Building a Knowledge Base: Getting Started And Best Practices
Help your customers help themselves.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about customer support?
Support agents answering tickets? On-site chat widgets where you can talk to a real person? Phone support?
Personalized support is super important for any company striving for customer support greatness, but it shouldn’t be all there is to it.
Sometimes, the best solution is the one that helps your customers help themselves by giving them access to immediate knowledge without requiring personal assistance.
Today, we’re going to talk about knowledge bases—why you should have one, what makes one great (or not so great) and how to get started with building your own.
Why Should You Have a Knowledge Base?
What the heck is a knowledge base, anyway? Atlassian’s got it figured out:
A knowledge base is a self-serve online library of everything there is to know about your product or service. It puts that library in one easily accessible place. So it’s at everyone’s fingertips, all the time.
An effective knowledge base allows you to stay two steps ahead of your customers' issues. As Josh Brown said in his article about proactive customer service:
Smart, modern companies stay ahead of customer issues by providing proactive - not reactive - customer care that boosts brand loyalty.
Why is proactiveness so important?
As a customer, not being able to figure something out is one of the most frustrating situations they can be in.
Some people immediately submit a ticket to/call/email support when they encounter an issue, but most prefer to fix their own problems without getting others involved—according to Forrester, 67% of consumers report that they regularly use self-service support online.
Furthermore, in a survey by Coleman Parkes of nearly 3,000 online consumers, an overwhelming 91% said they would use a single, online knowledge base if it were available and tailored to their needs.
Besides thinking of the the self-solvers, you should always be thinking about how you can remove unnecessary roadblocks preventing your customers from finding their solutions.
In a survey of more than 75,000 consumers, the most important factor in a customer’s loyalty is reducing the effort needed to get their problem solved.
Imagine this: a customer discovers your business and has some basic questions, but you don’t have a knowledge base.
How many steps does the customer have to take to contact you and get answers to their questions? Something that could have taken 10 seconds has now turned into 10 minutes of their time and yours. Why would you not make that process easier for both of you?
Your customers will be empowered to find their own solutions, feel accomplished, and appreciate your effort to make things as easy as possible.
A good knowledge base will also give a boost to your customer support agents by:
Helping them be more productive: customer service agents already spend more time than anyone on various interactions. Shifting basic support queries over to the knowledge base frees up your support staff for the really important issues.
Making them happier: studies have shown that customer service employees are happier when they’re able to spend more time on meaningful interactions with customers (for example, preempting a problem rather than resolving it after it has already negatively affected the customer.)
Something to keep in mind is that a knowledge base isn’t there to replace the human beings you have in your support team—it’s to assist them, while allowing your customers the luxury of getting answers to their questions with no hassle involved.
You’ll save time and money on high-volume, simple questions, and make your customers and support team feel happier and more productive. What’s not to love?
Getting Started With Your Knowledge Base
Your knowledge base has to do more than just exist. It has to be good. The first thing to get used to is that a knowledge base is, at its core, documentation. According to the Oxford dictionary:
Documentation is the media—text, images, and video—that explain a product or service, the material that provides official information.
Keep that in mind when thinking about your knowledge base. You’re not writing a blog post, or a novel. You’re writing documentation.
Like any other documentation, your knowledge base should:
- Be easily accessible
- Be organized and easy to navigate
- Solve common problems
- Save a customer time
- Be up to date
Once your mindset and understanding of knowledge bases is where it should be, it’s time to get started.
Here’s the basic process of building a knowledge base:
- Decide on the core elements of your knowledge base
- Decide which topics to include (or at least start with)
- Agree on the structure of the content
- Add visuals
- Analyze and improve
Seems like a big bite? We’ve got you. Let’s go through all these steps in depth and talk about some best practices to keep in mind.
Deciding On The Core Elements Of Your Knowledge Base
The decision making process here sort of depends on the platform you’ll be using for your knowledge base—if you’re using a convenient pre-designed knowledge base foundation (like Groove’s solution), it’ll most likely have all the crucial elements already included.
If you’re building your own, you have to figure it out for yourself. Either way, let’s go over the stuff you should definitely have.
