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Best practices for self-service knowledge bases

31% of employees prefer digital self-service to human contact when getting help with difficult problems. Another 27% would like a mix of self-service and interaction with an agent. Which means that less than half of your employees want to deal directly with help desk agents when they need help.

The good news is that with a great self-service knowledge base, you can give employees the self-service options they so clearly crave. And that same self-service will likely reduce service desk calls, improve response times, and save the company money.

What is a self-service knowledge base?

A self-service knowledge base is a centralized, organized collection of information about a product, service, department, or topic. In some organizations, it may also be known as a customer service knowledge base or a customer support knowledge base. It’s often searchable and includes how-to instructions that help customers—sometimes internal, sometimes external—solve problems without contacting support.

For example, a computer company may have a searchable, customer-facing knowledge base with troubleshooting articles that address common customer questions. Like “how do I set up my new computer?” or “what should I do if I forget my login screen password?”

On the internal side of things, an IT organization can use a similar model to help onboard new employees and help existing employees troubleshoot common issues (e.g. “how to use the scan function on the printer” or “what to do if the company VPN returns an error”).

Knowledge bases can focus on internal or external customers and can span everything from product help to service questions. The key thing here is that they are always more than a simple FAQ page. They are searchable, interconnected, and built to reduce service requests.

The value of a self-service knowledge base

Self-service knowledge bases are a growing trend—and the reasons why are both extensive and compelling. Not only do customers prefer self-service options, but so do IT teams. They save agents from answering repetitive questions, empower the team to focus on more complex issues, and get teams out of a reactive mode and into a forward-thinking one. Instead of constantly putting out urgent fires, IT teams are freed up to focus on creating more long-term value with practices like problem management.

A good knowledge base also reduces costs. Because less inquiries always means less time spent on support, which means more time your IT team can spend on other priorities. And time, as we all know, is money.

3 best practices for effective self-service

1. Start with the knowledge base

Your customers have collectively asked you the same support questions a million times. So you already know where to start your documentation. And your customers will love you for it. In fact, 91% of survey respondents would use an online knowledge base if it were available and tailored to their needs, according to one study

Here at Atlassian, we’ve invested in building and maintaining an extensive public knowledge base, which has improved our customer experiences and reduced support inquiries.

2. Add communities where customers can help each other

Knowledge bases are extremely valuable—but they aren’t the only self-service tool out there. And the truth is that it’s best not to put all your self-service eggs in one basket. Your knowledge base is even more powerful when paired with an online community where your audience can gather to share information and help each other. 

These days, companies are taking inspiration from online Q&A communities like Yahoo! Answers, Quora, and Stack Overflow and creating similar experiences internally—giving employees a central place to gather, ask, and answer work-related questions. 

There’s probably no better way to capture scattered knowledge about a subject than with a community. Which is why it’s something we’ve prioritized at Atlassian, developing and maintaining a robust, active community and hosting community events.

An additional benefit of communities is that they give you insights into what your employees and customers are talking about. And this, in turn, gives you insights into what needs fixing. Is there a certain process tripping everybody up? Is there a simpler way to do things? Are instructions in one of your knowledge base articles unclear? Your community has the answers.

Finally, communities help you identify domain experts, tap into their expertise, and recognize and reward their contributions.

At Atlassian, we have both an internal community (for our employees to ask and answer internal questions) and an external one for our customers.

3. Design your customer portal to make asking for more help easy

Sometimes even a knowledge base and a community aren’t enough to get to the heart of a complicated question or unusual situation. Which is why no matter how good your knowledge base is, you still need a way for customers to get personalized help. 

When this happens, asking for help should be easy. No lengthy drop-down lists of cryptic help categories. No confusing six-click process to get to the right person. If you keep it simple at every step, customers will be far more likely to ask for help when they need it and far more satisfied with the end result.

Dos and don’ts for a self-service knowledge base

So, it’s clear that knowledge bases can be a big win for IT teams. But if you don’t have one now, where do you get started? What should you know before you dive in? 

Start with these 10 dos and don’ts.

1. Do embrace knowledge-centered service

Knowledge-centered service (KCS) is when support teams not only provide real-time customer or employee support, but also create and maintain support documentation as part of the same process. It’s an efficient, effective way to keep both customer-facing and internal-facing documentation up-to-date and useful, capturing the collective knowledge of the service desk or customer support teams.

2. Do regularly audit your knowledge base

Even with a KCS approach, sometimes content gets stale, stops being used, or becomes irrelevant. Regular audits should look for content that’s fallen out of use and ask questions like:

  • Is this content still relevant or should it be retired?
  • What could we do to make this content more useful?
  • What could we do to make this content more findable?
  • Why are customers—internal or external—not using this content?

3. Do make it simple

The point of a knowledge base is to make customer service faster and more convenient—giving users a way to access support instantly and solve problems quickly, and giving content creators simple tools that save time and enable collaboration. To achieve these ends, solutions should be thoroughly documented in simple language and consistent formats. The knowledge base should be easy to search and easy to navigate for both creators and users. 

We built our knowledge base in Confluence, but there are plenty of choices available. The important thing is choosing a solution that’s well designed, intuitive, and delivers meaningful results to your users.

4. Do have consistent formats

Speaking of simplicity, the more consistent your formats, the easier they’ll be for users to navigate, understand, and use—especially when a user needs to consult the knowledge base regularly in order to do their job.

5. Don’t use jargon

88% of Americans pretend to understand office jargon that they genuinely don’t get, according to a 2017 study. Which means if your teams use jargon and technical terms in your knowledge base, you’re probably confusing people—and they’re unlikely to tell you so. So, keep it simple and use less technical language where possible.

6. Don’t make customers share their data

People are more concerned than ever about data privacy and security. Which is why putting knowledge bases behind data walls is a recipe for less self-service, more unhappy customers, and a higher volume of level 1 service calls.

7. Don’t force users to do self-service by hiding your contact info

A lot of customers prefer self-service. We don’t want to call you on the phone. We don’t want to wait on hold. We don’t want to sit and watch the three moving dots in a live chat box. 

But that doesn’t mean everyone wants self-service. Make sure people have easy, useful access to both self-service and other service options—and let them decide which they need.

8. Do let customers weigh in on whether articles are helpful

Did this article help you? We’ve all seen knowledge bases with a question at the end, asking users to weigh in on whether they’ve solved their problem. These can be a useful tool for assessing top-performing help articles and learning from them to improve the rest of your content.

9. Do embrace knowledge bases organization-wide

Knowledge bases (and self-service) aren’t just for IT teams. Just about every team in your company—from HR to procurement to legal to sales—can become more efficient, get more time back for strategic projects, and improve customer relationships by giving people quick, easy access to the information they need for self-service.

10. Do moderate your Q&A communities

If you choose to add a community to your self-service offering, make sure it’s well moderated. Someone should be tasked with making sure questions are categorized properly and don’t go unanswered. Otherwise, participation will suffer.

Tasking agents to spend part of their time moderating questions within the Q&A community will give you better results. Not to mention that Q&A articles are easy to repurpose into knowledge base articles, so the resources you invest in one channel will have cross-channel pay-offs.