Ruby on Rails Continues to Lead the Way

As Ruby on Rails (RoR) nears its ten year anniversary, the framework is looking more popular and grown up than ever. The list of achievements the framework has amassed is impressive: you don’t need to look further than the growing list of successful web applications built on RoR. RoR is where the web is now and where it’s heading.

What is Ruby on Rails?

RoR is an open-source web application framework for the ruby language. RoR covers both front and back end development needs: from providing a template system for handling page sections and layouts, to handing database communications, to processing Ajax updates, and more. RoR is a full-package deal for web development.

Applications developed on RoR are in not special; the same functionality can be achieved using well established languages and platforms built on Python, PHP, .NET, JAVA, etc. The reason RoR continues to lead the way is because it offers one of the most productive and easy ways for building web application.

Development Speed and Costs

One of RoR’s guiding principles is “don’t repeat yourself”. This is not a catchphrase best-practice or tongue-in-cheek mantra. RoR is designed to reduce the amount of code a developer needs to write to go from wireframe to launch. Why reinvent the wheel? Code should be re-used whenever possible to speed up development and reduce costs.

This principle is best represented by RoR’s out-of-the-box readiness. RoR comes loaded with libraries for database access, templating frameworks, session management, and more. In addition, developers benefit from RoR’s active, gem-sharing community. Gems are applications and libraries that community developers make available to the public. Smart platform design and a dedicated community makes it possible to reduce costs without sacrificing performance, speed, or security.

Without getting too technical, it’s best to let RoR work speak for itself. Here is a short list of some highly successful web applications developed on RoR:

Harvest was one of the first SaaS applications to take advantage of RoR. Today, Harvest is one of the leaders in the time tracking software space. Harvest provides tools for invoicing, time tracking, and time-based reporting. Since 2006, the platform has evolved to support client applications written in different languages and numerous third-party integrations while serving tens of millions requests per day. Harvest demonstrates the power of RoR to scale and serve very large numbers of users.

Groupon is a global leader in the local commerce, offering daily deals to a wide range of markets. If enough subscribers sign up for an offer, that deal becomes available to everyone. Groupon came out in 2008 offering local deals in Chicago. Four years later, the company has expanded into cities all around the world, helping consumers find deals in their neighborhoods. RoR was instrumental to the success of the company. Combined with the innovative idea, the simple, user-friendly design of the website helped Groupon skyrocket in popularity.

Hulu is one of the most popular websites for streaming TV shows and movies. The online video service was created in 2007 and today is considered one of the major players in its field. RoR has helped Hulu manage and organize its large media library into an attractive and easy to navigate user interface that readily scales across different system.

Safeharbor was one of the first companies to take knowledge base functionality to the cloud. Safeharbor’s SmartSupport knowledge base software relies on RoR to make self-service fast and user-friendly. The framework makes it extremely easy to create custom support portals on the go – a knowledge base can be set up in minutes.

Bottom Line

The technical requirements to build and maintain applications that serve high volume of web traffic are substantial. RoR continues to offer phenomenal tools that make development productive and efficient for small start-ups on a tight budget and large enterprises alike. Built on the concept of reusable and easily configurable components, Ruby on Rails is making development cheaper, faster, and easier.

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

SharePoint vs. Knowledge Base Software

Organizations looking to develop a knowledge base will often turn to SharePoint instead of trying a specialized solution. This decision stems from overestimating SharePoint’s capabilities and finding the move to a new solution inconvenient. However, using SharePoint to build a knowledge base is not a good approach.

First of all, building a knowledge base with SharePoint is difficult. The application was not designed to manage knowledge. And second of all, SharePoint is not an easy platform to use. It can take years to master and often requires the help of developers and designers. In addition, there are inevitable issues that users will run into if they try expanding their kb functionality, migrating to a newer version of SharePoint, and more.

Building a Knowledge Base with SharePoint is Difficult

Many organizations needlessly spend resources trying to turn SharePoint into a knowledge base application. It’s a powerful tool, but it can’t do everything.

Share Point is Collaborative Software

SharePoint is designed to facilitate teamwork and offers many great tools for doing so. One of which is the ability to set up sites that function as document repositories. This is an invaluable tool for collaboration. A team can share documents with each other, make revisions, and track changes by user.

An organization might think that a knowledge base is nothing more than document repository and turn to SharePoint. What results is a clutter of document that is difficult to navigate and find information in. And as a result, the knowledge base hardly gets used.

Document Management vs. Knowledge Management

A knowledge base is not just a document repository – it’s a body of knowledge that is continuously evolving. Knowledge consists of answers shared by experts, information hidden away in emails, ideas and feedback found in article comments and community forum discussions. A knowledge base application is designed to capture knowledge as it’s created and make it easy to find.

A knowledge base application equips users with a range of tools for easily capturing knowledge. For example, the email-to-knowledge-base feature automatically converts an email into a kb article. The user just needs to forward the email to the knowledge base software. Or, the kb administrator finds a useful answer in the community forum. The comment can instantly be converted into a support article and stored in the knowledge base.

What you get with SharePoint

With each new version, SharePoint’s list of features continues to grow. This gives SharePoint the appearance of a multifunctional platform. However many solutions are left unfinished. Knowledge base is no exception. SharePoint does not provide out of the box kb functionality. Instead, the administrator has to go through a complicated process of building a knowledge base.

