Editor’s Note: The Content Wrangler is presenting a weekly series of twelve articles that provide useful insights and practical guidance for those who produce customer support websites. Columnist Robert Norris shares how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online knowledge bases. His tenth installment examines the framework for a consolidated quality control program based on explicit content ownership.
In a previous article, we examined how content wranglers can improve the quality of life for our colleagues in support roles and leverage insights (including customer support metrics) to our mutual benefit. This article offers insights into leveraging this collaboration to build a robust content quality system that will deliver significant improvements to content timeliness and usefulness.
Building A Robust Content Quality System
Consider this scenario:
Thanks to our colleagues on the customer support team, we content wranglers have been alerted to several deficient resources in the customer self-help knowledge base. These include several out-of-date resources along with some troubleshooting instructions that seem to cause more problems than they solve. We’ve also received feedback from senior support reps that a number of well-regarded resources are not being found by a significant number of customers seeking the information they cover.
To an organization committed to helping customers, partners and staff find useful answers as quickly and painlessly as possible, such explicit feedback is golden. Thanks to the frustrating experience of a few users, we have been alerted to deficiencies that—if fixed—will benefit many users.
To get the ball rolling, the typical first step is to notify the person who owns the problem resource and find out how long it will take to correct it. When the resource is prominent—and has a diligent owner—we can expect that an expert will be assigned to examine and repair it in short order. And that seems great; even though our quality system may not be as formal as that for our products and services, it still worked for this very important resource, right?
But, what about the poor orphans? What’s that you say? While that one important resource from our list was promptly repaired, the others are in limbo. It seems no one is stepping up because:
- One of the out-of-date resources was produced a couple years ago and the whole department has since been reorganized, and
- That FAQ in need of updating was written by a long-gone intern, and
- Those confusing instructions lack any information whatsoever about the author(s)?
As content wranglers accustomed to dealing with orphaned content, we know from firsthand experience that it is unrealistic to rely upon the availability of original authors as the backbone of our quality system. Far too often we’ve been left wondering who is going to fix the problem…and how…and when.
Tick…tick…tick… Faced with uncertainty and an uphill slog to find an available expert (that is often fruitless), the repair of orphaned content quietly—if unintentionally—slips to the back-burner as higher priorities arise. Moreover—as the problem becomes chronic—awareness of a deficient resource gradually evaporates leaving it lurking like a landmine in our knowledge bases until someone trips over it triggering a serious problem:
In 2015, a prominent international relief organization settled a $10+M liability lawsuit brought on behalf of the family of a volunteer who died while mishandling a power tool. Though tragic, the individual was acting in direct violation of the organization’s safety policy which prohibited volunteers from using that particular tool. The volunteer disregarded the training received that morning which he acknowledged by signing the liability release form. Even so, the organization offered a generous settlement which was gratefully accepted by the family until a lawyer spotted an administrative error. Because the volunteer coordinator downloaded an outdated form that pre-dated the existence of the power tool, the settlement was rejected and the organization had no choice but to shell out more than twenty times the original amount.
Whether it be goods, services or publishing, our risk managers will tell anyone who will listen:
A quality system that has gaps is a dangerous source of false security
If we frankly assess our somewhat-less-than-formal content quality system, we may conclude that not only is it inadequate, it’s a self-inflicted wound waiting to happen. And even if the repercussions are not devastating, avoidable quality-related problems incur unnecessary costs we cannot afford. Given our enormous investment in knowledge sharing labor and technology and the fact that the shelf life of knowledge base content varies by myriad factors—some of which are completely unpredictable—we must have a mechanism to be able to quickly respond when alerted that any resource needs to be revised or retired.
