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Building a knowledge base from scratch

Learn how to scale your support with a knowledge base and how to get it off the ground.

Written by Jarratt Isted
Published 28th March 2018

Introduction

Back in the summer of 2016 when we first started HelpDocs, support was easy. We had a few tickets here and there, but nothing major. It was pretty ironic because we were building a platform to help people scale their customer support but we weren’t actually experiencing the problem at the time. Obviously it was just the start and there weren’t many users to support.

Fast forward 18 months and we’re in a totally different position. I’m genuinely glad we have a place where customers can look for information themselves.

We’re currently a three person team and with thousands of users to support we simply wouldn’t be able to cope. I’d like to think our knowledge base has had a big part of allowing us to grow with such a small team.

Looking at our stats for this month (March 2018) we’ve received 56 live chat tickets and avoided 1,256. If we assume each ticket takes around of 10 minutes to resolve based on our live chat analytics, that’s around 209 hours. As a bootstrapped team of 3, we couldn’t handle 209 hours of extra support.

HelpDocs stats March 2018
The amount of tickets we avoided in March 2018.

We pride ourselves on the support we provide, so each ticket that doesn’t get deflected by our knowledge base is an opportunity to do a better job. What can we do to avoid this question being asked in the future?

It may sound like we’re trying to avoid our customers but the opposite is true.

We’d love to spend more time with the customers that need or want to speak to us and help the customers that have a repeat question look for themselves. It’s not about avoiding tickets—it’s about having successful, happy customers.

Understanding how we can improve our self-service option is a fascinating task. What are the types of questions that need one-on-one assistance? How do we encourage users to browse our knowledge base? Is there a way to improve the process for the customer and agent if a conversation is the only option?

Running a knowledge base company has given me some pretty unique insights into how support scales and the way people feel about their knowledge bases.

I’m positively surprised how much our customers care about giving their users a great experience. You’d also think setting up a knowledge base was a set it and forget it process, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The majority of our users are frequently logging in, updating and sorting articles to enrich their self-service.

If you’re reading this you’re probably interested in setting up a knowledge base or you’re looking to reorganize it. If that’s not why, I’m afraid this won’t be the most exciting read, although I’ll do my best to keep you entertained.

In this guide I’ll talk about how to provide good customer support by providing a self-serve option. A knowledge base gives your customers the ability to read or watch guides on how to carry out a specific action with your product without having to spend time getting 1-on-1 help for simple queries. I’ll also give you quick-start category and article templates to start off your knowledge base.

I’m certainly no expert at knowledge bases or customer support, but I’ll do my best to give you some helpful tips on going from a blank page to a useful resource for your customers to succeed based on what I’ve learned so far.

The need for self-serve

Each time I hear a customer say our support is great it puts a gleaming smile on my face. For someone who pays us money each month to take time out to say we’re doing a good job and to give us a pat on the back—well, it doesn’t get much better for a founder than that.

Unfortunately I think support is often underrated in the internet age. Support coexists and matters just as much as a good product. Do both well and you’ve got some happy, loyal customers.

I know HelpDocs has a long way to go in terms of providing an amazing support experience for customers but investing heavily in making it a pillar of our company is important to us. Sure, we make a knowledge base product—but it’s just as important for other verticals and industries to make support memorable and pleasant.

Zappos is an example that springs to mind for many people in customer support. While it takes caring for the customer to the extreme it does point out the fact that an online shoe store can be known for something more than just shoes. They’re known for providing an amazing customer experience.

But customer experience can become tricky when paired with the growth of a company.

Often support will be the first to suffer as it’s time-consuming, difficult to scale, and seen as something that can be easily farmed-off. However, when a customer needs help it’s the support experience as a whole that’ll leave a lasting impression. More so than an error or confusing flow in your product.

Knowing they’ll get help and support when they need it can negate some negative interactions with a product. The interesting thing I’ve observed is that product and customer support are surprisingly intertwined.

