KM for Customer Service: Whose Truth is Worth More?

There are so many channels for customers to reach us, and so many ways in which to interact, that it is unclear whether the "contact center" or the "Web group" or the "marketing department" or the "salesforce" is in charge.

Guess what. They all are, at any given point in the day or night. Each of these organizational groups has its own motives, its own directives and its own metrics for success. Although I guess calling it "organizational" might be an overstatement.

So, with so many varied and sometimes hidden motives, can an organization maintain that "single version of the truth" we always talk about. Whose truth? The marketing department's? The legal department's? The contact center's? A customer service department may have information from customers that a new product is faulty; the manager of the R&D department may not agree. The metrics used by the various departments often don't match, yet there are serious operational and reputational reasons to "be on the same page."


"The fundamental problem is that the information available to any person at any given time is driven from within the silo from which it was created." That's Ed Shepherdson senior vice president for enterprise solutions at Coveo, talking. During a conversation last month with Ed, I came to recognize and respect him as a thoughtful and knowledgeable thinker about information access. Ed brings an interesting perspective to the subject of "information." He was formerly at Cognos, the business intelligence workhorse. Cognos, as you probably know, is focused 100% on the analysis of structured data—row and column stuff. Coveo, on the other hand, is an enterprise search company focused instead on unstructured content—words and documents. These two worlds rarely collide. But when they do, great things can happen.

That particular stream of thought was NOT the subject of my talk with Ed that day. I'll save that for another article. Ed's message will become clearer in the following couple of pages. I was going to refer to it as "leaping boundaries." In further review, I think I'll call it "ignoring boundaries altogether."

Let's start from the start. "Customers of all shapes and sizes are more educated today around the availability of information, and that has changed the expectation. Society says, I expect you to know more about me, and I expect you to retain that knowledge, and to treat me as though you know who I am," Ed said."

It's not just as simple as repeating your account number to the agent you've been transferred to," he said. "It's more than that, although that's important. It's more like ‘I expect you to retain knowledge, and treat me like you know who I am.' It's created a new relationship with customers. If I interact with your sales department, and your marketing department, I expect you to know that. THAT is what should be driven into our business processes."

But even Ed confessed that doing so is expensive. And maybe unlikely. "It's so competitive now that organizations are running very lean and thin. They need not only to have information, but they also need to deal with customers very succinctly, without repeating discussions and changing the message as the customer is handed from one group to another." Having a reliable version of the truth not only plays into your customer service outreach to customers, but it also has an impact internally, on productivity and cost savings.

I started to grill Ed a little at this point. "In strictly organizational terms, is it really that important that everyone knows what everyone knows?" I asked. "I would flip that question around," said Ed. "I'd say: ‘I should be able to choose what information I need. Everyone needs access to the information they need to do their job completely. That word ‘completely' makes a difference. Customer service demands a fluidity during the hand-offs that inevitably happen. For example: You call a telco to change your cell phone program. As you go from department to department, there needs to be a consistent understanding and knowledge of the account  and case at hand. The customer expects that as those hand-offs occur—and they will—that each new person will already know what has already transpired." As a customer, I could tell you right off... uh, uh.

But Ed was willing to give a little, when I pushed on this question. "Sure, if there's a job that requires only a subset of information, then it makes sense for that person to have access to only that set of knowledge assets." But as he pointed out, in a random who-knows-what-will-happen-next? environment, it is imperative—especially in a customer—facing environment-that smooth access to a consistent knowledgebase is critical. "I may be sitting in customer support, but I need to know that marketing just released a new promotion for a new game series on the cell phone we sell. Customers are calling me about it. I also need to know from the R&D department that those new games need a hardware upgrade to make them work." He's right: That's a perfect example of a person who needs access to information from multiple sources. And I agree with him: What the job needs should define what the worker needs access to.

So What?

As a worker in an information-based organization, ironically enough, the real problem is that I don't really care what you care about. That's the reality.

Even though all corporate information should be "normalized" in order to be efficient and customer-friendly, users want to see data they way they need it to do their jobs. The R&D department wants to see information one way. Customer support sees it in a different way. And marketing sees it in a TOTALLY different way. So we've naturally developed these silos, and we have been trained to use the information from within that department resource only.

Knowledgebase solutions need to reach outside their current silos. There can be thousands of these information repositories, especially in the era of SharePoint, and yet people can't find information! Ed agreed: "Microsoft says: ‘Bring all your information into SharePoint, and it will be available to everyone!' But really, they're not able to do that," he said. "And CRM system vendors will tell you ‘Buy our systems, and we will be able to tell you everything about your customers.' And CRM hasn't delivered on that promise, either. Recently, they've tacked on kludges for social media, but that hasn't worked," added Ed. "The large-system vendors try to expand and capture as much of a footprint in an organization as they can. But that's actually creating more problems than it's solving," he said. "Executives have invested so much in these solutions that they feel they can't get away from them. So they continue to invest in this creep of scope. I've seen companies that have as many as 20 different solutions, but they always say, we have a CRM system, and we have a knowledgebase. There's just no such thing as a magic system that captures knowledge and delivers that knowledge in a ubiquitous way," said Ed. And Ed is right.

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