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Today, most B2B support knowledge bases are locked behind customer logins.  But “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It’s time to rethink that decision. In this two-part blog series, I’m going to talk about the ways in which knowledge management is evolving and how your business can adapt.

You Don’t Own Your Support Portal

What do you, personally, do when you have an issue with technology? Sure, sometimes you ask a knowledgeable friend, and a few brave souls will crack open the manual. But that’s not what usually happens.

Most likely, you Google it. We all do. (Or you use your favorite non-Google Internet search engine, but let’s say “Google” for short.)

And why wouldn’t you? It takes only one click to start a Google search. Google returns data from many sources—blogs, forums, the company website, even third party help desks. It often has questions from people just like you, and answers for people like you. It’s so easy.

You don’t own your customers’ search for knowledge—they do, the votes are in, and Google won. So, like it or not, Google is your support portal.

They’ll find lots of great knowledge out there. Will they hear from you, too?

What’s Stopping You? Debunking Some Myths

Putting our knowledge base on the Internet is nice in theory,” I often hear, “but we have a business to run. We just can’t give away our intellectual property for free.” When I ask for more details, I usually hear variations on these three objections.

Myth #1: Our Customers Will Stop Paying for Support

For many companies, maintenance and support is a tremendous source of profit. The financial health of the business depends on high support contract renewal rates. So what if people stop paying for support because the knowledge base is free?

This is a serious issue, and you shouldn’t risk your business on a whim. But this concern is overstated. Customers still need contracts.

  • Prudent customers can’t operate mission-critical software without maintenance—compatibility releases, bug fixes, and patches for vulnerabilities. We’re not suggesting distributing software to customers who don’t have a current contract!
  • The other thing customers must have is the ability to open a support case when they really need to (although, naturally, they hope they won’t need to very often.) Requiring some kind of entitlement verification for a support case is just good business, and the finance people will require it for VSOE.

In any event, this objection is becoming increasingly moot as more companies move to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. For SaaS businesses, support is typically bundled into the product, so there’s no separate support contract. Voila! There’s no risk that an open knowledgebase will cannibalize revenues.

Myth #2: Our Competitors Will Tell Prospects We Have Bugs

“People never call support to say they’re happy with the product,” as the old saying goes, and knowledge bases will inevitably document errors, misconfigurations, and yes, even bugs. This causes a concern—often bordering on paranoia—that competitors will walk into prospects’ offices waving our KB articles over their heads, yelling, “See! They have bugs! Buy our software instead!”

This nightmare scenario falls apart under closer inspection. I’ve been involved in many enterprise sales cycles, on both the sell and buy side, and I have never seen this play out. Consider:

  • Salespeople don’t really want to talk about the competition—they want to talk about their solution. Differentiation is important, but badmouthing the competition only makes the salesperson look bad, and focuses attention away from what they’re trying to sell. Besides, focusing on a specific bug is far too tactical for an enterprise sales cycle.
  • And, your prospects are aware your products have bugs. The fact that your products aren’t perfect won’t come as a surprise. The interesting question is, how will you help customers overcome your product issues? Clear, helpful knowledge base articles are a great start.
  • Finally, if there’s something so bad that it might truly jeopardize your ability to sell the product, your competitors and prospects won’t need a KB article to hear about it. It’ll be on forums, Twitter, CNET…if it’s big, and bad, it’s just not going to be a secret. At least, if there’s a KB article, they get to hear from you, with suggestions and workarounds.

Myth #3: Our Competitors Will Figure Out Our Secret Sauce

The other related concern we hear is that competitors’ product teams will pour through knowledge base articles so they can understand and steal proprietary technology. Once again, this concern doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

First, think about your own product teams. Go talk with them and ask. How interested are they in stealing someone else’s IP?  Any engineer who is skilled enough to reverse engineer someone else’s feature would rather invent it herself. What’s hard, in my experience, is getting engineers to pay attention to what others in the market are doing at all! So the chance that your engineers will wade through a different company’s KB to discover their next breakthrough is essentially zero. Your competitors’ engineers are no different.

But let’s say I’m wrong about this. Let’s say a competitor really is set on stealing your IP. Why on earth would they go looking in the knowledgebase?

As a former product manager, I can tell you that, if I think you’re an interesting competitor, I’ve read your documentation. I’ve seen your product—your current customers who are my prospects have demoed it to me. I may have hands-on experience with a trial version. I know what your product does and, to a certain extent, how it does it.

So, what would be gained by trolling through your knowledge base? As a product manager, I only have so much time for competitive analysis. KB articles are definitely not the low-hanging fruit.

Join us for part two of this post where I discuss how you can start using Google to your advantage in maintaining your position as the best authority for all customer support inquiries.

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David Kay

About Author David Kay

David Kay is principal of DB Kay & Associates, a consultancy that provides thought-leading advice in knowledge management, self-service, and social support to the high-technology service and support market. DB Kay customers include IBM, Microsoft, Research In Motion, Tektronix, TI, Intuit, and Cisco. David is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and webinars. He was recognized as an Innovator by the Consortium of Service Innovation, and is a KCS Certified Trainer. DB Kay & Associates is a TSIA Consulting Alliance Partner.