  • A useful product with bad customer support will result in a customer being generally unhappy with your service. The product may solve their problem but if they get in touch and have an unpleasant interaction each time, do they really want to keep pumping money into your company?
  • A useless product with good customer support will result in a disgruntled—but far more patient—customer. Knowing they’ll have great support when they need it helps, although only for so long. You might have an all-star support team but it won’t prop up a useless product forever.
  • A useless product with bad customer support has no hope of being around for long. Money will be pumped in for sales but customers won’t hang around for long. You’ll get a bad reputation in no time.
  • A useful product with good customer support? That’s a recipe for happy customers who stick around for a long time. It’s hard to sustain but worth the effort.

Why is self-serve an important option to provide? As a business grows you’ll have more customers to support. At some point something has to give with your 1-on-1 help. This usually translates into worse support for users and that’s something you really don’t want.

Keeping customers happy and resolving their problems in good time can make a huge difference to your reputation. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do. Your customers are paying you for a service and it’s your job to help them succeed.

With more tickets and less time with each customer you have three options to help you scale:

  1. Create support processes
  2. Find customer support tools
  3. Hire a customer support team

All are good options, although option one and two are the quickest & easiest of the three. You might think customer support is an easy skill to obtain but it’s actually very difficult. It requires knowledge, people skills, and lateral thinking.

That makes hiring a good customer support team member tricky. You’ll need to find people to help you out at some point, but it really depends on the stage of your company.

The matter of scaling support

When your company is a few months old your primary concern is obtaining customers and keeping them happy, not trying to support them at scale. It’s actually great to speak 1-on-1 with new customers at this point (although I still find this the case 18 months on).

Learning about their problems, how you can solve them, and whether or not your product is doing a good job is the best way to iterate on your offering and build something worth buying.

I could write a whole book about our experiences building a bootstrapped business from nothing to something, but for now I think Paul Graham—the founder of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator in Mountain View—sums it up pretty well. He calls this doing things that don’t scale.

“Another reason founders don't focus enough on individual customers is that they worry it won't scale. But when founders of larval startups worry about this, I point out that in their current state they have nothing to lose. Maybe if they go out of their way to make existing users super happy, they'll one day have too many to do so much for.”

— Paul Graham, Do Things that Don't Scale

When we founded HelpDocs it was vastly different to what it we have today. It’s only through listening to amazing customers that we’ve created something people actually want to buy.

I think far too many businesses jump into creating a scalable way to support customers too early on. It pays to be prepared, but it’s more important you focus on your product and making that easier to use than it is scaling your support for the future.

If you’re listening to customers and iterating well on your product, you’ll start to grow. As you start to grow your user base, you’ll find yourself answering repeat questions. Not too many of them, but enough that it starts to seem silly that you’re typing the same words to different customers.

There’s two tools you can deploy at this point.

  1. Canned responses. In email and live chat software, you’ll usually find a canned responses section where you can quickly write insert answers. This should do the trick for some questions, although leaving placeholders for some customization can make it feel less robotic and more human.
  2. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). You’ve probably seen sections under the billing/plans on many websites with some simply questions and answers. This can help leads to understand how they’ll be charged and it gives you the opportunity to start being pre-emptive with your support.
Profitwell FAQ page under billing
In addition to a knowledge base, Profitwell use FAQs under their plans to answer common customer questions.

As you can see, setting up a knowledge base right at the start isn’t always the best option. It’s a big job and there’s no point in investing in something when you’re still trying to get your first 10 customers.

The route most fledging companies follow is to start with nothing, then transition to a simple FAQ page as queries start to flow in, and then actively try to combat common questions with a knowledge base. This is either a custom solution or using a hosted platform like—you guessed it—HelpDocs (first plug and we’re more than 1,000 words in. I’m doing well).

Ticket chart
Gradually scale your support when you need to, not when you don't.

So what exactly is the purpose of an FAQ page? Shouldn’t you just go straight for a knowledge base? The salesman in me says yes, but that’s not the case at all. Start small and work your way up when you need to.

The humble FAQ page

Ah, the FAQ page. It usually doesn’t get much love but it’s one of the most important parts of starting to scale your customer support. They’re great if you’re at the stage when you’re getting repeat questions, but you’re not quite ready for a full-on knowledge base.

As I mentioned earlier, the neat thing about creating an FAQ page is that you can start becoming pre-emptive with your support for leads and customers. This will encourage lurking leads to sign up and customers to start helping themselves.

