Interfaces of knowledge management (KM) systems can be applied to support and empower customer service via two key channels: (1) directly — used by customers (e.g., adjunct to self-service utilities, web-based or mobile app), or (2) indirectly — used by employees (customer service representatives [CSR]) to help them provide a better service to customers (e.g., more effective, timely, and accurate). These channels have some very different implications in form, scope and intensity of use of KM capacities.
The ‘library’ of a KM system should provide the customer with relevant background information that can help him or her make decisions (e.g., choosing between product attribute options, selecting among investment assets). The knowledge resource may also assist in completing technical tasks at one’s home or office (e.g., setting-up a software or device). The content may include explanations on specific concepts or procedures, product reviews, and articles on related topics (e.g., an overview of a technology, medical condition, class of financial assets).
A crucial question is how the customer gets exposed to information relevant for the task at hand. General search queries often lead to many and spurious results requiring the customer to work hard to find and collate relevant information. The system has to do better than that in recommending truly useful information, to bring the user more precisely and quickly to a set of relevant knowledge sources. The customer may start by filling a short questionnaire that lets him specify his interests and goals. But as the customer accumulates more experience in using a KM portal and accessing some documents, the system can learn from his or her behaviour and update its recommendations. Alternatively, references to a KM resource may be embedded within a self-service facility (e.g., application for travel insurance) so that the system can refer the customer to supplementary information based on his or her progress in the service process (e.g., explanation of healthcare procedures in the country of destination, recommended features of coverage for the planned trip). As the system learns it may add a visual display of relevant statistics for guidance (e.g., distribution of options chosen by similar customers or in similar situations). Furthermore, a company can use its discretion to provide premium customers secured access to resources available only to its employees within the organisation.
Knowledge management portals for customers are not so common. References are more likely to be implicit, such as being embedded within the self-service platform of the company. More companies now provide an interface for interaction (chat) with an intelligent virtual agent (IVA) to get assistance. Such a robotic agent may give a brief answer and perhaps add a single resource for further reading; if the customer insists on asking a follow-up question, the agent may refer the customer to 1-3 more documents. Sometimes this kind of help is not sufficient and the customer has to make extra effort to drill more useful information from the IVA (a face wearing a smile to the customer is not always comforting). In more complex, sensitive and risk-prone domains, it is advisable to accompany the IVA with a portal that will display more resources in a coherent and viewer-friendly format, explicating what each resource would be most helpful for.
Having said that, there are circumstances in which the customer cannot manage on his own and needs to talk to a skilled person to resolve an issue. It may be because the customer encounters difficulties in fulfilling the task using the computer-based self-service tools or because the domain at issue is relatively complex and involves more significant personal implications (e.g., financial investment, insurance, medical conditions, sophisticated technological products). Researchers Shell and Buell of Harvard Business School suggest in a recent working paper  that having customers know that access to human contact is available to them for assistance, even without their taking advantage of it, can improve their feelings, particularly mitigating anxiety, and in turn recuperate their satisfaction and confidence in decisions they make during a self-service session; this will show especially in situations of heightened anxiety. Hence, making notice of access to human contact salient is essential.
Of course in some cases customers will choose to actually turn to a human agent for assistance and guidance; on many other occasions, however, merely knowing that human assistance is reachable may instill some more confidence and encourage the customer to continue independently to the extent that he or she can avoid calling for assistance (i.e., knowledge that human contact is available acts as a safety net). A company can offer human assistance from an agent by phone or chat (not an IVA/chatbot), yet as Shell and Buell propose, the company may also enable customers to get advice from customer-peers (though with more limited effect). Mitigating anxiety through offering human assistance as needed can help to reduce negative effects of customer anxiety on choice satisfaction and subsequently on trust in the company.
The utilisation of knowledge management portals by company’s CSRs aims to work at a different, professional level, to enable the CSRs address concerns and issues raised by customers in a more proficient and timely manner. For instance, it should save CSRs the time and effort of referring to a number of platforms (e.g., marketing, CRM, product) by bringing together different types of relevant and practical information onto one place from which the human agent can access it more easily and quickly. A KM portal display may integrate most recent history of interactions with the customer, relevant offers of products or service packages, or links to additional background articles (e.g., product profiles, technical materials). The KM portal may include essential customer information (e.g., identification and key flags) but it may not free the CSR completely from turning to a CRM system for more information (e.g., previous purchases); likewise, it may not free the CSR from turning to the billing system or a product database resource. The challenge of a KM system is to pull together those portions of information deemed most relevant and useful to the issue at stake from the broad knowledgebase of the company and lay them closer to the service agent (e.g., in a portal or dashboard display). An agent who listens to the ‘story’ told by the customer can give the KM system more clues to allow it to make the best recommendations. Information may be presented explicitly or as links to recommended documents and other external resources. This is expected to be part of the future mode of operation of contact centres, and it is already in motion.