When most people think of what their knowledge base should include, the first and sometimes only thing that comes to mind is the help articles, or topics. This stuff right here:
Makes sense. However, besides the articles, there are a few things that your knowledge base ideally should have, including (but not limited to):
A FAQ section—if a customer has a basic question about your product or service, the first place they generally look for is the FAQ section. Save them the search and have one available.
A plan B—no matter how amazing your knowledge base is, sometimes it doesn’t cut it. For these cases, make sure you’ve got a “contact support” option available on the actual article/page, so your customer doesn’t have to go looking for it once they’ve realized they need personalized support.
A search bar—you’ll see this on most knowledge bases, usually before the list of knowledge base articles. Some people might go to your knowledge base to just look around and learn more about the product or service, but some people are looking for a very specific thing. Again—make it easy for them to find it.
Other than these basic necessities, your knowledge base is your playground and the things it might include depend entirely on how you want it.
Want there to be a separate section for video tutorials? Do it.
Want to have a “top articles” section based on which ones are read most? Go for it.
What’s important is that you’ve got the structure and components of your knowledge base section figured out before you start writing content for it.
Deciding On The Topics For Your Knowledge Base
Deciding on which help topics to start with can seem like overwhelming task. What should you write about? How do you judge the importance of a topic? How do you know what your customers need help with?
As with any other overwhelming task, start out small. The two things you can start putting together without doing any in-depth customer or behaviour research are:
- Basics—every single basic question a complete stranger would have about your company or service.
- Getting started—the basic onboarding and setup process a customer goes through when starting to use your service/product, broken down into steps.
From there, you can start going more in-depth into the topics you need to cover with separate sections of your knowledge base. This depends on your product or service and which elements it includes. For example, your next sections can be:
- Users and roles
Once you’ve covered the onboarding and basic features, you should look into your previous customer support tickets/requests/questions and see what people have had most issues with (in Groove, you can look at which canned responses you’ve used most, for example). This will be your FAQ section.
No matter how many articles you end up having, make sure you categorize them into sections—nobody likes seeing a huge wall of article headings.
When crafting the titles of your topics, remember that people tend to search using very basic terms.
You should either go for action words like:
- “How to...”
Or use exact phrases of the actions they’ll take, such as “Uploading Your First Video,” “Installing Your Plugin,” etc.
Coming up with the sections you’ll have in your knowledge base, which articles these sections consist of, and the titles of these articles gives you the foundation which you will now start building on.
Agreeing On The Structure Of Your Knowledge Base Articles
We’ve talked about the importance of structure and language in our customer support style guide, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to knowledge bases specifically.
The first thing to think about extra hard is the structure of your help content.
To make this extra easy to follow, create a simple template to use for every following article.
For example, agree that every one of your articles should contain these things:
- Problem or topic—describe the task on hand or the issue the customer is having.
- Step by step process—describe the process of completing the task or solving the issue in detailed, but simple steps.
- Result—what should happen after the steps have been completed by the customer?
- Related articles/questions/topics.
Another thing to keep in mind when building the most important part of the article or topic—the process or explanation—is the customer’s workflow. Most of your knowledge base articles probably include a process that the user needs to follow. Make it as smooth as possible.
- Make the most important information first on the list. If there’s something the user absolutely needs to know before they get into the process of taking action, make it the first thing they see, before any actionable steps.
- Chronological order. Make sure the order of steps in the support process makes sense and doesn’t interfere chronologically with any other steps.
- If there’s no chronological order or dependencies between tasks, make the easiest ones the first ones. Completing a simple task provides the user with sense of accomplishment and makes them more confident when they get to the harder steps.
- Avoid distractions. Structure the instructions in a way that keeps them focused on the tasks on hand and won’t interrupt their workflow.
Having a simple formula and a few guidelines to follow on every topic page helps speed up the process and also ensures that if there are different people writing the content, it’ll be consistent throughout the knowledge base.
The ultimate goal is to keep your communication crystal clear throughout your knowledge base.
Writing The Articles
It’s time to get crackin’.
When writing the actual text for your articles, mind your language first and foremost—if you want to make your knowledge base as effective as possible, it’s safer to not make any assumptions besides the one that the reader is a beginning user of your product.