Off to a good start

Billing is a subject customers will always have questions about. Can I get a refund? Do you offer discounts? How much can I get off if I go for an annual plan? It’s reassuring for customers and leads to know you’re thinking about how you handle something pretty important—their credit cards.

These are all questions you can answer underneath your plans section on your website. They’re simple enough because you can ask your team and they’ll be able to give you an answer. If you’re a founder, well, that’s even easier.

No need to pull up your code editor or Wordpress login. To start with, just paste these questions into a Dropbox Paper or Google Doc (does anyone use Word anymore?). I’ve even gone ahead and made the template for you, so you could just fill this out too.


Can I cancel at any time?

Explain your policy on cancellations. Can they cancel at any time? What happens to their data if they do?

You’re free to cancel at any time during your subscription. You’ll get access until the end of your billing cycle. We’re not able to refund the remaining amount if you’re on an annual plan.

Is my data safe?

Describe your security policies and how you keep their data safe from attackers. You might need some help from a technical team member for this.

Our service is INSERT ENCRYPTION DETAILS. We back up data every TIME FRAME and our servers are based in PLACE with COMPANY.

Is there a discount for non-profits and charities?

You’ll likely get interest from companies that aren’t for-profit. Let them know your price policy on this as it’ll make them more comfortable about signing up.

We love helping companies with a cause. We offer non-profits and charities DISCOUNT. Please get in touch and we’d love to help you get set up.

Do I need to pay VAT?

It’s not the most fun to have an unexpected jump in price when you reach the checkout page. Explain how much they’ll need to pay based on the country they’re in if they reside in the EU.

Below is a list of the charges you should expect based on the country your company resides in. This will be added to the total before you pay.

How long should I expect for support?

This is where you can impress. Tell leads or customers how long they should expect to wait for assistance.

Our internal goal for first response is TIMEFRAME. We aim to resolve tickets within TIMEFRAME although it really depends on the case.

Can I migrate my data?

No matter how hard you try, you will get churn. It’s comforting and ethical to help users export their data. Answer whether customers can export their data if they’re about to sign up or they are thinking about migrating.

You can migrate your data by INSTRUCTIONS. We provide the following formats: FORMATS.

Implementing your FAQs

The best place to put these questions is under your plans section on your marketing site. If you use something like Wordpress or Wix this shouldn’t be too tricky.

If not, you’ll need to get the person in charge of your marketing site to implemente these changes. Here’s a draft email you can use with plenty of emoji included of course:

Hey NAME!

Looks like we’re getting some repeat questions and I think we could reduce some of them so customers can take a look themselves. Should make it easier for me/our support team to help customers that have other questions 🤓

Wondering if you could put these questions on our marketing under the plans on the pricing page? Would be 💯

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS HERE

Thanks!

Another option is to host the questions elsewhere. There’s plenty of options when it comes to spinning up a quick one-pager. Here’s just a few I’ve come across:

Transitioning from an FAQ page to knowledge base

If you’re past the point of just a FAQ page helping you move customers towards success, it’s time to set something more powerful up. This is where a knowledge base fits in nicely.

There are only so many FAQs you can display on one page without it being rendered completely useless. Leads, customers and reps aren’t going to scroll up and down trying to find the right answer—and so they shouldn’t.

Thus the appeal of a shiny new knowledge base is put into the spotlight.

So, what exactly is a knowledge base and why should you spend your hard earned cash on one?

A knowledge base is a site specifically made for questions and answers. They usually have extra features to help guide your customers like great search or integrations with your existing tools. They can also come with analytics to help you determine what leads are interested in before they sign up or what customers are struggling with.

These features can make a huge difference if you’re a company growing fast with a lot of customers.

Psst. Yep, that’s right. HelpDocs comes with all these features and more. Check out our integrations page to see what we integrate with. 🛠

Not only does it give customers a way to help themselves (saves them and you time) but one thing we’ve heard from our own customers is how it helps new hires understand and get up to speed with your product—from new customer support reps to a new VP of Sales.

The thing is, a knowledge base isn’t going to help if it’s a mess to put it bluntly.

A good knowledge base comprises of two basic functions: it needs to be effortless to navigate and read.

