The Ultimate Guide to Using a Knowledge Base for Self-Service Support

Illustration by Bronwyn Gruet
Illustration by Bronwyn Gruet

A well written and accessible knowledge base should be the cornerstone of any support team’s self-service strategy: 70% of customers prefer to use a company’s website to get answers on their own.

In this guide, we will explain what a knowledge base is and show you how to plan, create, and deliver effective knowledge base content that will truly create better customer experiences.

This is chapter one in our Ultimate Guide to Using a Knowledge Base for Self-Service Support. When you're ready, check out the other chapters:

What is a knowledge base?

A knowledge base is a published collection of documentation that includes answers to frequently asked questions, how-to guides, and troubleshooting instructions. It’s designed to make it easy for people to find solutions to their problems without having to ask for help.

A knowledge base can encompass many forms of content, including:

  • Frequently asked questions
  • Step-by-step process guides
  • Introductory articles
  • Video demonstrations
  • Glossaries and definition lists

Knowledge bases are the end product of collecting and organizing all of that information into a useful form, through a process called knowledge management.

Typically, you would apply knowledge management processes to collect information, then use knowledge base software to create, manage, and deliver that information — as a knowledge base — to your readers.

What types of data are provided in a knowledge base?

Some types of knowledge bases are intended purely for machines to learn from. Other types are built for people to use and learn from.

Knowledge bases can be aimed at either external audiences or internal audiences. For example, an appliance company may maintain maintenance instructions in a customer-facing knowledge base and also have an internal knowledge base for their employees to understand company policies.

In some cases, companies maintain knowledge bases that are relevant not just to their own customers but to anyone interested in their particular field. Consider, for example, Blue Nile’s diamond buying guide: an educational knowledge base filled with information useful for anyone in the market for a diamond.

Why is a knowledge base important?

Much of customer service is basic information transfer — the customer has a gap in their knowledge that is preventing them from achieving some goal, and the customer service team steps in to fill that gap. For example:

  • How do I change my password?
  • How much will this cost me to use?
  • Why won’t my file upload?

Questions like these can be addressed through multiple means, such as improving your product or service design, better labeling, and upfront training. But there will always be people who need more help.

7 key knowledge base benefits

A knowledge base is a cost-effective way to reduce the time and effort the customer has to spend in order to get an answer and move on with their current task, which creates a better customer experience in several ways:

  1. Many people prefer self-service. Research shows that a majority of people prefer to find their own answer first before they will reach out for help. A knowledge base is where they will look!
  2. A knowledge base reduces support volumes. When there is lower volume coming into the inbox, your team can focus its energy on higher impact, more fulfilling activities. A knowledge base also provides your support team with additional resources to share with your customers.
  3. Knowledge bases support different learning styles. A single knowledge base can present information as text, annotated images, video, audio, or any other media format. It can give customers the best chance of receiving the information they need in a way they can best absorb.
  4. A knowledge base operates 24/7. Even if you have customers on the other side of the world from your customer service team, a knowledge base can be there with them. Plus, your knowledge base will never ask for time off to go to Bonnaroo.
  5. Knowledge can be delivered contextually. Customers don’t need to start from page one and read through your whole knowledge base. With the right knowledge base software, you can deliver the right piece of information at just the right moment.
  6. A knowledge base can generate useful insights. If you select a knowledge base tool with reporting capabilities, those reports will show you what people are looking for and are finding, the terms they use to search, any gaps you have in your knowledge base, and more. You can use that information to improve your knowledge base content — and also your product or service.
  7. A knowledge base can help you acquire new customers. Knowledge base content also shows up in search results and helps boost SEO. So in addition to helping existing customers, great documentation can help you acquire new customers.

Finally, there are tons of insights into user behavior and interests that can be gleaned from knowledge base content. Reviewing which pages are most popular may suggest to your product or engineering teams where customers’ common confusions are, which could help you find ways to resolve those issues at the product level.

How to build a knowledge base

Humans have created many, many tools for information storage and access. You probably won’t choose stone tablets as your knowledge transfer tool of choice, but there are plenty of other options.

