’s expertise. In fact, in addition to subject matter experts, you’ll need to incorporate several professional skill sets in your content development:

    • Content writing to ensure that your copy is clear, succinct, and on point
    • Development and design to ensure that your content is searchable, user-friendly, and visually pleasing
    • Customer service to ensure that the information is presented in a manner that meets the needs of the intended audience

    You may need to tap into the expertise of one or more independent professionals to complete the task of creating and developing your knowledge base content. Upwork’s Project Catalog also gives you access to predefined services offered by top independent talent.

    6. Maintain and update your knowledge base

    There’s nothing more frustrating to customers and customer service associates than searching a knowledge base for new articles or a piece of information on your latest offerings and coming up empty.

    Every time you develop new features or your products or services are updated, you will need to simultaneously update your knowledge base. For instance, if you add a health and fitness podcast to your exercise website, you should update your knowledge base on information about how to subscribe to the podcast, how to download and save episodes onto devices, and how to access the schedule. In fact, make it a point of including knowledge base updates in all new product launch plans.

    Build a more effective knowledge base

    Building and maintaining an effective knowledge base is the best way to provide consistent customer service and should be a priority for your business. Too often, companies hesitate to get started on building a knowledge base due to a lack of in-house resources. Don’t let a lack of internal expertise hold you back. With Upwork, you have on-demand access to top independent professionals who can contribute to achieving a better customer experience.


    Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this section. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.

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    What is a Knowledge Base? How to Build One That Empowers Your Customer Service Team
    The Upwork Team

    Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

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