A knowledge base can quickly become a mess if it’s not organized well. Like a well running hotel, a certain amount of housekeeping is required to keep it in tip-top shape. To keep it working as it should.

It’s understandable that a knowledge base can easily get out of hand. As your product balloons in complexity, the job of the knowledge base is to keep things simple for customers and reps. And jotting down all that information your product team has been storing in their heads is no easy feat either.

Plus, if you’re just starting to explore creating your knowledge base, it’s tough to know what to write and how to write it.

Getting your knowledge base started

Just like when I started this eBook, staring at a blank white page and trying to figure out what the heck you’re going to write and how you’re to organize it downright sucks.

Educating people in general is difficult. You have to train yourself on making complex ideas digestible for the average reader. It takes time and patience, so if customers are still getting confused after your articles don’t be disheartened. It’s just a matter of practice.

Many writers are given the advice to simply write something—anything—on the page. So that’s how I’m going to help you get started.

Luckily for you you’ve already got some ideas from the previous chapter. We’ll go over how to convert these into categories later.

With the following ‘barebone’ category ideas, I hope you’ll find it a good starting point to successfully implementing a self-serve option for your awesome customers.

It’s easy to assume the order of your knowledge base articles doesn’t matter. Won’t customers just search if they’re looking for an answer? Well sometimes, yes.

But the surprising thing is many customers choose to navigate your knowledge base for a self-directed crash course in your product after they sign up. And leads take a look to see what your product is like before they sign up. You should count yourself lucky—they all want to succeed with your product.

While a marketing site and onboarding sequence can hold a lot of information, it doesn’t deep dive into every little crevice. What is actually possible with your platform and what might I be missing out on? That’s exactly what a knowledge base is for. It’s for storing a large amount of knowledge, right?

The secret to a useful knowledge base is stepping back and thinking about how your users are going to actually use it.

Based on customer support tickets, user analytics—and if you’ve already got one—knowledge base views, it’s not too tricky to work out what users start looking for when they sign up.

Here are the types of questions you’ll want to ask yourself in order to understand what’s going on with new users:

  1. What do new signups ask about when they start? If you’re not answering customers directly, either give it a go for a week to gain more insight, or ask your customer support team about it. The same questions tend to pop up more often than you’d think.
  2. What do new users check out when they first start? Once you’ve got enough data based trial signups (you’ll want > 100 trials) you’ll start to see a pattern in the way they use your product. For us, most users create a category, then an article, then published it to see it live on their knowledge base.
  3. Where do lost signups get stuck? In every business, users will get stuck and then get fall off the radar and never come back. If you can work out where this occurs, you can work on preventing it.

Gather some common questions or areas where users are struggling. These will be handy later on.

Let’s get started on creating your first categories.

Barebone categories

Organizing your knowledge base for the first time is daunting. You want to help your customers succeed but where do you even start? Here’s some category names to help you out:

  • Getting started. New users are the ones most likely to get stuck. Give them an easy place to find the questions and answers they might need. An example being “How do I create my task?” if your product is a project management app.
  • Billing. Paying, switching plans, and cancelling are all important topics that need to be answered for customers. While these are usually pretty dry they’re probably the most important.
  • FAQs. You don’t want too many categories that it makes it hard to navigate your knowledge base. An FAQs category is useful for putting all those miscellaneous answers in.

Let’s go into detail on each of these categories and how you can organize and what you can write about in them.

Using HelpDocs? Head to Content and click Add Category to add these categories. You’ll find title at the top and description near the bottom of the sidebar.

Billing

Billing is by far the easiest place to get started with your docs. Your product has prices, policies about refunds, trial information, and other general billing stuff. It’s just a matter of writing it down into digestible chunks.

Here’s a template for your category.

Title: Billing

Description: Take a look at how we handle billing at COMPANY, what comes with each plan, and how you can pay.

Giving article examples is a little trickier since your company sector might differ widely to ours, but I’ll try and split it into useful sectors for you. Simply copy any of the article titles you like the sound of.


Billing article examples: Business to business subscriptions

Sell to businesses? Us too! Here’s what we’ve found customers have asked us in the past.