Let’s say an organization is looking to set up a searchable internal knowledge base to store training articles in. With SharePoint, there is no manual for how to build the solution. The organization will have to do all the research. For SharePoint 2010 we’ve found that a common work-around is to use the wiki template and build a navigation system using article metadata. This is a cumbersome solution that is difficult to set up.

Another obstacle organizations are likely to encounter is the lack of features. We go into more detail about this in the next section. But, the point is that many sought out knowledge base tools are either missing or have to be integrated with the help of a third party. For example, to include an article rating system, tags, comments, or forum functionality, a user will have to spend some time researching third party solutions.

Going forward with SharePoint, consider whether your kb administrator has the technical skills to put together a site and provide continuous support for a growing knowledge base.

What is missing in SharePoint?

KB Articles

Growing the company knowledge base is a delicate process. You don’t want to store every single file in hopes that it might become useful at some point – this will turn your knowledge base into an unmanageable dustbin of content. With SharePoint, this scenario is common. While SharePoint allows users to collaboratively work on documents, it doesn’t have an article editor that allows users to quickly create, collaborate on, and categorize support information.

A powerful article editor is vital to the success of your knowledge base – it enhances the user experience with features like troubleshooting guides, rich media, alerts, forms, and more. An article can be categorized and tagged, to ensure that other users can quickly find it. With SharePoint, a user can build a web page with most of these features, but it’s a long, manual process that requires web development skills. Without a kb article editor, storing and organizing knowledge on the fly becomes impossible.

Search

A knowledge base application is built to deliver answers. A user looking for a specific answer is not going to look through PDF’s, Word Documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. Instead, he will probably open a support ticket or call the support line. A knowledge base software application offers powerful and customizable search, whereas SharePoint 2010 and earlier versions, do not.

Look and Feel

A public facing knowledge base needs to have a branded look and feel. With SharePoint, the kb administrator will discover that modifying the site requires knowledge of Visual Studio and web development skills. Knowledge base applications, on other hand, make customization a breeze. With a variety of themes to choose from and easy template editing, a branded knowledge base can be created in a matter of hours.

Working with Multiple Sites

Making custom portals in SharePoint is time consuming. Each site has to be built and managed independently. With SmartSupport, a new portal can be created with a click of button.

SharePoint is Difficult to Use

SharePoint is a heavy and complicated tool. It can’t be set up in minutes like a knowledge base software application. Moreover, there is a steep learning curve. If you are hoping that SharePoint will solve your business problem, consider the resources that will have to be spent on training your employees.

Prepare to dive into online tutorials and SharePoint documentation

Because SharePoint bundles so many features into one package, the user experience is not intuitive. A user might find that SharePoint works great for document management, but adding page content is frustrating. Or that the calendar works great for managing deadlines, but navigating the ribbon in the application is too complicated.

The time it takes to master the tool is definitely a challenge. In fact, there is so much technical knowledge required to run SharePoint that an industry of “SharePoint Professionals” has emerged – certified architects and engineers who know how to properly install, configure, and maintain SharePoint. Be prepared to become a developer and/or seek professional help.

Few SharePoint users get to experience the advantage of the cloud

The new SharePoint 2013 works with Office 365. This allows the application to run in the cloud – Microsoft’s own data centers. But, few organizations have made the switch to the new version of SharePoint, mainly because migration is a long and costly process. Most still use the 2003, 2007, or 2010 on-premise editions of SharePoint Server.

SharePoint sets a rather high bar for migration. Native tools for on-premises SharePoint migration are unreliable because they leave behind essential information, like metadata, permissions and workflows. And there are plenty of other issues. For example, you cannot migrate to SharePoint 2013 unless you are already using SharePoint 2010. As a result, not many organizations have experienced the power of cloud.

Cloud software, or as it’s more commonly referred to Software to as a Service (SaaS), has recently gained a competitive edge over on-premise software (link to SaaS article).

A 2013 Gartner survey of more than 2,000 CIO’s looked at top business priorities. Ranking third on the list was cloud computing (SaaS). The same study showed that transitioning to the cloud freed up to 50% of infrastructure and operational resources. SaaS knowledge base applications scale easily, see more frequent updates, have shorter deployment times, and don’t require the help of IT. In addition, you’re not buying a piece of software but a dedicated group of industry specialists who help you realize your goals.

Conclusion: Go with Knowledge Base Software

A knowledge base application is a specialized solution designed to help you build and maintain a powerful knowledge base. It is architected with the non-technical business user in mind and makes it easy to capture and create knowledge. Set up your support site in just a few hours and start helping your employees and customer become self-reliant.

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

Knowledge Base Management Systems

Virtually every department, from sales to customer service, relies on a management system to improve efficiency and facilitate work. A management system in this context describes specific guidelines and procedures for managing company knowledge. It also refers to the technology on which the system is built. The main role of a management system is to keep the department organized and well managed.

A knowledge base management system overlooks a company’s knowledge base. It is used primarily by customer support departments, however, since virtually every employee in the company can contribute to the knowledge base, the scope of this management system often involves other departments as well. For instance, the customer support department will often rely on knowledge from field experts and sales agents. A knowledge management system can help efficiently direct information like that between departments making it a powerful asset to customer support departments.

