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At our recent Technology Services World conference, I spent a day in one-on-one meetings with members, discussing their technology challenges and planned projects. One topic kept popping up again and again: creating a customer portal on the company website. With so many companies confused about where to begin, here are some best practices and lessons learned to consider. 

What Exactly Do You Mean by “Portal”?

First of all, be very careful about how you discuss the need for a customer portal with your IT department. There is a whole segment of technology for building portals, which creates a front end for many disparate systems on a website. When IT hears “portal”, they may immediately start shopping for complex and expensive portal software, which will add a lot of unnecessary time and cost to your project. I often joke that “portal” is a dirty word, and you may be better off saying something a bit more descriptive, like, “We need a central entry point for customers to access all of our self-service options.”

Deciding Which Tools You’ll Need

Specialty portal software is probably not required. In fact, you may already own all the software you need to create a new customer portal. Let’s look at the common applications or data repositories you may want to link to this portal:

  • CRM/incident management. A core piece of customer self-service is the ability to check the status of any open incidents (or cases or trouble tickets, whatever you call them), as well as open a new incident if necessary. Most CRM systems today include an online landing page for customers with links to various options (view history, open an incident, view open incidents). So start by having a chat with your CRM vendor and find out what is available.

  • Knowledge management. Another critical piece of self-service is access to the online knowledge base. Most vendors selling knowledge solutions for service also sell multi-channel and self-service tools, and they typically provide a customer landing page. As with your CRM vendor, have a chat with your knowledge management vendor(s) and find out what is available.

  • Online community. Offering an online community or discussion forum is common today for both consumer and enterprise technology companies, allowing customers to post questions and add comments to conversation threads. These vendors also provide a customer landing page that may be used as a basis for building out a customer portal.

Make the Portal as Easy as Possible to Use

With a little luck, you may find a good starting point for your portal from one of your existing vendors. If so, then you can add additional links from that page to map to these other areas, as well as links to additional repositories such as online documentation, release notes, download libraries, etc. To encourage use, it is best to consolidate access to all of this information from a single entry point. If the customer has to hunt around your website to find various information, they probably won’t bother and will just call or email you. Make sure the customer portal is easily accessible from the main web page—ideally only one click away from your primary domain website. 

The Importance of Search Strategy

Another thing I always bring up when discussing customer portals with TSIA members is having a strong search strategy. In my 2014 Knowledge Management Survey, I asked about search technology, and 59 percent of companies said that when customers searched the online knowledge base, they only received search matches for content in that knowledge base. If the answer could be found in the online community, or in your online documentation, they wouldn’t know it. You can’t expect customers to search in a dozen places on your website for an answer. Instead, you need to invest in a unified search solution that indexes all of the content available to customers, and returns search matches regardless of where the information is stored.

A Good Investment for Improved Customer Satisfaction

With survey data showing that customers increasingly prefer self-service to assisted support, shifting more volume to self-service isn’t about “deflection,” it is about offering the channel choices customer prefer. If your customer portal hasn’t been updated for a few years, or you have yet to consolidate all of your self-service options into a single place on your website, 2015 may be the time to make an investment. Just be careful using the “portal” word with IT, or you may end up with a two-year infrastructure project.

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John Ragsdale

About Author John Ragsdale

John Ragsdale is a distinguished researcher and the vice president of technology ecosystems for TSIA. His area of expertise is in creating strategies for improving the service operations and overall customer experience by leveraging innovative technology. John works closely with TSIA’s partner ecosystem, identifying leading and emerging technology vendors whose products help solve the key business challenges faced by TSIA members. He is also author of the book, Lessons Unlearned, which chronicles his 25-year career inside the customer service industry.

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