Understanding the COMPANY trial.

What’s included in your trial and how long does it last?

Can I cancel at any time?

Explain your policy on cancellations. Can they cancel at any time? What happens to their data if they do?

Value added tax on your plan.

It’s not the most fun to have an unexpected jump in price when you reach the checkout page. Explain how much they’ll need to pay based on the country they’re in if they reside in the EU.

Exporting your data.

No matter how hard you try, you will get churn. It’s comforting and ethical to help users export their data. Answer whether customers can export their data if they’re about to sign up or they are thinking about migrating.

Payment methods we accept .

Which providers do you use and what payment methods do you accept? Credit cards, bank transfers, other forms of payment?

Invoices and receipts.

Can customers access their invoices and receipts? This is useful for their accounting department.

Updating your billing details.

Guide the user through the steps of updating their credit card or business address.


Billing article examples: Business to customer subscriptions

Selling to consumers? You’ll need to make sure the questions are phased so they’re simple and straightforward.

Plans and subscriptions.

What’s included in the different plans and how do they compare?

Discounts, deals and schemes.

Many business to customer subscription companies team up with other companies to expand their user base. What should users expect from these and how do they claim?

Can I cancel my account at any time?

Explain your policy on cancellations. Can they cancel at any time? What happens to their data if they do?

Value added tax on your plan.

It’s not the most fun to have an unexpected jump in price when you reach the checkout page. Explain how much they’ll need to pay based on the country they’re in if they reside in the EU.

Payment methods we accept .

Which providers do you use and what payment methods do you accept? Credit cards, bank transfers, other forms of payment?

Changing your payment details.

Guide users through the steps they need to take to change their payment card.

Paying through our iOS/Android/Other app.

How do users pay through your app if you have one? Do you accept Apple Pay/Android Pay?

Finding your receipts.

Can customers access receipts? If so, how do they find them in your app?

There was a problem with my payment.

Things can sometimes go wrong. Ensure your customers by writing about the steps they need to take if their payment doesn’t seem to go through.


Billing article examples: eCommerce

Most of your questions will be about payment methods, refunds and returns. Describe in plain language how to deal with these issues.

What payment methods do you accept?

Which providers do you use and what payment methods do you accept? Credit cards, bank transfers, other forms of payment?

Our refund and returns policy.

What’s your return policy? When should a customer expect the funds to be returned?

Value added tax on checkout.

It’s not the most fun to have an unexpected jump in price when you reach the checkout page. Explain how much they’ll need to pay based on the country they’re in if they reside in the EU.

Can I get an invoice for my purchase?

What are the steps the customer needs to take in order to find their invoice?

Can I pay over the phone?

If you accept order by phone, give customers step by step instructions on how to do so.

Getting Started

Giving examples on which articles to put in your Getting Started category wouldn’t be super useful as it’ll really depend on your product or service. The best way to come up with topics is to understand what customers need to know when they sign up.

  • What sets them on the path towards becoming successful with your product?
  • Where do new users get stuck?
  • What do users need to know to access their account?

For our product, customers being able to log back into our app is a super useful article for new customers. There’s also setting up a custom domain, managing users, and the different methods of authentication.

If your product is a project management app your first article might be how to go about creating a first project, getting a company team invited and onboard, and setting up a first task.

The best place to start with this is your customer support. Just by looking at a few tickets, you should get a pretty good idea about what new users struggle with.

Here’s a starting point for the description of your category.

Title: Getting Started

Description: New to PRODUCT? Here’s how to get the most out of your first few days.

FAQs

Your frequently asked questions category is pretty much a dump of knowledge that doesn’t fit anywhere else. You can’t have a category for absolutely everything. That would be super tricky for customers to navigate.

Here’s a template for your FAQs category.

Title: FAQs

Description: Here's a list of things we get asked a lot, but don't really fit anywhere else.

Virtual ink on a virtual screen

Getting these categories and some article ideas down will help you start to see some organization in your docs. It’s always better to start with something rough than over-plan and take months to release your new knowledge base. Of course the way you organize it and the article you write will depend greatly on what you’re selling and who you’re selling to.