KB Application vs. KB Management System

To understand how a knowledge base management system works is it important to understand the difference between a knowledge base application and a knowledge management system. Although the two terms are often used synonymously, a system is structurally more complex. Whereas a knowledge base application can be a sufficient support tool on its own, a management system involves a dedicated knowledge base administrator or a knowledge base team responsible for managing support information.

Even companies that don’t have large amounts of support information can improve customer service and reduce support costs with the help of a knowledge base application. Knowledge base applications are self-reliant and do not require a dedicated knowledge base administrator, content writers, knowledge management guidelines and procedures, or other expenses. A company can create several detailed articles that address the most sought out customer support questions and expect to see return on investment.

For companies that deal with large amounts of support content a knowledge base application alone simply does not suffice. Between updating existing articles, writing new support content, and trying to maximize the overall performance of the knowledge base, a more structured approach is required. This is where the role of a knowledge base management system comes in.

Building a Knowledge Base Management System

A knowledge base management system is designed for managing large and complex databases of support content. The system is comprised of a software application and a set of guidelines and procedures for managing knowledge.

The software application is the fundamental part. It provides knowledge base administrators with the tools for managing knowledge bases, routing information, and tracking knowledge base performance. The management system and knowledge base application often come bundled as a platform. For example, Safeharbor’s SmartSupport platform includes a knowledge base, community forum, and call center functionality all in one. It also offers powerful tools for disseminating support content and improving kb performance.

The guidelines and procedures that oversee knowledge management are an equally important component of the system, especially when dealing with large knowledgebases that contain hundreds of articles. Knowledge management guidelines and procedures are necessary for developing an efficient management system. The better organized and managed the system is the more successful it will be at maximizing customer satisfaction and reducing support costs.

Knowledge Management Guidelines and Procedures

A successful management system needs guidelines and procedures for handling support content – which, after all, is the main part of a knowledge base. Guidelines and procedures establish how support content is created, collected, formatted, distributed, and maintained. (This article focuses on the role of knowledge management within a knowledge base management system. For more information about knowledge management, visit Safeharbor’s knowledge management services page.)

When developing guidelines and procedures for their system, administrators should first establish how support content will be created. A popular approach for efficiently creating and collecting knowledge this is knowledge centered support (KCS). KCS describes a set of practices and processes that focus on knowledge as the key asset. An example of KCS is the practice of creating content as a by-product of solving problem. Next time a user submits a support ticket, turn the answer to that question into a knowledge base article. This will help users that might face the same problem in the future. Why answer the same question multiple times when it can do it once?

Because the format and quality of support content can be very inconsistent, administrators also need to develop a review process for information that enters the knowledge base. Support content can include external or internal documents relating to projects or products, team knowledge and agent insights, private or public company data, and more. Review procedures for knowledge base content might include editorial practices that evaluate content quality or workflow rules that determine who reviews content and publishes new articles.

Once the content has entered a knowledge base, administrators need to have guidelines for storing and sustaining knowledge. This will ensure that articles remain up to date and are correctly tagged and indexed.

Finally, a knowledge base management system needs guidelines for sharing support content. These guidelines should overlook how content is disseminated and how users and employees access and interact with it. Can a knowledge base user comment or leave feedback? Are some articles only visible to employees and customers and others to all of the users?

Expanding the Role of a Knowledge Base

Does your company need a knowledge base management system? It depends. For companies that dot not utilizing a knowledge base application it makes financial sense to start small: equip their website with a knowledge base application and populate it with a few well-written articles that address the most common problems. An intuitive knowledge base application can be left in the hands of a customer support or web administrator. If the knowledge base starts to deflect calls and more support content can be created, the company should consider implementing a knowledge base management system.

For companies using a knowledge base application, the decision comes down to how integral a knowledge base is to the performance of the customer support department. Since knowledge base is a type of web self-service it is low cost and low maintenance. However, expanding the function of knowledge base beyond a few dozen articles takes a dedicated knowledge base administrator who understands knowledge management. If the company expects to grow its knowledge base, building a management system is the most releasable route to take.

Companies looking to expand the role of their knowledge base should consider building a knowledge base management system. Whether the goal is to lower customer support costs, make sharing company documents easier, reduce employee training time, or for other ends – a knowledge base takes hard work to maintain. A management system simplifies this task and helps maximize knowledge base ROI.

Safeharbor Can Help

Safeharbor can build your knowledge base management system. Our multifunctional knowledge base platform provides kb administrators with all the necessary tools for creating and managing company knowledge. The platform empowers administrators with tools for monitoring and improving knowledge base performance with a unique article optimizer. Safeharbor also specializes in knowledge management. Our professional staff can help you set up a knowledge base platform, work with you to create support content, and develop procedures and guidelines for your knowledge base management system. Visit our solutions page for more information.

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

Improving Customer Service with FAQs

FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions – are documents that contains support information for the most sought out questions. FAQs came about in the early days of the internet and quickly became a popular self-help tool. They continue to be widely utilized today as a reliable and effective customer support and knowledge management tool. In this article we take a closer look at how FAQs were developed, how they work, and where they stand in the world of customer service and knowledge management.

The History of Frequently Asked Questions

The FAQ tool and its abbreviation came into existence with the advent of the internet. Especially significant in the field of online customer service, an FAQ was one of the first commonly used tools for providing self-help online. Easy to set up and cheap to maintain, FAQs quickly became a standard in customer service and continue to be widely used today.

