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Knowledge base best practices

Knowledge base best practices for self-serve support

Main illustration: Kyle Benson

These days, the self-service aspect of knowledge bases makes them a crucial time-saver for users and businesses alike.

Not only does a knowledge base – or, as we call it here at Intercom, a help center – help your customers save time, it’s a key tool your support team needs if they’re dealing with an influx of conversation volume. When managed properly, your knowledge base can be part of a larger toolset aimed at developing customer success and helping your users achieve their goals.

Your knowledge base has the potential to proactively solve your customer’s problems, get them a solution faster, and ultimately reduce the risk of churn. As support queues are high, retention is top of mind for many, and many companies are adopting new practices daily, we want to share some of the best practices we use here at Intercom to run our help center.

5 best practices for creating an effective knowledge base

So how do you create a great knowledge base that develops customer success? By following a few knowledge base best practices for your content and site experience, you’ll make a big impact on how your customers find and use information in their time of need.

“The best knowledge bases don’t just offer great content, they actively help users find answers”

The best knowledge bases don’t just offer great content, they actively help users find answers. If you can equip your users to find the answer before they ever reach out to your support team, you can leave your support team more time to spend with the customers who really need them.

1. Start with accurate and up-to-date articles

Customers prefer using an online help center to reaching out to support directly, but finding incorrect, out-of-date, or even misleading information can sour the experience.

Update and publish help articles as soon as you launch new features, or as soon as something big changes in your organization. It’s immediately after a feature release or other big announcement that your customers will be most curious and therefore have the most questions. Ultimately, publishing timely how-to articles and best practice guides will greatly improve your feature adoption rates.

supporting a product release with help docs

To produce and maintain articles that meet your customers’ needs, work closely with your product management (PM), product marketing (PMM) and customer support (CS) teams.

To produce and maintain articles that meet your customers’ needs, work closely with your product management (PM), product marketing (PMM) and customer support (CS) teams.

Our Product Education team strives to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of our products. But true encyclopedic knowledge is never static. So we stay close to the source of knowledge at all times: our product managers. As their teams plan, build, and release in six-week cycles, we sync with them three to five times each cycle to understand the upcoming changes and prepare for these releases with new help center articles.

Understanding why something is being built is especially important, as it’ll allow you to explain why customers need a certain feature. As the cycle progresses, we’ll try out new features, document its functionality, and develop best practices for it. Finally, when we’re closer to a release, we’ll write and share a draft of the knowledge base article so they can review its accuracy and help us fine-tune the smaller details.

2. Make your help articles easy to follow

Large blocks of text will likely make your users’ eyes glaze over. Help them easily find the info they need in your articles by using bullet points and lists, images (including GIFs and emoji), and videos to explain tricky concepts and break up space.

Consider breaking your help center articles into smaller, “bite-sized” chunks of information. Not every detail about a certain aspect of your product or service needs to live on the same page: you can create a “how to set up” article, “how to customize,” “how to integrate,” and so on.

Along with being easier for existing customers to read and digest, this approach can help you rank highly in searches for specific phrases, helping you attract new customers. For example, ProfitWell’s knowledge base article on understanding delinquent churn ranks highly in Google searches for phrases like “delinquent customer churn,” which leads prospects to their product.

By breaking down their knowledge base into multiple smaller articles, ProfitWell helps current and potential customers more easily find the exact information they need.

By breaking down their knowledge base into multiple smaller articles, ProfitWell helps current and potential customers more easily find the exact information they need.

3. Define any new or potentially confusing terms

Before you publish a new knowledge base article, look it over for any confusing terms, industry-specific terms, and acronyms. Explain the meaning of special terms or spell out acronyms the first time you use them, even if you think your audience already knows what they mean. You could also dedicate some space at the start of the article to defining common terms, or link to a glossary – like our own Intercom Glossary – where you’ve defined these phrases in detail.

“Take a look at conversations you’ve had with your customers in the past to see what they had questions about”

When you know something inside and out, identifying what others may find confusing can be a challenge. Take a look at conversations you’ve had with your customers in the past to see what they had questions about. Additionally, if you had beta testers for your product, they may have provided direct feedback on in-app language they found confusing, so don’t forget to look over their thoughts, too.

4. Make navigating your knowledge base easy

You may have a hundred useful articles, but if customers can’t find what they need, they’re likely to get frustrated.

Internal search, breadcrumb navigation, links to related articles, and consistent on-page navigation options (like menus or back and forward links) are all ways that you can improve your help center’s navigation.

Additionally, if you have a lot of articles, breaking down your content into logical groupings – like areas of your product, or the different jobs people will be doing with it – can help you further organize it in a sensible way in menus. Many support teams use a card sorting exercise to guide this process.