The sooner you release it to your customers the sooner you can collect feedback and see how it’s performing. It’s not a set it and forget it process like I used to think, it takes time to build up helpful resources for your customers.

Once you start to solve problems without the need to assist it becomes a massive time saver for your customers and you.

Getting started writing your docs

When I first started writing docs I had no clue what I was doing. You’d think it would be easy but it’s really not. Trying to predict what a user might be struggling with and giving them a clear, understandable guide to solving their issue takes a lot of practice.

The best way to make sure a customer doesn’t read your docs properly? Confronting them with a gigantic wall of text. This ain’t a novel you’re writing. This kind of writing style should live on your blog, not your knowledge base.

If you’ve got your categories and article titles in place it’s time to start writing the actual content. Here are some quick tips about making sure your articles actually help your customers:

  1. Keep it short and to the point. Customers don’t read docs for fun, they just want their question resolved in the quickest time possible. Make sure your intro isn’t anymore than 5 sentences long.
  2. Split articles up. Unless the process is complicated and it makes sense to keep it in one document, try splitting a long article up into smaller articles. This will help them find their answer and avoid endless scrolling.
  3. Give customers a way to navigate long articles. If you can’t avoid an article being long, consider adding a table of contents or links to different sections. This’ll make it so much easier for a customer to get to the right stage for them.
  4. Go step-by-step. We’re all guilty of skimming articles and missing out steps. Make it easier by listing out steps with an ordered or bulleted list (just like this).
  5. Use images, GIFs, and video. It’s all well and good describing the steps a customer needs to take and the end result, but use the power of imagery to reinforce points. It also helps break up paragraphs.

An introduction to introductions

You don’t necessarily need an introduction and there are plenty of examples where companies decide to go straight for the instructions. It’s a matter of personal preference.

In our case, we like to write a sentence or two. It’s a balance between being short and to the point and explaining what the purpose of the article is. A good introduction has two main elements:

  1. How the topic relates to your product
  2. What they will achieve at the end of the article or what the article is about

It takes time and practice to write a good introduction and we’re always going through and rewriting our docs to explain concepts better. Here’s a good example from my co-founder Jake about article statuses in HelpDocs:

“When you create a new article in HelpDocs, it'll have the Draft status. When you're ready to share it with the world, you have a couple options. Here's what those statuses mean.”

This is good because it explains how it relates to the product and then what the article will explain to the customer—in just one paragraph. Here’s an example from Wistia:

Need help organizing your video files? Want to know how your account is structured? We've got you covered!

This works well because it helps the customer understand exactly what the article will be about and in very few words.

The meat of the article: the body

Writing a good body means one thing: getting complex ideas across to users in a simple way. As easy-to-use as your product may be, there will be parts that are confusing to customers.

When you buy a new washing machine, I doubt you ever read how to set it up. The promotional materials for said washing machine may be fancy, but once they’ve got you as a customer you’re pretty much on your own. Most of us end us throwing the manual away and through trial and error get it working on our own.

Obviously this experience doesn’t produce happy customers, so you can definitely do better than that. There are a few ways you can ensure customers don’t get lost when reading your material. Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Use step-by-step instructions. Rather than a long-winded paragraphs, steps make following along easy. Try to make them visually attractive and easy to read. I usually make it clear exactly where they need to go in our app and I tend to highlight important words by bolding them.

Steps to guide users
Use steps to guide to use through instructions.

Make it meaningful to learn. I recently watched an interesting TED talk about how learning styles aren’t a good theory to depend on, but rather teaching based on the content and how it applies to the problem. I’ve found text coupled with video works well. If a customer is still stuck after the text, a walkthrough video is a great way to reinforce ideas.

Highlight the important stuff. Us humans have a very short attention span. Use callouts or highlight important information to grab a users’ attention. Don’t use too many though, otherwise they’ll start glancing over them rendering them useless.

Keep the body short and to the point. I think it’s easy to get carried away by rambling on but your only job here is to get them back in your app and following the steps.

Extra tips for technical writing

Writing knowledge base articles is vastly different to writing a blog post, an email, or a report. It’s not your job to entertain in your docs, it’s your job to help them succeed with your product.

While it may be a bore, that means plain, simple language.

Always assume the reader knows nothing about your product or your industry.