While novel as an online feature, the concept of an FAQ and its distinguishable format of delivering support information are quite old. For centuries, writers have used the question and answer formula to present content in a way that would be easy to understand. For instance, some Renaissance authors have been known to include sections titled ‘Certain Queries Answered’ in the beginning of their work as a way of quickly addressing common questions and concerns.

The First FAQ

The emergence of an FAQ as a self-help text file originated from the technical limitations of early mailing lists used by NASA in the mid 80′s. Mailing lists were used to distribute support information and to seek out help from within the mailing group. The presumption was that new users would join the mailing list, download archived messages and search through them to find answers.

However, users were too clever to go through all that trouble. It quickly became apparent that it was much easier to post questions to the mailing list instead of downloading and searching through old archives. As a consequence, mailing lists began to get spammed with frequently reposted questions and answers, making them redundant and expensive to maintain.

The initial response to this was devised by a NASA employee Mark Horton who started to periodically forward an 18 question post to quell impeding “dumb” answers; answers that entered the mailing list were often poorly written, inconsistent, and uninformed and as a result bogged down the system. Mark’s posts would rectify these mistakes and provide a credible answer base.

Two other NASA employees, Eugene Miya and Jeff Poskanzer, took the idea further. While Mark focused primarily on correcting misinformed answers that entered the mailing list, Eugene and Jeff developed a format of sending out the most sought out questions along with the best answers to those questions. This approach circumvented storage expenses created by burgeoning mailing lists and offered users quick access to answers by eliminating the need to download and sift through large archive files.

This became the FAQ format as it is known today. Through gradual evolution of finding the best way of delivering support information NASA employees developed a method that quickly and efficiently helped new users find answers.

FAQs Gain Popularity

The FAQ format was soon picked up by other mailing lists and Usenet groups. Posting frequency varied depending on the type of users the mailing lists were catered to. Some went out weekly; others were distributed on a monthly basis.

With internet emerging in the coming years, websites started adapting FAQs and trying different approaches. For instance, a type of FAQ called Periodic Posts was developed to answer trivial questions that would surface on a daily basis. No matter what the implementation was, the goal of an FAQ was to reduce reposting of duplicate information and to provide reliable and intuitive support.

FAQ Etiquette

As FAQs gained popularity, proper ways of using them also started to emerge. Reposting questions that have already been answered in the FAQ began to be considered poor etiquette. It showed that a user was too lazy to read an FAQ and do some independent research before requesting help.

This formality lived on. Today, the condescending acronym LMGTFY (Let me Google that for you) is often used to mock users who asks for help when the answer can be found with relative ease.

Modern Developments

Originally, the term FAQ referred to the questions themselves. A compilation of these questions and answers was called an FAQ list or a variation of that. Today the term FAQ usually refers to the compiled list of all the questions and answers. Moreover, pages in the question and answer format will often go under the same moniker regardless of whether the questions are actually frequently asked or not.

To avoid the ambiguity of the abbreviation, many popular websites now refrain from using the term altogether. For instance, Twitter, Facebook, and Google all label their FAQ sections Help. Another common alternatives is Support. Both terms are well understood and often times easier conceptualized than the term FAQ.

FAQ have also spread offline. Often times printed instruction will contain FAQs to facilitate the use or assembly of a product.

Creating an FAQ

Creating an FAQ can be an advantageous strategy for any organization looking to improve its support capabilities. An FAQ offers newcomers to the website a wealth of information. Often times it can help resolve issues that otherwise would require the input of a customer representative. FAQs therefore help users become more self-reliant and reduce customer support spending.

How to Develop an Effective FAQ

Effective FAQs anticipate procedures that might be confusing or information that is difficult to understand to a user and offer an easy way of understanding and resolving these problems. The best way to determine what information to put into an FAQ is to identify questions that get asked the most. The customer support department tend to have a good grasp on this.

When creating an FAQ it is very important to ensure that it is easily readable and well organized. While there is no set format, some standards exists. The most common way to organize an FAQ is, as the name suggests, as questions and answers. In other cases, it may make more sense to organize an FAQ as a reference, listing answers without the questions being specifically stated. Some FAQs can use both techniques in same document, one part asking the questions and second part listing the answers.

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

Using Knowledge Base to Grow a Social Presence

Social media has had a dominant presence on the web for year and continues to play a vital part in business development. Companies have come to develop elaborate strategies for how to best integrate into the social stream because being social is no longer just an option. Those embracing the opportunity gain a competitive advantage, while those less prepared lose customers and internet traffic.

Why the need to be social exists is not clear-cut. It could be that being socially active on the web makes a website appear more transparent and trustworthy to the visitor. Or, that failing to conform to the social trend makes a website appear less legitimate and loses credibility in the visitor’s eye. Whatever the reasons are, social participation has become a standard. Virtually any company that understands social media, at the very least, equips their website for social signaling with a like button, a twitter feed, and a few other sharing outlets.

Defining the Social Strategy

Social enterprises have many facets and every company has its own strategy. A well defined approach that most follow includes: creating company pages on several of the top social platforms like Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc.; monitoring the company’s social feed on those sites; and finally, participating by sharing news, stories, and relevant information.

The approach is fairly straightforward, but few companies follow through. Creating original content and stirring up a conversation around it can be difficult. Coming up with something interesting to share takes time and imagination and most companies don’t have the resources for this.

