So far in this 3-part series on creating the ultimate customer portal, we've talked about the user interface design and location of the customer portal, as well as the various content repositories and resources that should be made available. In this final post, I want to share best practices for providing the tools customers need to find the answer to a question, or locate that one piece of information they need within the ocean of content you offer. 

Customer Portals Are More Than Just A Search Box

Many companies think that all they need to offer is a search box, and their work is done. You may be surprised to learn that the traditional search box is actually intimidating to segments of customers, particularly newer users who aren’t sure of your terminology, product names, error code formats, etc., and don’t know how to phrase the question or search term. Few users are really knowledgeable of Boolean search characters and options, so as powerful as those capabilities may be, they are seldom used.

Over the years, TSIA has given STAR Awards for “best online support,” and analyzed many company’s self-service sites as part of TSIA Operational Best Practice (OBP) audits. Companies with the highest self-service success rates tend to have one thing in common: they have done extensive use-case analysis of their customers to understand why customers access self-service, what kinds of questions they ask or what information they typically are looking for, and which options they expect to find to help them locate the required content.Here is some data on which features TSIA members offer to customers on their customer portals for use in finding the desired content.

self service support content  

(Click image to enlarge.)
Source: TSIA 2015 Knowledge Management Survey.

Search Box

Almost everyone we surveyed, 93%, offer a search feature. I'd like to mention that all search technology is not created equal, and I recommend investing in a unified search platform that allows you to index all those content sources we discussed in the previous section (community posts, product manuals, release notes, etc.) so when the customer executes a search, the search returns include matches from every repository—not just the knowledge base.

List of FAQs

Offering a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) or common problems is a great idea, because customers can simply click the link if the issue they are facing is included in the list. Ideally, the FAQ list is automatically created based on the questions asked and content accessed most frequently within the last week to 30 days, and bonus points if you can dynamically filter the list to only include content relating to products the customer owns. I’ve found that manually creating a FAQ list is not a very accurate approach, unless you are basing your list on reports showing search strings and top used articles.

Decision Tree

This approach allows users to step through a series of indexes to narrow down content options to find what they need. The highest level could be product names, then broad options such as Implementation, Configuration, Customization, Reporting, Features, etc. Under each of those options, you can have additional tiers of options. Hopefully, you offer a list of top used content off to the side that reflects the FAQs under each category as they progress down the index or decision tree. This is a great feature for newer customers and for analytical types.

Virtual Assistant or Guided Search

Popular on consumer sites, guided search is slowly gaining adoption within B2B, particularly as the technology grows more sophisticated and can handle complex technical questions. For example, one TSIA member successfully answers more than half of the questions posed by customers on their self-service site using a virtual assistant. Guided search, which may be described as an index tree with a layer of machine learning, can prompt the user with questions and guide them to a solution, taking into account products they own, questions they've asked before, and problems encountered by other customers with similar profiles. These are great tools for novice users, end users with procedural questions, and people new to your portal who just aren't sure where to start their search. While only 15% of TSIA members offer this feature today, there are multiple new products coming to marketing in 2016, including machine learning for guided resolution, so be sure to take the time to investigate some of these emerging solutions.

Real-Time Suggestions

If a customer goes straight for the option to create a support incident without attempting self-service, this feature can be a huge boost to self-service adoption and success. As a customer types in the short/long description of their problem, and selects all the required pull-down fields regarding product and version, your search technology can dynamically prompt the customer with possible solutions before the incident is actually created. Particularly for common, repetitive problems, proactively prompting customers with links to knowledge base articles, forums discussions, or procedures in a manual can help deflect assisted support cases, and encourage the customer to try self-service again in the future.

Based on inquiry volume and member discussions at our past TSW conference in Vegas, it appears that many companies are gearing to make improvements in their self-service sites, or even planning a complete overhaul in 2016. I hope this information will be helpful in deciding what improvements to make to your customer portal. Finally, if you would like an objective evaluation of our current customer portal, consider TSIA Operational Best Practice audits, which offer a module focused on self-service best practices and pacesetter practices.

Read more posts in the "Creating the Ultimate Customer Portal" series:

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John Ragsdale

About Author John Ragsdale

John Ragsdale is the distinguished vice president of technology research, for TSIA. His area of expertise is in creating strategies for improving the service operations and overall customer experience by leveraging innovative technology. Ragsdale drives TSIA's highly regarded technology research agenda, delivering insightful, thought-leadership research and analysis on the most pressing business issues facing services leaders to enable them to better plan and execute their service strategies. He is also author of the book, Lessons Unlearned, which chronicles his 25-year career inside the customer service industry.

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