In this three-part blog series, I’m answering some of the most common questions I receive about how organizations can go about creating the ultimate customer portal. In my previous post, I outlined the reasons why companies need a customer portal and discussed the first of three critical elements to consider when creating the ultimate customer portal: design. This post will focus on another key element, function, as well as introduce the types of features you’ll want to consider including when building your own.

The Function: Typical 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  

(Click image to enlarge.)
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 used resources 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.


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. 

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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