I receive more questions about customer portals, i.e., the web self-service site, than just about anything else. It is a topic that continues to be top of mind with members, and at our recent TSW conference in Las Vegas, I had quite a few discussions with 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 in this three-part blog series.

Why You Need a Customer Portal

I’ve found that there are two primary reasons for this unwavering interest in customer portals:

  • Cost Savings: According to the most recent TSIA benchmark data, the fully burdened cost to solve a customer problem via a phone call averages $230, compared to only $52, fully burdened, to solve a problem using self-service.
  • Customers Prefer It: Once a year I conduct a survey to find out which support channels customers prefer when they encounter a technical problem. The number one approach, listed as a preferred channel by 90% of respondents, is a Google search. The second most popular channel, designated as preferred by 67% of respondents, is web self-service. Assisted support (i.e., chat, phone and email) are only rated a preferred a channel by about 20% of respondents. 
customer support channel preferences  

(Click image to enlarge.)
Source: TSIA 2015 Social Support Survey

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.

The Look: Location and UI Design

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, and support should be insistent on these qualities for the portal:

Same Look and Feel

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.

Use of White Space

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.

Be sure to stay tuned for parts two and three of this series, where I will go over the other two critical elements of building a successful customer portal: function, and content.

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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