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Make-or-break KM for call centre operations

Knowledge Management Review

21 June 2010

The adoption of KM offers organisations an opportunity to reinvent how they engage with customers 

In the modern day, Knowledge Management (KM) is critical to contact centres, but effective KM is so much more than just a tool or a project.

Contact centres have been the target of the public's frustration (or even downright hostility) for many years. It's not uncommon to hear them referred to as "battery farms for humans", or for customers to plead to "talk to somebody that knows what’s going on". Although difficult to take, such criticism comes as no surprise to those working in the industry.

In the past, contact centre agents were often guided by scripting technologies that led them through the dialogue they were expected to have with customers, even if that sequence and conversation didn’t really suit a customer’s reason for calling. The scripting approach also left agents feeling of little value to their organisation, because not being able to deviate from it meant they weren’t able to engage with the customer in any meaningful way.

In many cases, the old perceptions of call centres were probably well-founded. Today, however, the continued adoption and growth of KM principles within customer-service organisations has given the humble contact centre an opportunity to re-invent how it engages with customers.

Typically, contact centers that apply the tools, techniques and processes of KM wisely will become more efficient and effective as a result. KM gives agents knowledge at their fingertips, enabling them to engage with customers in a more meaningful way. Adding a new, typically IT-based, KM solution that delivers information in a format that's easily accessible can result in increased "point of contact resolution" levels and increased customer satisfaction. The number of headlines regarding poor contact centres has certainly decreased in recent years, which can only be good news for customers and agents alike.

KM is a way of working, not just a one-off project
A KM solution is only as good as the information it holds. Good information is accessible, accurate, relevant and up-to-date, not something that's created once and hidden away to moulder on a shelf. As the effectiveness of data and information declines, the quality of customer interaction also diminishes. This reduction in quality will immediately start to impact on the performance of a contact centre, as avoidable contacts and complaints increase.

This creates a challenge for organisations, because a successful KM strategy has to embed a new way of working throughout the organisation, not just within the contact centre itself. Organisations must be clear that it's the responsibility of everyone to maintain good information. The contact centre is usually the "front door" to an organisation, handling customer-facing transactions on behalf of the departments which sit behind it - the back office. While contacts are initially handled by the contact centre, it's important that the back-office department retains responsibility for these contacts.

To achieve this level of engagement, managers need to consider to the organisation’s thinking and actions. This means educating their organisation about information. It might seem simple, but every organisation should ask their people some simple questions:

  • What are the differences between data, information and knowledge?

  • What is an information lifecycle?

  • What is information governance?

A small amount of information education could empower the workforce and show the call cente agent their position and responsibilities in the information lifecycle. If both the contact centre agents and the back office staff are responsible for maintaining good information, all will benefit from this when doing their work.

Change must start at the top
Effective KM in a contact centretherefore involves changing methods, behaviours and thinking. To achieve this, KM must be approached as a change that starts at the top and flows through the organization, with clear responsibilities throughout.

KM has to be seen as a corporate approach, not a departmental initiative within the customer service function. Just like human resources, information technology and procurement strategies, a KM strategy will establish the corporate position and create a framework of language and behavior within which all departments must operate. Good KM must touch people and culture, information and data, technology, business processes and leadership. A good start for any organisation looking at their KM system is a simple analysis of where the organisation currently sits. This can quickly guide the next steps and a complete KM strategy will contain a program of work that will aim to improve or fill gaps in these areas.

Choosing the right technology, and using it wisely
While an IT system is a small cog in the much larger corporate KM engine, KM should be supported by the appropriate technology. This technology, like any other, changes at a rapid rate. The current "big thing" is collaborative technologies as a communication channel. The question for contact centers, however, is whether this could be useful for agents to share thoughts and observations about customers.

Clearly, the tools could be integrated and used as a way for customer service agents to swap insights about individual customers and their buying habits. However, this should be approached with caution, not from a technology perspective, because that's relatively easy, but from a company PR perspective. In the UK, for example, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) legislation1 provides a "right to know" legal process. While FOIA relates mainly to public bodies, any private sector organisation with public sector contracts may also be affected. Similarly, the Data Protection Act 19982 gives individuals the right to access their personal data by means of a "subject access request". Similar mandates operate in other jurisdictions worldwide.

As most contact centres already use Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, the agents are able to record observations on a customer record. Controls should exist to ensure that this capability is not misused by agents. As we become more comfortable using collaboration tools to share private life thoughts and comments in an unmonitored way, we need a greater level of discipline to separate how we use the same tools in our professional lives. So, unless an organisation can deploy collaboration tools in the customer arena with robust controls around the content being created, they should steer away from it. If they don’t, they run the risk of negative publicity as a result of damaging information being released to customers.

Get KM right, and the rewards are high for contact centres
Compared to other areas of a business, contact centers stand to gain more than most from the advances in KM technology, but for it to be really successful, KM must be seen as a co-ordinated program that changes behaviors and the way everyone in the organisation thinks about information.

1. Freedom of Information Act guidelines
2. Access to personal data

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