To get around the problem, companies should not only monitor and interact through social channels, but also reach out and collaborate with their employees – a company’s internal knowledge base. This level of social engagement doesn’t require an increase in spending, but rather a different approach to participation. By sharing its own wealth of internal knowledge, a company can become more social without the need for writers, marketing experts, and other expenses.

Using Internal Knowledge

One way to generate social involvement is to leverage the internal knowledge base of the organization – the experience and expertise of all the employees, not just the marketing team, but other department too, from sales to customer support. Having employees contribute a small piece of insight from their field of knowledge generates fresh and interesting content that in turn stimulates social engagement.

For example, have a programmer write a few paragraphs about a trend in software development she has noticed or an online resource she relies on for work. Even if it doesn’t speak directly to the services you website provides this kind of knowledge is valuable (while employee input shouldn’t stray too far from topic, showing the company’s human side does not hurt). This approach provides an easy way for creating original content and encouraging social involvement.

Using External Knowledge

In addition to making a company more socially engaging, opening the door for communication between employees and the public generates knowledge that can directly benefit the company. Consider setting up a community forum or a discussion board on your website – an actual knowledge base channel. Having employees participate in discussion will generate customer feedback and provide valuable insight as to how a company can improve its business – whether it concerns a product, service, user experience, or some other facet.

The idea that a business has to be customer centric should not stand in the way of being social. Social enterprises need to recognize the value of the knowledge inside as well as outside its walls and use it to their advantage. Mining the internal knowledge base generates socially engaging content and expands the company’s social image beyond its marketing department. At the same time, taking in outside knowledge by means of a forum, discussion board or a knowledge base portal provides advice that is backed, in one form or another, by customers and visitors to the website.

Dmitry Minyaylov

Investing in Knowledge Base Software

The solution to better customer service

Knowledge base applications usually encompass a number of support tools like Wiki’s, FAQ’s, Troubleshooting Guides, Articles, Manuals, etc. making them an excellent investment for companies looking to improve customer service. Adding a knowledge base application streamlines customer service, improves agent performance, maximizes call deflection, simplifies support content management, and much more. In this article, we examine the benefits of implementing a knowledge base application; benefits that save time and money, but often get overlooked.

Knowledgebase Software is an indispensable part of Customer Service

Larger industries and organizations in the financial, medical, and government sectors treat knowledge base software as an indispensable part of customer support. Smaller companies take example from these bigger players but not everyone can match the big pocket spending. Thus, it’s not uncommon for smaller companies to regard knowledge base software as an unnecessary expenditure or put it off as a down the road expense.

This is not very surprising. With a limited budget it is difficult to justify investments in customer support tools when returns are not immediately tangible. However, knowledge base software has now become a paramount tool in customer service to the point where it is synonymous with such tools as a support phone line or an FAQ page. In other words, a knowledge base portal is now an expected tool in customer support.

Yet, the ROI benefit that modern knowledge base systems provide is not always immediately apparent. Companies that lack a knowledge base support system treat it as another Troubleshooting Guide or a Wiki tool when in fact, modern knowledge base systems offer suits filled with such support tools and many additional features. In fact, knowledge base platforms can include support call center and ticketing management systems, offering indispensable management capabilities to support administrators.

Furthermore, improvements that modern knowledge base software provides might appear incremental and not important enough to merit an upgrade or a revamp of the entire support system. However, as the example below illustrates, these changes make a significant impact on the level of service a company offers its customers.

Small changes lead to big improvements

Often, a small investment can make the difference between adequate and exceptional customer service. An example of a gradual change that brought with it pronounced improvements in the customer support industry can be observed with the invention of the Private Branch Exchange (PBX). The PBX is a telephone exchange system that serves a particular business or office. Initially, the PBX system brought the advantage of saving on the cost of internal phone calls. Companies would rely on a PBX to run their call centers. The PBX would route support queries to appropriate agents thereby streamlining call center performance.

Soon, a wide range of features started to emerge. Tools like hunt groups, call forwarding, extension dialing – to name a few – begun to incrementally improve call centers. These small advances were akin to the benefits modern knowledge base systems offer over antiquated FAQ’s and Knowledge Trees applications. Some companies stuck with basic call center functionality, but the more successful companies innovated by offering these new features.

Imagine if a present day company relying on a support call center did not offer extension dialing capabilities or auto attendants that quickly lead customers to the most relevant answer or the right customer representative. Customer support satisfaction would plummet and a great amount of resources would be wasted on managing and handling calls. In the same way, companies that fail to utilize a knowledge base platform lose out on an effective way to streamline agent performance and provide great customer support.

Companies that make considerable investments in customer support never fail to take advantage of knowledge base software. Not surprisingly, most of these big spenders tend to be the larger companies who can afford the most comprehensive support system. However, this does not mean that to provide exceptional customer service a business needs to spend a fortune. Any company trying to improve customer support should first and foremost invest in researching knowledge base software.

Indeed, the market offers a wide range of knowledgebase software solutions for companies small and big. Instead of asking whether a knowledgebase should be implemented, companies should be asking ‘what is the right knowledge base solution for our company?

Every company should offer great customer support

The real value of knowledge base software lies in its ability to put a company’s customer service on par with some of the big players without financial strain. A company can provide excellent customer service, save money, and reduce the workload of support administrators for just a few hundred dollars a month. So go online, do some research on knowledge base software or, since you are already here, check out our knowledge base and community forums platform SmartSupport!

