When Marconi Corp. PLC went on a shopping spree and acquired 10 telecommunications companies over a three-year period, it faced a serious challenge: How could the US$3 billion manufacturer of telecommunications equipment ensure that its technical support agents knew enough about newly acquired technology to provide quick and accurate answers to customers on the phone? And how could Marconi bring new agents up to speed on all the company’s products?

Marconi’s technical support agents – 500 engineers scattered in 14 call centres around the globe – field approximately 10,000 questions every month about the company’s products. Before the acquisitions, agents had relied on Tactics Online, an extranet where they and customers could search for frequently asked questions and text documents. As new agents and products joined the company’s ranks, Marconi wanted to supplement the Web site with a more comprehensive knowledge management system. As engineers from the newly acquired companies came on board, however, they were hesitant to share their knowledge about the products they had been supporting. “They felt that their knowledge was a security blanket that helped guarantee their jobs,” says Dave Breit, director of technology and R&D for managed services in Warrendale, Pa. “With all of the acquisitions, it was essential that we all avoid hoarding knowledge and share it instead.”

At the same time, Marconi wanted to streamline its customer service organization by making more of its product and systems information available directly to customers and shortening the length of customer calls. “We wanted to leverage the Web for customer self-service versus increasing the number of agents,” Breit says. “We also wanted to provide our frontline engineers [who interact directly with customers] with more information more quickly so that they could resolve more calls faster.”

Building on a KM Foundation

When Marconi began evaluating knowledge management technologies in the spring of 1998, the concept of sharing knowledge among agents was nothing new. Agents were already accustomed to working in teams of three or four people, gathering in war room fashion to solve customers’ technical issues. And a year earlier, Marconi had started basing a percentage of agents’ quarterly bonuses on the amount of knowledge they submitted to Tactics Online as well as their involvement with mentoring and training other agents. “Each agent was expected to teach two training classes and write 10 FAQs to earn their full bonus,” says Breit. “When we brought new companies online, the new agents received the same bonus plan. This approach allowed us to build a very open knowledge-sharing environment.”

To augment Tactics Online, Marconi chose software from ServiceWare Technologies, in part because its technology would integrate easily with the company’s Remedy CRM system, which agents use to log incoming calls from customers and track other customer interactions. In addition, says Breit, Marconi wanted its agents to populate its existing Oracle database of product information.

Breit’s division spent six months implementing the new system and training agents. The system – dubbed KnowledgeBase – is linked to the company’s CRM system and is powered by the Oracle database. The integrated view of Marconi’s customers and products provides agents with a comprehensive history of interactions. Technical support agents can, for example, put markers in the database and immediately pick up at the point where the customer last spoke with another agent.

On the Front Line

Tactics Online complements the new system. “The data stored in KnowledgeBase are specific troubleshooting tips and hints on our various product lines,” says Zehra Demiral, manager of knowledge management systems. “Tactics Online, on the other hand, is more of a doorway for customers to come into our customer support organization. From there, customers can access KnowledgeBase or their service requests or our online training manuals.”

Technical support agents now rely on KnowledgeBase for the latest solutions to customers’ product and systems problems. Level 1 agents answer all incoming calls, solve customers’ problems when possible, record the calls in the company’s CRM system and transfer the more difficult calls up the line to Level 2 agents. Level 2 agents, meanwhile, are the heart of the organization, composing about 70 per cent of the technical support organization. They handle the more difficult calls and troubleshoot and diagnose equipment and network problems. “They’re the majority of our knowledge users and contributors,” says Breit. “They write up a synopsis of the call and feed it into KnowledgeBase [on an ongoing basis] so that other agents can refer to the solution later.”

After Level 2 agents submit their knowledge “raw” to a holding queue, Level 3 agents confirm the accuracy of the information, make any necessary changes and then submit the document to Demiral. (Level 3 agents also act as consultants, helping Level 2 agents solve problems and serving as intermediaries between the agents and the company’s engineering departments.) The entire process of updating the KnowledgeBase system with a new solution typically takes between three days and two weeks.

Changing Roles

As Breit anticipated, implementing KnowledgeBase has changed the agents’ roles. Level 1 agents, for example, now do more in-depth troubleshooting because they have more information available at their fingertips. In fact, they solve twice as many calls themselves (50 per cent instead of 25 per cent) in a shorter time (10 minutes versus 30 minutes). Since Level 1 agents can handle more calls, this group has doubled in size during the past two years.

The transition wasn’t quite as painless, however, for the Level 2 and Level 3 agents. Indeed, their roles changed significantly. “Rather than simply submitting HTML pages to Tactics Online, they were now asked to analyse the problems in a very procedural way and create diagnostic ‘trees,'” says Breit. “That’s a more analytical way to think through a problem. Most of these guys had thought in terms of ‘what is the fastest way to solve a problem’ rather than ‘what is the most efficient way to solve a problem.'”

With hundreds of people submitting solutions, Marconi tended to get a lot of wheel reinvention. “There can be five or six ways to solve the [same] problem, but there’s one way that’s most efficient,” Breit says. To unearth and disseminate the most efficient solutions, agents were required to flowchart each of their solutions for the first three months following KnowledgeBase’s launch. “It’s amazing how many [agents] were unconscious of their own methodologies,” says Breit. “It was somewhat painful, but they eventually felt they benefited because they understood how they solve problems.”

As a result, agents now create technical solutions for customers in the most efficient – and logical – way possible instead of simply offering a “quick and dirty” solution. Think of the difference between simply being told what keys to strike on your PC and being taught how your software works and the logic behind executing a certain sequence of keystrokes. Once you actually understand how the product works, you can use the software more effectively and resolve more problems yourself.

Agents also had to change the way they present the solutions to customers. “We wanted to provide a collaboration tool for employees and a library source for our customers,” says Demiral. “Engineers wanted to provide a lot of detailed information yet we needed a degree of simplicity for customers. Most of the time, the immediate focus is on what a great collaboration tool this is and how it overcomes geographical distance among agents. Then I have to remind [agents] that this is a tool that we want customers to use and that they’ll have to organize, write and present the content with customers in mind.”

Making It Work

Demiral spent a lot of time working with the Level 3 agents to make their solutions less complex and streamline the review process. “We had to go through two iterations of how to organize and present the content,” Demiral says. “Customers tend to think in terms of the product and then the problem. But engineers often think about the problem first and then the product.”

The result: Customers often wouldn’t fully understand the solution. At the same time, Marconi had to work at easing Level 3 agents’ concerns that making them responsible for reviewing solution content would suddenly turn them into technical writers.

Marconi confronted cultural issues as well. “Business needs are different in different parts of the world,” says Demiral. “What may be normal business practice for Americans may not be common elsewhere.” In Europe, for example, the value of the KnowledgeBase system was not readily accepted. But once employees there saw that customers could use the system to solve some of their own problems, they got on board. Such an experience has been incorporated into how Marconi approaches KM. “We sometimes have to introduce the idea of knowledge management over time, validate it, and then move forward,” Demiral says.

To ensure that agents continue contributing new knowledge to KnowledgeBase, Marconi uses rewards. Besides bonuses, knowledge contributors receive recognition during meetings and in a newsletter. “Rewards help feed this culture,” Breit says. “Peer pressure also plays a role. Everyone wants to contribute because it’s the right thing to do. You also have to make sure that the system works well and that employees use it long enough to see it work. It has to be embedded in training and fully integrated into daily operations so that it just becomes part of how you do business.”

Louise Fickel is a freelance writer based in Frederick, Md.