Some common points for collecting information into a knowledge base include:

  • Shared document systems: It may be a local file server with MS Word or PDF documents, a Dropbox shared folder, or Google Drive, but shared document storage is a common solution for making information accessible to many people. This method can sometimes create challenges with duplication, file format, and accessibility to other systems.
  • Wikis and Intranets: Making information easily editable and findable by many people is the key benefit of a wiki tool. Intranet tools (whether or not they are technical wikis) are often used for capturing internal knowledge and making it accessible to staff.
  • Dedicated knowledge base software: Knowledge base software is a specialized tool for creating, maintaining, and delivering information.

What is knowledge base software?

Knowledge base software is a tool that allows you to create, store, organize, manage, and share self-service content with an audience.

Though most knowledge base software functions similarly, they do come in a few different configurations. Knowledge base software may be designed for either an internal audience (e.g., employees at a company), external audience (e.g., customers), or both.

Internal knowledge base software generally requires login credentials to access information, and the content is private. External knowledge base software lets you create a knowledge base that is open to the public. Many knowledge base tools allow you to create both private and public content, but not all do.

Additionally, knowledge base software may be sold as a standalone tool or part of an all-in-one customer support platform.

For example, Help Scout offers Docs — which is knowledge base software — but it’s not sold on its own. It’s offered in conjunction with a number of other support tools, like a shared inbox and live chat, for complete omnichannel customer support.

How to create knowledge base content

A knowledge base is a long-term project. Building out that set of content is no small task, so is it worth spending the effort? Yes! An effective knowledge base can vastly improve your customer service.

And in good news, your knowledge base will start being useful long before you have completed all (or even most) of the possible content it will contain.

Follow these tips to create effective knowledge base content.

Understand what you need to cover

Anyone on your team who regularly talks to customers will be able to share the most commonly asked questions, and that’s a great place to begin. Once you document those items, move on to the next tier of common misunderstandings, challenges, and queries.

Consider using a tag or custom field in your help desk software that allows anyone answering a customer query to flag that query for documenting in your knowledge base so you’ll have a continual flow of genuine customer questions to address.

Collect existing information

You probably already have content you can add to your knowledge base. Look for FAQs, release documentation, and internal materials that contain information customers could also use. Your customer service tool likely contains plenty of well-worded, reusable explanations to draw from.

Copy all of that information into one place so you can see what you have, what you still need, and where you might have inconsistencies or duplication.

Organize your information

Clearly structuring and arranging all of that information is key to a successful knowledge base. Try to group together information according to how customers are likely to need it (as opposed to matching your internal structure or even your product’s navigation).

Create new content

Writing (or recording) knowledge base content takes significant effort, so it’s important to create content people will really find and use. Earlier in this process you have likely identified gaps in your current set of knowledge.

Perhaps your support team find themselves having to write longer answers because the information isn’t already covered in your knowledge base. Those answers can form a perfect base for new content.

When you have prioritized the list of questions you want to cover, you can begin to create new knowledge base content. If you aren’t the subject matter expert yourself, collect the answer from the best-informed team members, and use that to outline your document.

Then you can build on that outline, applying a consistent voice and tone, always keeping in mind the task, question, or mindset that your end reader is likely to have.

Maintain and improve your content

A knowledge base should not be a stone tablet, written once and fixed in place. Especially in the software world, information becomes outdated or incomplete constantly, so you will need to revisit it regularly.

Nominate a person or a team to own the knowledge base (or some portion of it), and be sure they have the time and capacity to work on it.

Over time, your team can extend your knowledge base, updating existing content and adding new content (or new formats for existing content), building an information resource that will save plenty of time for your customers and your team.

Get started on your new knowledge base

Planning, designing, creating, and maintaining a knowledge base can feel daunting. However, every article you write might represent hundreds or thousands of future customer questions answered without needing your help.

A great knowledge base can also be an incredible tool for training new staff and an excellent SEO resource that draws in new potential customers. Time spent well on building your knowledge base will pay off for years to come.

Next Chapter: Quick Start Guide to Creating a Knowledge Base

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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