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

Rethinking Customer Service Job Design

Customer service is an intricate mechanism that requires strategic forethought. Companies that put customers at the core of their service experience better customer satisfaction and generate more business. Still, while the importance of customer service is well understood, good service is surprisingly rare. Customers are valued and companies want to deliver good service, but it continues to be a standard rather than a norm.

A common issue that arises when companies try to improve their customer service is determining what exactly needs to be fixed. Often a company will identify a single culprit such as agent under-performance or a flaw in the support-resolution procedure. Usually, these quick-fix attempts indicate that there is a larger underlying weakness with the company’s customer service model.

A common example of this is when a company decides that the employees are not performing a certain task up to the standard set by a model employee. This perception of ‘customer service heroics’ then becomes the elusive end-goal wherein every agent is expected to perform as well as the company’s best representative. The ambitious expectation is rarely fulfilled because it requires superhuman effort to make such episodic excellence a standard.

Is it possible that some businesses are just expected to have bad customer service or are so engrossed in it that it is considered a norm in the industry? Rental companies, auto shops, and especially insurance companies are ubiquitous for having this expectation. While customers will put up with poor customer service – after all, no one is going to stop seeing a doctor – in a situation where customer dissatisfaction is abound, companies that can provide better customer service will win. The same principle of customer service heroics can be seen here. Companies that get ahead do so because they have a more successful customer service job design, not because all of their employees are extremely talented and over performing.

So how do you systematically deliver excellence? Rather than trying to change the behavior of every employee, businesses should take a closer look at the job design of their customer service system. A company might have a great sales rep but it’s impossible to turn the entire team into him. Instead, consider creating a system where everyone can succeed.

This holds especially true for companies with large amounts knowledge base content and technical knowledge. It requires time and money to find people who will be able to efficiently navigate complex knowledge base while also delivering great customer service. A company that has an employee management system problem is one in which the quality of service is dependent upon the employee determining it. In other words, nine out of ten times, a company that has an employee problem, has a job design problem.

Creating a Job Design

Job design describes not only customer support resolution procedures and rules, but most importantly how the company views its customers. Understanding the roles and needs of the customer is imperative to building a successful job design. First, let’s examine what the potential role of a customer might be.

Customer Roles

In many ways customers can be treated like employees because they interact with products and services in the same way the agents of the company do. One example of this can be seen with Zipcar, a car sharing service that heavily depends on customer input. Once a customer finishes using a Zipcar, there are no employees to clean up the vehicle. It is the customer’s role to get the car ready for the next renter. Zipcar users can’t be late, have to make sure the cars are fueled up, and perform many other duties that would normally be delegated to a company employee.

Without the right incentive structure or job design, this would be impossible (how Zipcar trains its customers is a whole different question that is revisited later). The point that the Zipcar example illustrates above all else, however, is that in rethinking the job design, the company first needs to understand the role of its customer. Sometimes it might be surprising to find out that the role of the customer and the role of the employee are not all too different.

Another example of deciphering and establishing customer roles comes from Starbucks and their innovation in training customers in the ordering process. At Starbucks, customers perform the role of an inquirer – learning what the product is, placing the order, etc. The quicker the order – the better the customer is at performing his/her job. To achieve this, Starbucks teaches customers to use precise language and sequences when placing orders and incentivizes them to learn exact sound bites – a whole lexicon of terms specifically crafted to make ordering a breeze.

Employees are trained to incentivize the customers by calling the orders back in the correct format. The complexity that customers would have introduced without this mechanism would create chaos. But, thanks to a well designed process, customer can quickly get a smiling barista to make them a tall non-fat latte with whipped-cream. Starbucks’ model has been scaled all over the world and demonstrates a successful customer service job design.

Customer Needs

The second ingredient essential to the building of a successful job design is understanding customer needs. The goal is not to better every facet of the customer service model but to satisfy customer expectations in the order of their prioritized needs. A good example of such prioritizing is demonstrated by Wall-Mart. Wall-Mart delivers good service to a specific sector of the market and has figured out a model that serves their needs. While the store ambiance and shopping experience might be lacking, customers get variety and low prices. Excellence in customer service comes from figuring out what exactly your customers value most and investing in it. Trying to provide all-around high-end premium service is ambitious and rarely feasible.

Capitalizing on the Job Design

Once the job design structure is mapped out the company has to capitalize on its strengths. One way to achieve this is by automating or outsourcing resource consuming tasks – a great example is self-service. With self-service, a company can draw customers in by getting them involved and, at the same time, save money by outsourcing tasks that would normally be delegated to its employees. While companies have to be careful in the design of their customer’s role, ensuring that customers are not overburdened or inconvenienced, if done correctly, outsourcing is a win-win scenario for the firm and for the customer.

In the aforementioned Zipcar example, customers perform a number of duties that similar service providers, taxis for instance, pay for. However, because it is in the customer culture, which Zipcar promotes through local community events and clubs, and in the customer contract, customers are happy to help out.

Improving your customer service strengths could mean changing the technological tools available to your agents and customers or changing the way customer inquiries are processed. If the agents are overwhelmed by the knowledge base content navigation or are unable to find relevant information with ease, there is a good chance the customers are experiencing the same difficulties. Using a knowledge base application for your website can accelerate your agents’ performance and, at the same time, allow your customers to find answers independently. Another way of looking at knowledge base services is that you are outsourcing help desk and customer support responsibilities onto the customer; making customer support more efficient and simpler for agents and customers.