It is important, nevertheless, to take into consideration the time a human service agent needs to review some of the information proposed in the KM portal, in relation to a customer’s enquiry during a live interaction with the customer. The CSR may have to trace, learn, judge and extract relevant information before delivering his or her insight, recommendation or solution to the customer, and all that within a few minutes. Some of the knowledge may be included, as suggested above, in resources like articles that the agent should access and read — think for instance of an article on a new travel insurance offer: the agent has to understand the terms before communicating it to the customer, and being able to answer questions. Three observations are in order on this matter:
- Human service agents (CSRs) should receive adequate training on choice, comprehension and evaluation of materials from the company’s knowledgebase, and also should be allocated paid “off-duty” time for reviewing new and updated content (e.g., products and service offers, technical support procedures) to reduce learning ‘time-breaks’ during customer interactions;
- The CSR agents should be ready and willing to learn and assimilate information they utilise as their own knowledge, together with experiences they accumulate, to be able to use that knowledge again with subsequent customers without having to process information from the KM portal every time and again — a KM system will be much less effective if CSRs rely heavily on what they see on the screen in every event, rather than using it as an aid and supporting tool;
- A key capacity of KM systems is to allow employees share among them experiences, lessons and information they have learned which proved pertinent to the service events they have been treating — by adding notes or updating a special forum, service agents can turn implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge that can help their colleagues in handling similar events in their own future customer encounters.
According to a research report by Aberdeen Group , companies that have a formal agent experience management programme gain a higher rate of annual increase in customer retention, above two times more than in other companies (12% versus 5%). These companies can also expect to benefit from about two times higher rates of year-over-year increases in revenues and customer satisfaction. At the same time, agent productivity is also likely to be better with a formal programme for supporting and enhancing the agent working experience (11% annual increase versus 7% in other companies without such a programme). Greater service agent satisfaction is linked to greater customer satisfaction; it requires that the agents feel they can do their work serving customers more easily and successfully with proper guidance and direction.
The Aberdeen report identifies three top factors influencing the agent experience. First, the prospect agent should bring to the job good technology knowledge and skills as well as strong communication skills to be fit for the job assigned. Second, the company should provide on its part the means in technology tools that will facilitate the ability of agents to perform their day-to-day tasks. A smart and effective knowledge management system that can quickly and pointedly lead agents to relevant information (e.g., instructive articles) should have a great role to play in improving the agent experience. Making agents spend extended valuable time seeking background knowledge and insights and delaying their handling of customer enquiries are key deterrents to agent productivity; it may be added that these impediments also are likely to lead to increased agent frustration. Nevertheless, side by side with the skills agents bring with them and the information and technology tools the company provides, agents should be given more autonomy while interacting with a customer (e.g., offer discounts, account credit, free shipping etc.). Aberdeen describes this third factor as providing agents the “sense of empowerment in addressing customer needs”. Employees-agents could be made to feel empowered when respecting their judgement in utilising knowledge resources and allowing them leeway in deciding how best to help the customers.
A knowledge management system incorporates knowledge resources with different types of information and technology tools to access that knowledge. The tools are expected to become powered more extensively by artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, to enable users to access relevant and practical information or knowledge more quickly and precisely. However, it should be appreciated that knowledge is most often what people make of information made available to them, and also the knowledge they can return and add to the system for the benefit of others. Whether the interface is used by any company’s service agents or the customers themselves (e.g., applying self-service facilities), the support and guidance of a KM system can enhance the service quality in important ways.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
 “Mitigating the Negative Effects of Customer Anxiety Through Access to Human Contact”; Michelle A. Shell & Ryan W. Buell ; Harvard Business School Working Paper 19-089 (unpublished paper).
 “Agent Experience Management: Customer Experience Begins with Your Agents”, Aberdeen Group [Omer Minkara], September 2017