Content strategy and customer service: A talk with Ann Rockley

Apparently, you can be a content strategist without knowing it. In June of 2008, after years of working as a writer, I got tapped by a recruiter looking to fill a content strategist position at eBay. Looking at the job description, I wouldn’t even have guessed I was qualified. After some tests and an interview, I was hired. I learned a tremendous amount, and got a taste of the many applications of content strategy to a large ecommerce site.  By the time this piece is published, I’ll have rejoined eBay as a content strategist for a second contract.

According to Google knol, a wikipedia-like knowledge base, content strategy is “an emerging field of practice encompassing every aspect of content, including its design, development, analysis, presentation, measurement, evaluation, production, management, and governance.”

That said, content strategist areas of specialization vary widely. In one corner of the field is something like a cross between an editor and a traffic cop–someone who uses technical means to manage, distribute, migrate, update and align an organization’s multiple buckets of content. On the other end is someone like me, a writer working in Web space who gets into the mind of the user and creates pieces of content that relate logically intuitively to one another, and schemes for navigation that enable the user to get what she needs as efficiently as possible. Everyone in the content strategy field helps companies morph their Web sites into more serviceable places for customers and other stakeholders.

I’ve now helped many businesses rework their sites for greater clarity, usability and sales conversions. Because a Web site branches out much like, well, a web, and isn’t simply one page in front of another like a book, it needs a strategic approach to the organization and navigation. In a similar way to how streets with cars created “pedestrians,” the Internet with Web sites created “users.”

Admittedly, the consequences of bad content strategy (losing time, direction or information) are all less dire than the consequences of bad civil engineering (say, getting clipped by a 4X4 from a hidden road), Web professionals of all stripes need to put the needs of the user first and foremost in all they do, because guess what? The user is our customer. And if she can’t get where she wants to go on our site…click! Another sale gone to a competitor.

While at eBay the first time, I studied the work of Ann Rockley, president of The Rockley Group, international pioneer in content strategy, and author of the book Managing Enterprise Content (thank you, John Alderman for recommending that book). She has been instrumental in creating tools, standards and best practices around structured reusable content.

In the book, she proposes technical, structural and training solutions to many of the problems that businesses encounter as they grow, and lose control of the volume, quality and interrelationship of pieces of content they produce.

Curious about what the “mother of content strategy” had to say about content strategy considerations for customer service, I asked Ms. Rockley some questions. Here’s what she said:

I hear the phrase “content strategy” used in different contexts and ways. How would you define content strategy?

A content strategy is a plan of action that defines:

  • Who the audience is and their content requirements
  • The content delivery and interaction model
  • The structure and composition of content
  • The methodologies for access and retrieval

What are some obvious–and not so obvious–applications of content strategy to excellent customer service?

A content strategy ensures that the right content is available to the customer at the right time because you know what they need and what format they need it in. A content strategy also ensures that the call center is able to find the information they need to effectively and efficiently answer the customer’s questions. It is not enough to just have a knowledge base that the CSR has to troll through, they must have fast paths to key information and that can only be defined with a good content strategy.

Can you give an example of how a company dramatically improved its customer service with some attention to content strategy?  What can we learn from this?

A large telecommunications firm was able to reduce its reliance on four separate sources of content and move to a single source with an almost 50% reduction in content (unused content was deleted) and the time on call was reduced by a third. This was possible because a detailed analysis of customer requirements and call center requirements were completed in advance, then a content strategy was developed to support the requirements.

Ann Rockley

As far as I can tell, you were the first to put the term “unified content strategy” on the map. When I looked at the site for the conference you held in 2010, I noticed more prominence of the phrase “smart content.” Do these refer to the same thing? If not, how are they different?

I can definitely claim that term as my own. A unified content strategy is a repeatable method of identifying all content requirements up front, creating consistently structured content for reuse, managing that content in a definitive source, and assembling content on demand to meet your customer’s needs. Intelligent content/smart documents are the way in which we prepare our content so that it’s structurally rich and semantically aware, and is therefore discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable and adaptable. So the content strategy is the plan of action, and intelligent content is the way we implement it.

What advice would you give to a larger company in choosing a vendor to implement a comprehensive content strategy, especially regarding their customer service concerns?

Ensure that the company has a lot of experience developing effective customer service solutions (get references) and make sure they are not just tied to a specific tool solution or they may just really sell you the tool. Then ask them to provide insight into what goes into the content strategies they have developed in the past and identify why they were successful.

Can you give some quick tips that businesses could put into place today to improve their content strategy for better customer service?

  • Know your customers and their requirements.
  • Really listen to your call center staff’s challenges and ensure that you make their job more effective, because that will result in happier customers.
  • Don’t wait for all conditions to be perfect before you make a change. Find one thing that will provide a better experience for your customer and implement it, then incrementally implement further improvements over time.

Above you say “one thing.” Can you give an example of one such thing?

One thing a company could do is to make content findable. Making content findable makes a huge difference even if you don’t change any of the content. You could add a search engine to your site, or develop a taxonomy and add metadata to content for easier retrieval. Or you might create a site map, or organizing the content more intuitively. One change, and incremental change will show your customers and your call center staff that you care about their needs and are working toward continuous improvement.

Anything else you feel it’s important for businesses concerned about customer service to know about content strategy?

A content strategy will ensure that you have a complete business case and a plan of action to address your customer content requirements. This will ensure you’re on the road to success.

So a content strategy is an integral part of business solutions—can you say a bit more about that?

A business case is a set of insights, usually in the form of a document, that identifies the challenges an organization is facing, the cost of those challenges, and identifies a solution and potential benefits for the project going forward. Sometimes, companies choose a tool as their solution and just “dump” the content in, thinking that the tool will solve the problem. But a tool is only as good as you make it. If you don’t develop a content strategy that improves the content and the way people use that content, the tool will not solve your problems. Companies without a content strategy frequently realize little value in their new tools, and often experience a failure in the project.

Please share your thoughts below.