Avoiding buzzwords or acronyms is a must. If you’re selling to businesses, you’ll likely find many companies outsource to people who don’t know the first thing about industry lingo or how the system works.

If you’re selling to consumers, avoiding difficult words is even more important. Take Spotify as an example. They sell to a wide range of consumers so the language needs to be simple and easy to understand.

Spotify help article
Spotify use steps to make their docs simple to follow.

You’ll notice that they don’t have much copy at all. This is likely intentional to keep things simple. You’ll see what they do have is steps. Five steps to follow to enable Google Assistant for Spotify.

Getting knowledge base articles takes time and practice. If your platform allows you to receive feedback from readers, you’ll get a good idea of what users like and what they don’t.

Growing and updating your knowledge base

It’s easy to assume that once you’ve got the majority of information down about your product or service it’s not going to need updating for a while. The truth is, a knowledge base is a big investment. Sure, it saves you and your customer a lot of time, but it’s only as useful as the information it holds.

If a customer finds your knowledge base article, follows the steps but ultimately ends up in a dead-end that’s a waste of their time. Not the best impression, right?

That’s why it’s so important to keep your support site in mind when releasing new features, processes, or products.

When we founded HelpDocs I was sure customers would create their account, write a set of docs, and then leave and never think about it again. But that’s totally not what happens.

I’ve found the majority of our customers log in monthly—sometimes even weekly—to improve, iterate, and update their docs. Either they improve existing ones or add new articles based on product updates or feedback.

Keeping your documentation updated

By now you should have some basic category and article ideas and know how to write a simple knowledge base article. Getting started, billing, and FAQs should be enough to release to your customers and start helping customers without having to personally assist with each question. That’s a great start.

The thing is, your product will change over time and you’ll need to make sure your docs change along with it. It can take a little time to get the whole team used to updating and improving your knowledge base alongside product releases.

Attend product meetings

One way to keep in the loop is by attending product team meetings and jotting down notes. You’ll need to be proactive when it comes to keeping in sync with the product team as they’re likely moving fast to get the feature shipped.

Here’s a template you can use to get in on these meetings:

Hey NAME,

Awesome to hear you’re shipping FEATURE soon! Was wondering if I could sit-in on these meetings and jot down some notes? I’m working on getting the docs written up so they’re ready as soon as you’re ready to launch.

Thanks!

This is not only proactive but respectful. It could be a little strange for the team to have someone jotting down notes in the corner silently, so try to get involved.

Sure, you might not have engineering experience, but you’ve got something just as important—knowing how to talk with the customers, understanding what they want out of the product, and the skill of simplifying complex ideas. Your opinion is valuable.

When you’re jotting down notes about the new feature and how to write articles about it, here are some good starting points:

  • How does the feature help them? Knowing what the feature will help your customers with will give you a starting point for your introduction. Does it help users keep their accounting department happy? Does it save them a bunch of time?
  • Important things the user needs to know before starting. Sometimes a user will need be on a certain plan or will need to pay extra for a feature.
  • When will the feature be released? This is a super important one. You don’t want to publish an article early and you also don’t want to leave it to the last minute. Make sure you understand when the product or feature is slated to be released. This will likely be pushed back so keep updating it as you hear more about its progress.

This way you can stay ahead of the curve and draft bullet points ready for a full write-up.

Keep docs top-of-mind in task management software

If your team uses a task management tool like Asana, Trello or Flow, make sure to include ‘write documentation’ or ‘update documentation’ as a subtask. It’s a little reminder that you’ll need to write docs and that your whole team needs to keep it in mind before releasing the feature.

As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to properly draft up any documentation for a product feature a week before it’s released. That way the product is at the stage that it’s nearly ready (giving you enough resources to write about how it works) and you have time for someone else to look it over before it’s published.

You don’t want to rush and publish something that will confuse customers rather than help them.

Depending on your company size, it might be that you need other teams to fill out a short description of how the product works & how customers enable it from the product team and any pre-release screenshots or assets from your design team.

For this, you could use the following template within your task management software.

Docs help keep our customers from getting stuck with our product and reduces our support load. Would be 💯 if you could fill in the following blanks for me, just so we’re all on the same page.

