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I receive more questions about customer portals, i.e., the web self-service site, than just about anything else. It’s a topic that continues to be top of mind with TSIA members, even prompting quite a few discussions with Technology & Services World conference attendees about their customer portal journey, including some amazing results, and unfortunately, some political, technical and financial challenges.
To gather some of these thoughts together and answer some common questions surrounding how your organization can go about creating the ultimate customer portal, I’ll be discussing some key tips and tricks covering design, function, and features.
A customer portal refers to any self-service website that your customers can use to find what they need to solve a problem or answer a question without having to directly contact support. I’ve found that there are two primary reasons for this unwavering interest in customer portals:
So, not only does improving self-service adoption cut costs and improve support margins, but customers actually prefer to help themselves. I sometimes hear companies worrying that “deflection” strategies send a message that they don’t want to talk to customers. According to my data, this isn’t a valid concern—customers would prefer to help themselves if they can. Therefore, investing in self-service is a win-win strategy for both the support organization and customer.
With so much interest in this topic, I wanted to share some tips on creating the ultimate customer portal, based on research data, as well as hundreds of conversations with TSIA members and partners, beginning with insight about the position and design of the site itself.
In the early days of self-service, the support customer portal was an offshoot from the corporate website, with a completely different look and feel, a different login/password, and often a pretty lackluster user interface. Large companies often had different portals for each product, each with a completely different UI design, different features, and separate logins. Today, self-service is typically well-integrated into the corporate website with more intuitive customer portal design, and support should be insistent on these qualities for the portal:
Now that most self-service portal vendors support style sheets, meaning they will inherit colors, fonts and other UI elements automatically, web self-service sites no longer offer a jarring user experience compared to the rest of the corporate website. Not only does consistency offer a streamlined user experience, but you are also sending a subtle message that the company embraces customers and support is a core competency of the brand—not some siloed operation with a different technology infrastructure.
Customers shouldn’t have to hunt to figure out where to find self-service. There should be a tab or other control clearly labeled “product support” on the main company website, and the search box on the corporate site should retrieve support knowledge/content assets. I always say that self-service should never be more than one click away from the main corporate web page.
This may seem to be a minor point, but I talk a lot about website design and use of white space in inquiry calls. Frequently companies show me beautiful wireframe designs for a new portal that include large graphics, icons, or big blocks of white space. While I agree they look great, they aren’t functional, because you are forcing the actual content (such as search results) “below the fold,” meaning the customer has to scroll down to see the information. Any website design that requires scrolling to see the bulk of the content is only going to frustrate users and prevent adoption.
In general, try to use a tab paradigm to avoid scrolling as much as possible, and never use right/left scrolling, which just confuses people. If users have to scroll to the right to see information, I can guarantee that many—if not most—customers will never know the content is there. Balancing sexy UI elements with usability creates a lot of conflicts when creating a new customer portal, but in my opinion, usability should win out every time.
When designing a customer portal, one of the major decision points is about which content should be included to meet the needs of as many customers as possible, but without overwhelming them with so much information they don't know where to look. The type of content that is included will differ by company depending on their needs. For example, software companies tend to offer FTP sites for software updates, while hardware companies may include test and measurement tools.
In the TSIA Support Services Benchmark, we ask members which of the resources offered in the customer portal are most used by their customers. The top customer portal functions include:
This allows customers to open a new support incident, check the status of an existing incident, or add a comment or update to an open incident. These capabilities are included in CRM (customer relationship management), customer service, and help desk platforms. Some companies may use the framework offered by their CRM vendor to build the actual portal, or they may need to leverage the APIs (application program interface) offered by the ticketing system to offer these features if you are using a different platform for the portal.
Since we tend not to even ship paper manuals to customers anymore, offering online access to product documentation is critical. As product complexity rises, user guides become even more important, especially if supplemented by rich media, such as video tutorials on common problems or the top used features. Product manuals can be stored in a content management system, such as SharePoint or Documentum, and making them accessible via the portal should not require a major technical effort.
According to my annual Knowledge Management (KM) survey, only 15% of companies use a single knowledge base for both employees and customers. Whatever your approach, the online searchable knowledge base forms the core of many customer portals, and becomes one of the first stops for many customers on their journey to solving a problem. I've published many reports on this topic, but a key point to remember is to make sure that your content is current and well maintained, and continually do gap analysis to understand what content customers are searching for but unable to find.
For software and some hardware companies, giving customers the ability to access updates and patches and download them unassisted can provide them with autonomy and reduce assisted support requirements. However, this portion of the customer portal is often owned and managed by quality assurance and/or development, so plan on collaborating with other departments to make this portion of the self-service site easy to understand and use.
My research shows that companies with mature communities or discussion forums are handling about 20% of total support volume in the forums. Many customers like to gather input from peers, i.e., other customers using the same products, in addition to (or admittedly sometimes instead of) the original equipment manufacturer. Launching and maintaining a successful community usually requires a tight relationship with marketing, as well as adequate staffing to make sure customer questions don’t go unanswered.
Over the last decade, the focus of educating customers has shifted from the classroom to online, and from 8-hour classes to bite-size chunks of content that are quick and easy to consume. Whether your company offers a full e-learning environment for customers, a library of how-to videos, or some combination of both, be sure that training content is easily visible and accessible from the customer portal.
This is not an exhaustive list, and depending on the type of products or services you sell, you may require additional elements, and some of these listed may not apply to you. The key is that anything the customer may need is easy to find within the portal, because if they have to start searching around your website to find something, they are more likely to give up and call or email instead.
I used to see companies spending a lot of time and money having customer groups evaluate and test portals for usability, and sadly this practice seems to be fading from use. If you are adding features or redesigning your portal, please take the time to involve customers during the requirements gathering, design and testing phases. I promise you, external users will have a completely different perspective than internal employees.
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.
To learn more about TSIA's research practices and how we can help you with portal design, contact us today.
December 1, 2015
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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