The Problem With Your Knowledge Base Is Not Content, It’s Experience

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If you’re a customer support professional, how many times have you heard (or said) the following:

“If only we had better content in our knowledge base…”

No matter how the above phrase ends, it is a myth. It’s a myth that knowledge bases, FAQs, forums, etc. primarily pose a content challenge.

They don’t.

They primarily pose an experience challenge when it comes to customers getting self-service help.

You can have the greatest content in the world but if nobody ever uses it, that content might as well not exist. The painful truth is, if you’re like most websites or web apps, far far FAR fewer of your customers bother to click “Help” than you probably think.

Just consider what a customer must do to make use of that “Help” link. First they have to find it. Then they have to click it. Then they visit your knowledge base. Then they dig around, read headlines, formulate search terms, and wait for search results. Then, maybe, they bother to scour the search results and, maybe, they find the answer they need. Then, maybe, they joyfully return to your website—where they were before all this—and accomplish their goal on your site. But it rarely happens this way, and not because you lack the right content. It’s because nobody wants the experience of going on a scavenger hunt to a customer support “help island” in the first place.

What’s a “help island?”

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“Help islands” are knowledge bases, FAQs, forums, etc. that are usually sold by vendors and bolted onto websites or web apps, usually behind a link called “Help” you put in the top-right corner of your pages. They’re often brand-able so they can look like your site, and while looking like your site may make marketing happy, it does nothing for your customers who experience these “help islands” as very separate from your site. Remember that nobody initially goes to your site intending to dig around in your knowledge base looking for answers. That wasn’t the original goal. The goal was to get something done on your site and if a customer finds himself on your “help island,” it’s because something went wrong.

But the stats are quite clear. Few people ever visit “help islands.” Less than 1% of a typical site’s traffic will ever go to the knowledge base, and often this number is less than 0.1%. (Pull up your Google Analytics right now and leave a note in the comments section for your site’s percentage of all traffic that hits your knowledge base.)

The scary realization is that far more than 0.1% of your site’s visitors have questions come to mind, and you’re not seeing most of those, which means your visitors are left to fend for themselves during their frustration and confusion. The result? Abandonment and churn.

The greatest content in the world can’t fix the fact that going to a “help island” puts a large burden on your customers. This large burden is due to something we call “help distance.”

“Help distance” creates unhappy customers

Answers to customers’ questions are most valuable when delivered to the very point where customers have those questions arise. But most customer self-service technologies like knowledge bases require customers to go off and find the knowledge they need. Instead, we should be bringing the knowledge to where customers already are. How “far away” a user must go to get the knowledge they’re after is called the “help distance.”

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Help distance can be thought of as the number of clicks, the number of pages, the amount of time, or the amount of effort required for a customer to get to the knowledge they need. The greater the help distance, the less often a customer will bother trying to find help, and the more frustrated he or she will become. With new opportunities just a Google search away, abandonment becomes inevitable when the help distance grows too large.

Ask yourself: when was the last time you clicked on the word “Help” in the top-right corner of a website? When was the last time you expected such a click to result in an enjoyable experience? Or did you begrudgingly click “Help” expecting to do a lot of work?

Knowledge bases have their place, especially as an aid to assisted-service where customer service agents can quickly send links in email replies to support inquiries. But as a self-service technology, knowledge bases and similar tools are ineffective. And it’s not because of their content.

Closing the gap with contextual self-service

Instead of making customers traverse a large “help distance” to go find knowledge on your “help island,” bring the knowledge to them with contextual self-service. Contextual answer technologies like AnswerDash deliver inline help experiences that give answers to your customers right where they have their questions, on your site rather than on a separate “help island.” By keeping customers in their workflow, along their critical path, contextual self-service reduces abandonment, increases sales conversions, and deflects tickets.

AnswerDash, for example, gets about 5% of a site’s visitors using it, which is 5-50 times as many people who are served by most knowledge bases. AnswerDash can also integrate with Zendesk Help Center and Salesforce desk.com Support Center to show their existing articles inline, contextualized right on a site, pulling those articles from the “help island” to customers’ point-of-action, dramatically reducing “help distance.”

Putting the customer first… again

In the end, customers have a million options for accomplishing most things, and companies providing customers with efficient satisfying experiences will win. When we think of our knowledge bases, FAQs, forums, and other “help islands,” we often selfishly think in terms of what we must do. We must set it up. We must brand it. We must write good content.

All true.

But to customers, what matters is the experience they have while there. Content is part of their experience—but only part of it. Even the best content can’t remedy an aggravating experience. But a great experience can help good content become immensely more valuable.