@teammate What do customers need to do to enable FEATURE?

@teammate Do you have any messaging you’d like me to use from the marketing?

@teammate Any assets you’d like me to use?

Prioritize your docs

If your team is pushing updates daily, the list of docs to update might just pile up so much that it’s impossible to get through. Some docs are just more important than others.

In this case, you could employ a prioritization system within your task management software. If it’s a major product release you could score that, let’s say, 1 (most important). If it’s a small update to the way something works that only a few customers use you could give that a 5.

This system makes sure important updates aren’t missed out, forgoing a spike in support tickets from confused customers.

Leverage the tools your team already uses

Getting your team to log into yet another tool every time they want to draft up a new article isn’t super appealing. Instead, use tools and process based on what you and your team are already doing.

Use Slack? In your daily standup or weekly update, make a note of any docs that need updating. You could go as far as having a #docs channel in your Slack workspace for any discussions, making sure to loop in engineers and team members to get additional information.

Quick plug (I know, I’m terrible). We have a Slack integration that’s mighty fine. You can quickly draft up articles, get notifications about feedback and inbound contact forms, and search your docs from inside the composer.

HelpDocs Slack integration
Our Slack integration gives your team an easy way to draft article ideas.

Keep your docs top-of-mind

It’s all too easy to keep docs shoved away, gettin’ all dusty and old. Keep them rejuvenated and fresh by making sure nobody on your team forgets about your good ole knowledge base.

It’s the first line of love for customers needing help.

Increase customer success using your knowledge base

The success of your customers really matters. It’s all well and good getting leads to sign up and buy your product, but if they swiftly cancel their account this means you’re gonna have problems.

Whether you define customer success as a sales or support role, your knowledge base can help with you gain the trust of leads or proactively help customers who either need help or have just signed up.

Customer onboarding

Teaching new customers how to use your product is a tough task. You’ve spent countless hours creating and using your product and it’s your job to teach someone who’s never even seen it to understand the why behind it and the how.

Luckily there are loads of resources for onboarding—a quick Google search should give you some great articles. There are two main ways to onboard users, through your app or by email. You can do both if you’re really feeling it.

Tools like UserLane, Drift, CustomerIO, Intercom, Vero, and Autopilot offer different methods of helping your users when they first sign up.

But how does your knowledge base tie into this? Well, you can give users links to relevant articles in addition to a short explanation or video. This means your notification or email won’t get clogged up with irrelevant detail.

HelpDocs onboarding email

The email above is an example of what we send to Admin users in our onboarding. Simply sending links to articles they might find helpful is a quick and useful way to give them the support they need without the gritty and unnecessary detail.

To understand what to send and when, take a look at your Getting Started category. Since you’ve already researched what new customers struggle with when they first sign up, it’ll be a breeze to point them in the right direction at the right time.

Customer support

While a knowledge base can do its best to help customers before getting to a ticket, you’ll inevitably get questions from customers who haven’t taken a look at your docs.

If a customer asks something that’s already answered in your knowledge base, you should use links to support answers to tickets, not replace them.

Obviously just pasting a link to an article instead of talking to them is pretty rude, so if they ask a question that’s already in your knowledge base simply summarize what they need to do and then paste in the link at the end for extra information.

Helping customers with HelpDocs
Add links to answers from your knowledge base for customers at the end of your response.

We have a few handy integrations to make this easier in some popular tools. Our Chrome extension helps you paste in links from your knowledge base from anywhere on the web and our Drift & Front plugins give you an easy way to access articles inside each platform.

Final word

As globalization spreads it’s easier than ever for businesses around the world to sell to other businesses or consumers. This means more customers, which means more support.

Starting out with support doesn’t have to be daunting. Scale your support as you need be. Not too early to avoid spending time and resources on the wrong things, and not too late to avoid being inundated with old tickets and getting a bad reputation in your industry.

When you start trying to scale your support make sure you know the product inside-out. Look at where new users get stuck and start becoming proactive with support by introducing messages at the right time with links to your docs.

I hope this guide helped you to get your knowledge base started off on the right foot. If you haven’t already, check out our platform for an easy to use self-service knowledge base to educate your customers.