Article collections in Intercom's Help Center

Article collections in Intercom’s Help Center

5. Distribute your articles everywhere

One final thing to think about: one of the biggest mistakes a company can make is creating incredibly useful knowledge base content and linking to it from a single spot in their website header or footer. While you definitely want your help center to live in its own special location, you don’t want the content to be so siloed that your team forgets the articles exist and customers never use them.

Look for opportunities to surface your knowledge base articles at relevant times and locations. These include in-app tooltips or UI prompts, links from relevant landing pages or blog posts, drip email campaigns to new or upgrading users, and even conversations with your support team.

It’s even easier to surface the information inside your knowledge base if you’re using Intercom. You can:

With Intercom’s Messenger and Articles working together, your customers can effortlessly find the info they need, no matter where they are in your product.

Tips for updating your help center when everything is in flux

Companies and businesses alike are reacting to the current climate with weekly, daily, and sometimes even hourly changes.

Customers need an easy way to discover and learn about the changes you’re making. But what’s the best way to make those changes easily accessible for your customers?

1. Get the relevant content front and center

Be sure to position any content that speaks to the current time front and center, so that it’s easy for your users to find.

Collections are groups of help center articles organized by the different topics you know your customers will want to read about, like getting started, reporting, etc. If you have a group of articles that are particularly relevant to the current times, consider temporarily moving them to their own collection, and position it at the top of the home page.

Knowledge base best practice: add timely articles that help your customers during difficult periods.

When everything is in flux, proactively updating your help center can communicate those changes to customers so that they don’t have to reach out to your support team. This is a help center article we wrote to help our customers use Intercom in their COVID-19 response.

If you’re using Intercom’s Articles to power your help center, you can easily create new article collections or reorder existing ones to position timely content at the top.

Pro tip: If you don’t want to move articles out of their normal collection, you can update them all to include a specific keyword, and share a search for that keyword like this `https://www.intercom.com/help/?q=covid-19`. This can function as a secondary collection.

For example, you could include a new line at the bottom of any relevant article that says, “This article is part of a collection to help with your COVID-19 response.”

How to link articles in your knowledge base as part of a secondary collection.

Now, when a user clicks the link, they’ll see any article that has the keyword “COVID-19” in it.

2. Take a targeted approach with any new content

You may have customers who are affected in very different ways by the current situation, but you can use audience targeting or direct messaging to ensure that the right people get the right advice.

For example, you may have customers who need tips for transitioning their businesses online right now, but others who have operated a successful online business for years. In order to streamline the help center experience for the former customers, you could use Intercom’s audience targeting feature to restrict them from seeing an article aimed towards the latter group that speaks to expanding and optimizing a well-established online store.

In Intercom, you can change the settings for any help center article, and add rules to define a specific audience.

Using audience targeting for knowledge base articles

The business impact of a great knowledge base

Customers need online knowledge bases to find answers to questions, to learn more about your product, or to make the process of teaching someone else (like a teammate) a little easier. The benefit of these knowledge repositories isn’t just on the customer side, though.

1. Self-help methods reduce costs

A well-built knowledge base allows you to keep your support team lean, even as you scale. Research shows that automated support interactions – like help centers and chatbots – can cost pennies whereas support interactions that require input from a human – like phone or email support – can cost more than $13 per interaction.

“Your support team can spend more of their time helping customers with complex issues”

This data shouldn’t deter you from providing human support, which has plenty of benefits. What it really highlights is just how much money you can save by pairing human support with a self-service knowledge base as well. You won’t have to hire additional team members to answer basic questions, and your support team can spend more of their time helping customers with complex issues, sharing feedback with product teams, or creating true customer delight.

2. Knowledge bases reduce churn

Difficulty understanding how to use and find success with a product is a top reason for churn. You should do everything in your power to address this potential for churn, and that includes creating and updating a knowledge base.

The guidance found in your help center unblocks confused or struggling users, making them less likely to abandon your product for a different solution. Your articles also turn novice users into knowledgeable pros who feel confident continuing to use your product, even if they face new questions or challenges. By giving customers the information they need to become expert users of your product, a knowledge base becomes a critical retention tool.

Your knowledge base should allow customers to easily seek help from a human

You might be wondering, why offer other support options if customers can self-serve through a knowledge base?

It might seem counter-intuitive, but our user testing actually shows if customers know they can get help when they need it – via phone, email, chat, and so on – they’re more willing to look for an answer on their own first. So the best way to think about a knowledge base is as one part of your self-service support ecosystem.

“The best way to think about a knowledge base is as one part of your self-serve support ecosystem”

This is especially true in times like these. While right now many customers may be looking for a quick answer, others may be seriously upset. Senior Manager, Customer Support Ruth O’Brien recently spoke about this. She told us,

“Be mindful of making decisions around where having a human speak to someone is important versus say getting them a quick resolution. In difficult times like these you’ll often have a very emotional person on the other end of the Messenger and helping them requires a personal, human touch from your team.”

