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Help desks count on KM for up-to-date information and timely delivery

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Help desks and call centers are the hub of any organization—the link to customers. One bad experience and the customer goes elsewhere. That is clearly cause for concern in the mobile telecommunications industry, for example, where there is a push toward phone number portability. Slated to go into effect in November, customers who are unhappy with the technical support they are getting from their wireless provider will be able to take their business—and their phone number—to another service provider.

The demanding customer drives the need for a higher quality of information--i.e., the most up-to-date information. If a customer calls with a problem about a new laptop, he or she doesn't want to hear that the call center agent can't dig up the latest data sheets.

While getting current information to the help desk staff is crucial, there is also a need to share knowledge among call center staffers when someone uncovers a more efficient way to handle a customer inquiry. Perhaps an agent has figured out a way to work around a particular error message, or how to fix a nagging bug in the system with just five steps instead of 10. That information needs to be shared for the greater good.

Today's economy is making superior knowledge management a crucial factor in the management of help desks. It's a fact that staffs are squeezed, there are fewer people to answer calls and those who are answering calls don't necessarily have the same level of experience. The knowledge that is often gained over time through working with a particular company or product is no longer a given.

Additional pressure surrounds the cost of customer acquisition. New customers are not easy or inexpensive to acquire. For the past several years, much has been done to make call centers more efficient—routing calls to individuals equipped to handle particular problems to ensure that calls are answered quickly. While speeding the call to the right agent has streamlined the process, many help desks are looking at how to use knowledge management to improve the quality of the information being given to customers. "There has been a lot of work done in the help desk and call center area to route the incoming calls more efficiently, and the call center was outfitted with telephony and CRM (customer relationship management) systems," says Matt McConnell, founder and VP of Knowlagent, a provider of call center solutions. "However, what happens once that call is answered is crucial, and that's where knowledge management is key. How do I get my agents in a position to make the most effective outcome? Knowledge management plays a big role." McConnell says the "content locker" approach, in which information is simply put out there on a network for users to find, doesn't work in today's knowledge-driven environment. The next level, he says, involves identifying the strengths and weaknesses of individual agents and pushing the appropriate information to them at the appropriate time.

"The shift is toward proactively pushing the information to the help desk agents as they are working on specific tasks," he says. For example, a new help desk agent might do well overall but has a problem troubleshooting one particular error message. To help promote skill at that task, the agent receives additional information and backup material automatically whenever he or she works with a customer on that particular problem.

Aside from dealing with a stretched work force, many help desks are run by third-party providers who are answering calls regarding a number of products. "That doesn't mean that the customer on the other end wants to sit through a support person fumbling to answer their questions. They have to come across as experts," says Gary Zilk, director of product marketing for SupportSoft (supportsoft.com).

Assurant Group, a provider of extended service contracts for consumer electronics and appliances, services the product support needs of hundreds of thousands of consumers through a network of office supply and consumer electronics retailers across North America. Assurant recently purchased SupportSoft's solution to provide automated service and support to consumers who have purchased extended service contracts (ESC) for numerous brands of personal computers, printers and multifunction copy/fax machines.

"Our business is to enable our retail business partners to differentiate themselves by providing more comprehensive service programs for the products they market to their customers. We chose SupportSoft's solution because it was the only service and support platform that allows us to provide the breadth of service we demand," says Frank Ferrara, VP, ESC marketing and business development, for Assurant Group. "With our new service, we believe we can shorten the time to serve customers who purchase PCs, increase their satisfaction levels and lower our costs to provide the service."

While providing access to knowledge is important, Cadir Lee, SupportSoft's chief software officer, says there is also growing interest in being able to wrap that knowledge into automated business processes that can be executed with the click of a button.

"At a broadband company, for example, there may be a 20-step process that the help desk person needs in order to reboot the mail server," he says. "The ideal is to have that knowledge all bundled into a system that can be automatically launched. That way, the person finds the information on how to reboot the server, and from there, they just click to put the wheels in motion."

Call centers and help desk will always be a dynamic environment, which entails adjusting business rules on the fly, based on call volume.

"Keeping our current customers happy and delivering maximum value through the servicing relationship are top priority for us," says Michel Petrucci, VP of IT products and services at Canadian Tire Financial Services. "Our agents deliver the highest level of customer satisfaction by providing efficient service over the lifetime of the customer relationship." The firm uses Chordiant's Enterprise Contact Center.

During times of low call volumes, for example, all customers might receive verbal cross-sell offers. However, during times of high call volumes, only high-value customers would be targeted to receive verbal cross-sell offers; the remaining customers would receive the offer by e-mail. Chordiant's technology allows business policies driving that process to take into account many factors, including identifying the customers most likely to accept potential cross-sell offers, so the contact center can balance operational costs with revenue generation potential.

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 732-636-3612, e-mail kimzimmermann@comcast.net

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