Conduct a self-examination
Fortunately, there is a straightforward approach to determine if our organization has an adequate quality system in place. We identify a handful of deficient resources (representing a few topics) and track the workflow activities and timing by which the problems are addressed. Though our organization’s approach may be operationally unique, the stages needed to quickly and efficiently diagnose and correct defects will mirror the following:
- Flag Problem–a permissioned keyboarder is prompted to log the resource into the deficient content tracking system
- Notification–the owner of the resource is notified and responsibility is assigned for review
- Review–an expert reviews the resource, recommends corrective action, e.g. revision, retirement, and examines related content to determine if there is an impact; in the interim, the resource is taken offline and/or a comment added to alert users that a fix is underway
- Production–the correction workflow—authoring, editing, enhancing, proofing—is scheduled and managed
- Publishing–as the revised resource is structured and published, metadata and navigation is adjusted and appropriate material archived, e.g. source material
Given that we are in the midst of consolidating content publishing for multiple websites, it’s likely that one or more stages in our content quality system need attention. Symptoms of underlying problems might include:
- Unclear Ownership–it should be trivial to identify the topic owner for any resource, be it a tutorial, operations manual, form, graphic or FAQ. Orphaned content has no place on our websites.
Tactic: As described in the content strategy article, it makes sense to assign topical content ownership at the upper-management level to establish accountability with a role that has authority. Since every resource we publish incurs a burden of maintenance, this principle places that burden on the shoulders of someone with the resources needed to prioritize and execute the task.
- Black Holes–Given that our quality system relies upon upper-management, we should expect that there are going to be times when requests for action go unanswered. In particular, absent a tracking and reporting system that brings much-needed visibility to resources awaiting corrective action, it is likely that the needed work will not be conducted promptly (if at all).
Tactic: A decent content management system will include functionality to track and report on resources that require attention. Lacking a CMS, one can make do by maintaining and sharing a spreadsheet-based master list that becomes the source for routine status reports to content owners
Important Note: When a content owner is chronically slow to repair resources, the content strategy has a mechanism to build a sense of urgency without creating conflict. The guiding principle of periodic reporting ensures that the matter will naturally be brought to the attention of the Operations Committee. If they are stymied (or choose to defer), the matter is escalated to the Sponsors’ Committee. This approach screens content wranglers by deferring to the peers of the content owner to handle the matter.
- Missed Opportunities–Fundamental to a robust quality system is the principle that discovering a deficiency is an opportunity to seek causal factor(s). For example, finding an outdated version of a resource still online should alert us to the possibility that our process for publishing revisions does not yet require the step to seek and purge items that suddenly become obsolete.
Tactic: Make it clear to all that we value critique by following up. When someone has taken their valuable time to alert us to a deficiency, we are wise to gratefully acknowledge the contribution. It can be as simple as offering our thanks and seeking a bit of nuanced information, e.g. search terms, navigation path. As a matter of practice, we should presume—until proven otherwise—that we’ve found a symptom of an underlying problem and dig into it. An especially effective approach is to host a lunch with a small group of colleagues who have a shared experience using a knowledge base to help complete unfamiliar task, e.g. recently filing expense reports for an international trip. We should also encourage our colleagues in support to engage their users (when appropriate) in the same fashion and reward both the customer and the support rep when they deliver useful feedback.
By making our content quality system airtight, we are poised to reap the benefits of our strategic commitment to consolidate the publishing operations for multiple websites. With clarity over our content shortcomings, we will make data-driven decisions to prioritize and resource our investments that optimize ROI. Strategically, we have the support of policy and stakeholders to streamline content production. To do that, we will seek the wisdom of our talented colleagues in marketing.
Last Week: Robert’s ninth of twelve articles, A Swing and a Miss: Faulty Customer Support Metrics, examines how content wranglers can improve the quality of life for our colleagues in support roles and leverage insights (including customer support metrics) to our mutual benefit.
Next Week: Robert’s eleventh of twelve articles, Developing a Unified Content Strategy: Learning From the Masters, examines how we can engage our colleagues in marketing to help us vastly improve the content we deliver to customers, partners and staff.