Safeharbor Knowledge Management Solutions

Safeharbor provides a number of knowledge base service tools for improving a knowledge base, such as: Knowledge Management Services: Knowledge Base Content Optimization Services, Content Quality Assurance, and Knowledge Base Professional Services, learn more; Article Optimizer: patent-pending tool for knowledge base content optimization, learn more; SmartSupport knowledge base tools for: Community Forums, FAQ’s, White Papers, Articles, learn more; Custom tools: Safeharbor offers a range of custom add-ons, such as a ticketing system, to meet the specific needs of our customers, learn more.

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

SaaS and its role in the Enterprise Market

SaaS is short for ‘software as a service’ and represents a software delivery model. Compared to the traditional on-premise software model, the application and user data are hosted in the cloud which users then access from their personal computers. As a model of software delivery, SaaS represents a branch of the overarching cloud-computing model.

Cloud-computing works by delivering computing services as a utility over the internet rather than as a product; the two other branches being Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), in which physical or virtual machines are licensed for running firewalls, storage, networks, etc., and Platform as a Service (PaaS), in which providers license out programming language execution environments, databases, web servers, etc. to software developers.

SaaS has been quickly growing as the preferred way of using enterprise software for companies small and large. But, looking back on its history, cloud-computing is still a fairly new concept. Only in 2008 the first open source cloud platform Eucalyptus was launched, paving the road for private cloud hosting. Business and enterprise applications sprung to live in 2009 following the boom of cloud-computing. In this article we look closely at the strengths and weaknesses the SaaS model offers to the enterprise market.

Software and Business

Software is ubiquitous in today’s business world. Computer and web applications are integrated anywhere and everywhere the budget can afford because they maximize efficiency – from tracking shipments across multiple countries, to managing large inventories, to improving customer service or knowledge base management. Ever since software innovation entered the business world it has been treated as a physical component that companies have to own and run on their internal infrastructure or computer network.

An analogy for this relation could be a product manual or a how-to book for using a product. Before the inception of cloud computing, a company had to supply a copy of the manuscript to every employee to ensure that everyone was on the same page and could collaborate. Today, the instructions, or rather the software and user data, can be accessed on the cloud via an internet connection.

The SaaS model has become prominent over the past few years leaving the traditional software model competitively at a loss and lacking in many technical respects for two main reasons. First, the technology has arrived to support cloud based and ‘on demand’ computing – underlying technologies that support web services and service-oriented architecture have matured and new developmental approaches have become popular. Likewise, broadband service has become widespread around the world and employees today are more wired to the web than ever before.

Second, the benefits that the SaaS model offers are continuously outpacing those of the traditional model. For years, companies have run software on their own internal networks. Any updates, upgrades, or fixes to the software had to be done on premise and required the use of company hardware and in-house IT specialists. SaaS has removed the need for organizations to handle the installation, set-up and often daily upkeep and maintenance. By repackaged traditional computer services, applications and the data inherent to them, and managing everything from a centralized cloud server, SaaS has revolutionized the traditional on-premise software model.

The allure of the SaaS model

IT Outsourcing Trend

The growth of the SaaS model shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Simply put, the new model provides the same services for a lower price by outsourcing, or what in the tech industry has been called Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). India has been renowned for picking up the slack, US$10.0 billion in 2011 to be exact. And in fact, BPO has become an extremely important tech strategy with a 7.3% IT outsourcing rate since 2003. And, if a company can save money by outsourcing its business functions, customer service duties, IT responsibilities, then it can surely outsource the operation of its software. SaaS is a perfect example of BPO. It delivers the functionality of a full software system without the overhead of operating the application. It’s a win-win situation, except maybe for those in the IT Department.

Cheaper for developers, cheaper for customers

With the hyper growth of the unreliable and unnecessary applications of the dot-com bubble fading into the dark ages of the tech era, today’s businesses are greeted with a myriad of competing software providers that offer real business solutions. The recent – or maybe not so recent in tech years – growth of the SaaS model has demonstrated that first and foremost, SaaS costs much less to deploy, upkeep, and update for manufacturers which translates into saving for consumers.

SaaS alleviates the costs of traditional licensing fees and decreases the cost of IT support and infrastructure maintenance that all software comes bundled with. The traditional software often depends on an internal IT infrastructure on which the services can be hosted. This adds another cost layer. Facilities and their operation – all the switches, servers, routers and storage devices for the data centers produce a cascading cost which the SaaS model conveniently circumvents.

In addition to fewer upfront costs, SaaS is also easier to customize once it is deployed – no need to reinstall software on every machine in the office, everything can be done over the cloud. For instance, a recent study by the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) showed that the total cost of ownership of a SaaS CRM software package was only 10 – 20% of the cost of a traditional software package for one of largest CRM providers on the market. The numbers demonstrate that software providers and businesses alike can be better off with a transition to a SaaS model of operations.

Multi-tenant Architecture

SaaS applications are predominantly based on a multi-tenant architecture where a single version of the software is used for all customers. Some other SaaS providers rely on a virtualization model and create different virtual copies of their application to cost-effectively manage a large number of customers. Contrasted with the traditional hardware software, which utilizes multi-instance architecture where separate hardware instances are set up for different client organizations, multitenancy is structurally more complex but offers three reasons: cost savings, data aggregation, and release management.

