Knowledge base best practices

Knowledge base best practices for self-serve support

Main illustration: Kyle Benson

Your customers want better, faster support and your support team needs an easy way to provide this. A modern knowledge base can help time-strapped support teams manage high conversation volumes by empowering their customers to self-serve.

A well-designed knowledge base helps customers to quickly resolve their own queries and reduces the influx of conversations reaching your support team. This gets your team off the treadmill of repetitive queries and back to providing human support that moves the dial for your business.

When managed properly, your knowledge base can be part of a larger toolset aimed at nurturing customer success and helping your customers achieve their goals. What’s more, modern knowledge bases, like Intercom’s Help Center, integrate easily with other self-serve tools like the Messenger and Custom Bots, so you can deliver help content in context when customers need it most – while they’re using your product or browsing your website.

Below, we share some of the best practices we use here at Intercom to run and optimize our knowledge base.

What is a knowledge base?

A knowledge base, or help center, is a collection of articles that contain helpful answers, tips, and other important information related to your product or service that customers can easily search from one centralized location. It’s the source of truth for your customers when learning how to navigate your product or service and a great way to empower them to resolve their own issues through self-serve support.

“With modern conversational support tools, you can deliver help content in context to the right customers, at the right time”

By creating articles for your most common queries, you can simultaneously help your customers get the answers they’re looking for while protecting your support team’s precious time and resources. With modern conversational support tools, you can take your content one step further and deliver help in context to the right customers, at the right time – while they’re using your product or browsing your website.

For example, with Intercom, you can send knowledge base articles via targeted messages and Product Tours to specific groups of customers to help them overcome common hurdles, like customizing your app or installing it on mobile. And if a customer writes into the Messenger with a frequent question, you can set up an automated bot that links to a relevant help article to help resolve their query.

5 best practices for creating an effective knowledge base

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

By equipping your users to find the answer they need before they ever reach out to a support rep, you leave your support team with more time to spend with the customers who really need a helping hand.

1. Create up-to-date articles from frequently asked questions

Customers prefer using an online help center to reaching out to support reps 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 product. It’s immediately after a feature release or other big announcement that your customers will be the most curious and therefore have the most questions. Ultimately, publishing timely how-to articles and best practice guides will greatly improve your feature adoption rate and encourage customers to resolve their own queries before reaching out to a support rep.

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

At Intercom, our Product Education team produces and maintains our help articles to ensure that they continue to meet our customers’ needs as our product evolves. In order to do that, they strive to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of our products. But true encyclopedic knowledge is never static. So they stay close to the source of truth at all times: our Product Managers.

As our product teams plan, build, and release in six-week cycles, our Product Education team meets with them once per cycle to ensure they understand any upcoming changes and prepare for these releases with new articles for our knowledge base. Our Product Managers use a “What We Built” document to inform the company about new features and help teammates understand the context behind the latest changes and releases. Our Product Education team can then use this document to deeply understand new features and updates and how they can help customers.

“By putting themselves in our customers’ shoes, they gain a deeper understanding of our customers’ needs and produce stronger support materials”

Understanding why something is being built is especially important, as it will allow you to explain why your customers need a certain feature. As the cycle progresses, our Product Education team tries out new features, documents their functionalities, and develops best practices for them. By putting themselves in our customers’ shoes, they gain a deeper understanding of our customers’ needs and produce stronger support materials. Finally, when we’re closer to a release, our Product Education team will write and share a draft of the knowledge base article with the relevant Product Manager so they can review its accuracy and help fine-tune the smaller details.

2. Make your help articles easy to follow

Large blocks of text will likely make your customers’ eyes glaze over. Help them easily find the information they need in your articles by using tables, bullet points, 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 articles explaining how to set up, 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, potentially attracting new customers.

3. Define any new terms for your knowledge base

Before you publish a new knowledge base article, look it over for any confusing terms, industry-specific jargon, 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 define 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 previous conversations you’ve had with your customers to identify the most common topics and terms that required support. Additionally, if you had beta testers for your product, they may have provided direct feedback on terminology or language they found confusing, so don’t forget to look over their thoughts and create help center articles for any relevant queries, 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, which can add to your support conversation volume and negatively impact your retention rate over time.

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 your content down 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 teams use a card sorting exercise to let customers guide this process.

Intercom's knowledge base article collections

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.

