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.

What is a Customer Portal and Why You Need One

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:

  • 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  

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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.

Design: Customer Portal UI Design and Location

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:

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.

Accessibility

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.

Function: Typical Customer Portal Functions and Elements to Include

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.
 

preferred support channels  

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Source: TSIA 2016 Social Support Survey.

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: 

Create/Update Incident

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. 

Product Documentation

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.

Knowledge

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.

Software Updates/File Downloads

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. 

Online Community

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.

Online Training

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. 

Features: Top Features Your Customer Portal Should Have

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  

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Source: TSIA 2015 Knowledge Management Survey.

Search Box

Almost everyone we surveyed, 93%, offer search as a web portal 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 conferences, it appears that many companies are gearing to make improvements in their self-service sites, or even planning a complete overhaul in the near future. 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.
 
 
 
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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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