Don’t use any advanced terminologies or industry-related jargon even if it makes sense to you. This might be the first time ever the reader has seen any of this information. Make it simple.
When it comes to actually formatting your text, simplicity is key. Focus on making your communication as scannable as possible.
- The less text, the better—make it short. Customer support isn’t the place to practice your novel writing skills.
- Using paragraphs—nobody has the time or attention span to pick out important information from a wall of text.
- Bullet points and lists—you’ll make everyone’s life easier by structuring information in a way that’s easy to read and follow.
- Bold and italics—use them to give more dimension to your text. Do not underline words unless they contain a link.
- Adding links—it’s generally nice to point them out, especially in instructional pieces. Instead of saying “Open the GIF of an adorable puppy”, say “To open the GIF of an adorable puppy, click here”.
Basically—keep things as short and well structured as possible, and use correct spelling and grammar to come off as the well-rounded, intelligent person that you are.
Visual materials are a powerful way to enrich your support content and keep users engaged.
The most obvious type of visuals to use in your knowledge base are screenshots of your product or service process to show how things work, but you can also play around with instructional videos, GIFs, or whatever else you feel would add a little something something your content.
However, with the great power of visuals comes great responsibility. Visuals are a great way to enrich content, but they shouldn’t replace it. For example, video tutorials are a great thing to have, but some people hate them. Give your customers options.
A control question to use is “if I took away this image/video/screenshot, would the message/instructions still be clear?”
If you remove the image from the last guideline, the message is still clear.
This is important for mostly two reasons:
- Making sure people with visual impairments can still follow the steps
- In case your visual content fails
It might seem like a pointless thing to concentrate on, but you’ll be spending less time on dealing with people who can’t access an image/video/whatnot and need to come to you for help because there was no other way to extract information.
Publishing Your Knowledge Base
Got everything prepared? Cool. Time to get it out there.
If you’re already a Groove user, we have a customizable, collaboration-savvy Knowledge Base feature waiting for you.
However you publish it, make sure your knowledge base is easy to find on your site—the whole point of having information available to users disappears if your customers can’t easily find it.
Feel free to link to your knowledge base from other forms of support, too. For example, Zapier links to their knowledge base in their very first welcome email:
Don’t be afraid to rub the fact that you have a knowledge base into people’s faces. How else are your customers going to find it? The more places you feature your knowledge base link, the better.
Analyzing And Improving
As with anything else in business, the success of your knowledge base (or lack of success) should be constantly measured to see where you should improve.
When looking at how your knowledge base is performing, focus on impact. Examples of what to track include:
- Increase in customer satisfaction levels
- Decreased volume of tickets on topics that are covered in your knowledge base
Also, try to examine how your customers are using your company’s knowledge base. What parts of your company’s knowledge base are customers engaging with most? What are they searching for?
Keep your eye on these questions to identify any areas where you can improve in, including which topics to add to your knowledge base.
And finally—a good knowledge base is never done. Like with any other documentation, it’s completely useless if it’s not up to date. Don’t be that company. You should have at least yearly audits of the base to make sure everything is accurate, however, updating it weekly is one of our suggested good customer support habits.
Keeping your knowledge base updated is critical—your customers need to be able to trust that it’s not outdated information. As soon as you let it slip, you’ll create more hassle for people because they’ll try to do it themselves and then still have to contact you. Not cool.
Make sure that any new features, updates or other changes come through in your knowledge base articles, and delete any old irrelevant articles about features that don’t exist anymore.
For additions, keep an eye on your incoming support tickets, requests and questions—if there’s anything that pops up too often for your liking, there’s a good chance it’s a useful topic to add to the knowledge base instead of dealing with it manually every time.
Build a knowledge base and a process around it that continues to grow as your company does.
Save Time, Money And Resources With Your Knowledge Base
If you do it well, your knowledge base will save you tons of time, and make both your customers as well as your support agents happier. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
Get your support team together and start simple. Figure out the basics—how you want your knowledge base to look, which topics you want to start with, and then get writing.
You’ll have a functioning and effective knowledge base in no time, and you can build and improve on it anytime.
What are your best practices for knowledge bases? Let us know in the comments!