With Intercom’s Messenger and Articles working together, your customers can effortlessly find the information they need, no matter where they are in your product or website. Look for opportunities to proactively surface your knowledge base articles at relevant times and in the right context.

For example, you can:

  • Trigger targeted messages that link to specific articles exactly when customers are likely to need help – for example, if they’re viewing a feature in your product for the first time, or looking at a particularly complex page on your site for more than a minute.
  • Allow customers to search articles directly from the Business Messenger without having to even start a conversation.
  • Quickly share articles in customer conversations, directly answering questions and resolving common issues.
  • Encourage new customers to check out a relevant getting started article while they’re taking a Product Tour to help proactively set them up for success from day one and navigate known pain points.

Tips for updating your help center when everything is in flux

Since the onset of the pandemic, companies and businesses alike have been reacting to weekly, daily, and sometimes even hourly changes in the support landscape.

Customers need an easy way to discover and learn about the changes you’re making, whether they’re in response to a global crisis or a new feature release. 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” or “reporting”. If you have a group of articles that are particularly relevant to a specific event, like the COVID-19 pandemic, consider temporarily moving them to their own collection, and positioning it at the top of the home page.

Knowledge base best practices: 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. Our Messenger allows you to pin articles to the homescreen, so you can highlight the most relevant or recently published articles to existing and potential customers.

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 have been affected in very different ways by the pandemic, but you can use audience targeting to ensure that the right people get the right advice at the right time. In Intercom, you can change the settings for any help center article, and add rules to define a specific audience.

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

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 a large team to manage your knowledge base. Try implementing these best practices to help you quickly identify any necessary changes and update your self-serve support materials.

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 scales – you might start spotting inconsistencies in 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:

2. Collaborate with customer-facing teams

With modern support, getting ahead of customer issues and providing a great proactive customer experience is everyone’s responsibility. Your support team is in a unique position as they know your customers’ pain points, common queries, and needs better than anyone else.

Ensuring your support reps can quickly communicate with other customer-facing teams will help you to collect and share critical insights that drive growth, improve your product or service, or spark innovation. These feedback loops provide additional context on your customers’ issues so you can tailor your solutions to their preferences and needs.

A feedback loop for a better help center

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

At Intercom, many of the updates our Product Education team makes to our articles are surfaced by our Support team. Our close relationship with other customer-facing teams, like Support and Sales, is crucial to keeping our knowledge base and customer experience as accurate and relevant as it can be. Instead of our Product Education team relying solely on their own audits, they can utilize 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.

One of our customers, Productboard, has a straightforward process for creating a feedback loop. Their customers can rate each article they read 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.

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 and how you can help more people in the long term, ultimately taking 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.

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 no 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 knowledge base article fundamentally inaccurate, and is it confusing customers? Or is the inaccuracy cosmetic, and one that doesn’t harm a customer’s 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.

Your knowledge base should allow customers to easily seek human support

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 shows if customers know they can get help from an actual support rep when they need it – via email, live 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 valuable part of your conversational support ecosystem.

“The funnel reduces conversation volume for support agents so they have the time to provide valuable human support for high-value and complex queries”

At Intercom, we use the Conversational Support Funnel which combines proactive, self-serve, and human support to get ahead of known problems before they arise, automatically resolve repetitive queries, and route more complex issues to the right team members. Conversational support allows you to quickly resolve customer queries through digital-first, messaging-based interactions. As you can communicate in real time or asynchronously, customers can stop and restart the conversation when it works best for them.

The funnel reduces conversation volume for support agents so they have the time to provide valuable human support for high-value and complex queries, like billing queries and emotionally-charged complaints.

This is especially important in times like these. Many of your customers are still dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives and businesses. While some customers may be looking for a quick answer, others may be seriously upset or drained by their current circumstances. As Ruth O’Brien, Senior Manager, Customer Support at Intercom, explains:

“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 in the Messenger if they can’t find what they need, or if they have a complex question that would be best resolved through human support.

accuRx has the messenger right next to their help center so customers can get help from a human when needed.

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

A strong knowledge base is a key part of the Conversational Support Funnel

An easily accessible, searchable, and integrated knowledge base keeps customers happy while protecting your support team’s resources. To make it as impactful as possible, leverage the Conversational Support Funnel to ensure that customers can flow from one support channel to another with zero difficulty finding the information they need.

If your customers can use your knowledge base to self-serve, it will free up your support team to answer those bigger, more complex questions that require a human touch. As long as your knowledge base makes it 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 and keep them coming back for more.