The cost savings that the multi-tenant architecture creates result from consolidating IT resource into a single operation. Every instance of an application incurs a certain amount of processing and memory overhead which can be substantial when there are many customers. Multi-tenancy reduces costs by consolidating everything in a single software instance and amortizing it over many customers. One problem that might sometimes arise is when scaling becomes necessary. Scaling the entire software structure rather individual parts is more difficult, however, most SaaS applications rely on third party cloud platforms – Amazon’a EC2, Heroku, Blue Box, to name the big ones – which allow for secure and easy scaling.

The second benefit of the multi-tenant architecture is the data aggregation and data mining opportunity that a single instance provides. Whereas multi-instant operations require mining of potentially different database schemas, multi-tenant architecture stores all the information on the same database.

Lastly, multitenancy simplifies the release management process. In a traditional release process, packages containing updates and database changes must be distributed to desktop computers and server machines. These packages then have to be installed individually on every machine. With the multi-tenant architecture, the package only needs to be installed on a single server from which the application runs. This greatly simplifies the release management process.

Addressing the weaknesses of the SaaS model

In February of 2012, Veracode Inc., one of the leading security testing firms for cloud-based applications, published piece titled “Outsourcing the problem of software security”. Veracode commissioned an analyst firm Quocirca to examine how UK and US businesses are deploying in-house developed and commercially acquired software. Most importantly, Quocirca looked at measures that were in place for ensuring software security.

Quocirca interviewed 100 medium to large organizations in the financial services, manufacturing, retail, distribution, transportation, and other commercial sectors. The first observation tantamount across all business sectors was that the use of SaaS and mobile applications is not now widespread. The concern brought up by this is the breadth of security issues especially because SaaS applications are predominantly web-based. Customers are realizing the risks and are increasingly demanding security, with 50 percent of US SaaS users and 20 percent in the UK demanding that their software was secure.

Mitigating Security and Operational Risks

For a long time, businesses have been weary of outsourcing their software capabilities because it meant that the security of sensitive information would be left in the hands of a third party. However, modern technology provides better remote security and data redundancy tools then were available before and SaaS vendors are able to protect customer data better than most customers do on their own. In fact, it has been shown that having an on premise network often enables companies with a fake sense of security. While the data is stored locally it is still vulnerable to a wide host of attacks which are usually shielded by nothing more than a firewall.

Many businesses turn to managed security services providers who analyze security logs and prevent inappropriate penetration or data leakage. Often times these are valuable services that a company might not be able to provide internally. Having a managed service for security in the cloud, however, makes security affordable for smaller business. Instead of having on-site appliances, emails can be filtered for spam and viruses in the cloud by a provider.

In a nutshell, while cloud security has been a booming topic among experts of network security, the sophisticated protection that SaaS applications provide today is becoming quite dependable and, on some level, is even surpassing the level of protection that on-premise counterpart applications offer.

Developing in the cloud

Another concern that companies are vocal about is the level of flexibility when it comes to development. Working with a cloud framework might seem more problematic because the data is hosted on a remote server which probably will not have the same environment as an in-house system. However, IaaS and PaaS models offer resources that can mirror in-house servers without hindering the development process. In addition, these servers may be more available and accessible than those of the corporate data center.

Elasticity of the cloud brings better system availability even with fully redundant data center servers. Sony is using IaaS for fast spin-ups of video game demos that often support several hundred players at a time. Today, Sony is in the process of moving to a private cloud in order to avoid resource bottlenecks when they spin up demos of new features. Sony has noted that costs for the private cloud will be about equal to the data center. However, the team will benefit mainly through resource elasticity and accessibility, since developers would otherwise have to go to IT to procure resources.

Making the Switch

While SaaS applications are powerful and, if the trend continues, will soon replace most of the antiquated business software platforms, not all companies can or should make an immediate switch. Any IT department knows that the tech market is filled with UI/API tweaks, spec upgrades, newer versions of software, etc. that produce a never ending conveyer belt of mediocre improvements. Switching from one type of technology to another is a timing decision that takes foresight and planning.

The first step that a company should take is to evaluate how important the transition from a traditional on-premise to a cloud hosted SaaS model is. Cutting or conserving costs is an obvious starting point. For established organizations, the migration usually begins with applications like –forums, knowledge bases, email, document management, and other help desk services.

For organizations that are in the early stages of development, SaaS is the best place to start. Applications are plentiful and investments in start-up time and costs are minimal. With SaaS, the entire cloud stack is all bundled into one: infrastructure, management, installation, and other product usage. Moreover, SaaS offers variety – it mirrors anything that can be found in the application world today.

Safeharbor and SaaS

At Safeharbor Knowledge Solutions we understand the power of SaaS. That is why our SmartSupport platform and accompanying tools, such as the SmartTEST Article Optimizer, are entirely SaaS. SmartSupport integrates into any web environment in minutes and can be accessed from anywhere. We take care of all the back-end and IT needs so you can run your business without the worry of downtime or software updates. Scaling is seamless and maintenance is free. SmartSupport takes full advantage of the multi-tenant SaaS architecture. Because all your data is kept in a single database, you have immediate access all of to your community forums and knowledge base content from one place. Coupled with the power of the SmartSearch engine, the search capabilities of SmartSupport are extremely robust. Click here to learn more about SmartSupport!

Author: Dmitry Minyaylov

About Safeharbor