Healthcare company accuRx does this well, allowing their knowledge base visitors to immediately start a conversation if they can’t find what they need or if they have a complex question that needs a human touch.

By using Intercom, accuRx puts multiple support options – like their knowledge base articles and live chat – right within reach.

Making other support options easily accessible from your knowledge base ultimately reassures your customers that you have their best interests at heart.

How to manage your knowledge base efficiently

If your product, or even the global landscape, is constantly changing, it might seem near impossible to keep your help articles up to date. But you don’t need to staff a large team to upkeep your knowledge base. Try implementing these best practices to help you quickly identify changes needed and efficiently make updates.

1. Create templates for common topics

Your support team members shouldn’t have to build every new article from scratch. With multiple people working on your team – especially as your company grows – you might start spotting inconsistencies between your documentation that have a real impact on the customer experience.

Building a template for your knowledge base documentation – even if it’s just a simple sketch or document – will help your team understand what a successful article should look like. A sample template might look something like this:

Sample help article template

2. Create a feedback loop with your support team

Even with a team of writers, broken articles will nearly always be noticed first by the people reading them – your customers. They’ll notice if an article is out of date, if it doesn’t explain a process clearly enough, or if there’s a knowledge gap in your help center.

“Keeping your ears close to your customers is one of the most impactful ways you can keep your help center fresh”

How do you get feedback from thousands of eyes instead of dozens? By building a feedback loop with your support team. Keeping your ears close to your customers is one of the most impactful ways you can keep your help center fresh. If you create a feedback loop with your customer support team and implement your customers’ suggestions, your help center will become a much more valuable resource in a matter of weeks.

If a customer finds something out of date on Intercom’s Help Center, our support reps can easily contact our team through the Messenger. Reps are asked to send a link to the article, a screenshot of the specific issue, a brief description of the problem, and a solution. Our education team reviews their request, gathers any missing information, and makes the update.

A feedback loop creates a better help center.

A feedback loop allows our team to quickly surface – and resolve – issues with our knowledge-base docs.

Many of the updates we make to our articles are surfaced by our Customer Support team. Our close relationship with them is crucial to keeping our Help Center as accurate as it can be. Instead of relying solely on our own audits, we can instead utilize our customers’ valuable feedback through this channel and gather quality feedback at scale.

3. Prompt your customers for feedback

Of course, the key to a successful feedback loop is input from your customers. If customers don’t know how to give your support team feedback on your help center, or if that feedback option is too hard to use, they won’t be able to point out anything that’s broken or unhelpful.

For example, one of our customers, Productboard, allows their customers to rate each article in their knowledge base. If a customer adds a negative rating to an article, a bot will immediately send a message letting the customer know that they can ask a human for help.

If a customer doesn’t get the information they need from the Productboard knowledge base, the Intercom task bot will immediately connect that customer with the support team.

If a customer doesn’t get the information they need from the Productboard knowledge base, the Intercom task bot will immediately connect that customer with the support team.

When you ask, you might find that you only need to make small improvements to truly help your customers succeed. So don’t be afraid: getting this honest feedback will tell you what needs to be changed, where, and how you can help more people long term, and it will ultimately take a bigger load off of your support team.

4. Prioritize your updates

Managing help articles is a process of constant prioritization. Depending on how often your product teams ship new features, you might have to be comfortable with a certain level of out-of-date material while you focus on the most important changes.

“A greater level of prioritization will help you keep your knowledge base articles helpful”

Not all inaccuracies in your knowledge base are created equal. If you’ve changed the color or style of a button, but it’s still in the same place and does the same thing, there’s probably not an urgent need to update the screenshots in your docs. But if the button has changed locations, or there are now three buttons instead of one, make it a priority to update those images.

If you’re having trouble deciding what to update, and when, ask yourself: Is this article fundamentally broken, and is it confusing customers? Or is the inaccuracy cosmetic, and one that doesn’t harm customers’ understanding of the product? If you’re in a company with a high volume of product changes, a greater level of prioritization will help you keep your knowledge base articles helpful.

A strong knowledge base is a key piece of the customer support puzzle

An easily accessible, searchable, and readable knowledge base tells your users that you care about their success. To make it as impactful as possible, consider how well it fits into your full support offering. Ideally, your prospects, trial users, and paying customers should all be able to flow from one support channel to another with zero difficulty finding the information they need.

If your customers can use your knowledge base to proactively seek out answers, it will free up your support team to answer those bigger questions that require a human touch.

As long as your knowledge base makes it just as easy for customers to jump in and find information as it is to reach out to your team for more help – you’ll set your customers up for success.