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HigherLogic and Socious

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How to Create a Great Online Customer Portal

Posted by Joshua Paul on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 @ 09:25 AM

How to Effectively Use an Online Customer Portal Software Platform

The past few years have seen a big shift in customer support as more and more companies offer  self-service customer support through online customer and client portals. While a reduction in support center phone calls might seem like it benefits companies the most, a 2012 study from Amdocs suggests that today’s customers also prefer an online self-service approach.

The study, conducted by the analyst firm Coleman Parks, gave insight into customer preferences when it comes to their support options.  Though the survey targeted smartphone users, the findings apply to other product support as well.

75% of the 2,900 users surveyed said they preferred to use online support and 40% said they only contact a call center after they can’t find the answer they’re looking for online via self-service customer service options.

The catch? People are largely only interested in online self-support if it’s well managed well, reliable, and accurate.

So, what does this mean for your online customer or client portal? While you might not be selling smart phones, there’s still something important to infer from the Amdocs study: customers want (and often prefer) online self-service options to get help and answers.

However, providing a great self-service option is just one of the reasons that businesses create online customer portals. While the reasons that your customers may use your online portal will vary based on the specific type of interactions they have with your company, there are a few standard drivers behind customer portal strategies.

Why Do Companies Create Online Customer Portals?

Reason #1) Online Customer Portals Provide a Self-Service Option and Lower Support Costs

This is probably the most obvious reason for creating a customer or client portal. There are a lot of ways that companies are engaging customers and a lot of ways that customers are demanding to be engaged. A web portal simplifies many of those needs down to a one-stop knowledge base.

Functioning as an exclusive customer-only destination, online customer portals were originally created to manage transactional data, like purchase records, order history, and bill payments. They often included demographic data, like address changes and personal profile information, to reduce the cost of having a customer service representative manually change this information in the company’s CRM database or other system of record for customer data.

By allowing your customers or clients the option to track all this information in one place online, you lower the number of calls coming into your call center and may be able to downsize your support overhead.

Reason #2) Online Customer Portals Provide A Place to Centralize Information and Tools

When your customers need information about your products, you want them to come to your company to find the answers they need, rather than seeking out information elsewhere. However, as companies grow, many businesses find themselves sending customers to several different locations online to access support, product, and company information.

Your online customer portal can centralize information so that customers will always know where to find what they need and can access the necessary tools to solve problems as they arise. It makes for a much better experience for customers when they don’t have to sign in multiple places with multiple logins.

By combining all of their needs into a single customer portal, you may see an increase in ongoing customer engagement and satisfaction by improving their customer experience.

Reason #3) Online Customer Portals Provide Scalable Customer Relationship Management

As you acquire more customers, managing and sustaining your relationships becomes a larger task. An online customer portal enables you to manage customer relationships in a more scalable way, even as you get more customers.

By keeping track of your relationships more efficiently and enabling customers to benefit from the knowledge of your community, you can provide better service and keep your existing customers happy.

Elements of an Effective Online Customer Portal

As the “catch” of the Amdocs study told us, providing an online customer portal is not enough. It must be developed and managed well to be useful to your customer base and company. In order to motivate your customers to use your online portal, you need to create an environment that is going to make a difference in their success with your products or services, as well as measurably enhance the behind-the-scenes operations of your organization.

While the exact components of an online customer portal will vary for different companies, here are four common aspects of effective online customer portals to consider when creating your own:

Element #1) Peer-To-Peer Interactions

Exponentially expand your company’s ability to answer customer questions in your customer portal by allowing customers to ask questions of other customers.

Your organization will never have all of the answers in its portal. However, you can provide an always-on safety net for your customers by opening up your customer portal into a full online community. Including peer-to-peer community features also helps your business efficiently grow your support knowledgebase since all of the historical questions asked and answered are archived for future customers that need support.

The ability to ask and answer questions from other customers humanizes their consumer experience and allows them to feel like a contributing member of your community. By giving your customers the opportunity to forge connections with each other within the “walls” of your online portal, your company can also increase customer retention by help customers build valuable relationships within your ecosystem.

Element #2) A Good Search Engine

If your online customer portal is meant to be a source of information for your customers, you need to make sure they can find the information they need easily and accessibly. Ideally, your search engine would index all text-based online content and discussions, including the information within the text-based files of your portal. Then, your portal’s single search engine will enable your customers to search across all blogs, files, discussions, support documentation, and other information in your web portal.

Element #3) Segmentation

Your have customers using different products. You also have customers at different stages of their use of your product or service. Some are just starting out and others are seasoned experts.

Since not all customers are the same, not all customers need the same information and resources. Recognizing this distinction and segmenting your information to make it more relevant and accessible will help people find answers faster and make the value of your online portal more clear to your customer base.

You might need to segment by geographic location, product line, or role in the company. For instance, a CIO may need access different information than an end user.

Element #4) Exclusive Information And Updates

To ensure your customers use your online customer portal, run as much of your company communication as possible through the portal. Companies with effective online customer portals make this website the center of the customer communication strategy.

Balance the use of multi-channel communication (public blogs, email, public social networks, etc.) with your need to turn using your customer portal into a habit for your customers. People won’t use the portal to access information if they can get the information elsewhere. If fewer people use and add their answers to your knowledgebase, the value of the knowledgebase diminishes quickly.

Whether the information is product information or company updates, your portal is a great space to connect with your customers and share the latest news.

Online Customer Portal Takeaway

Having an effective web-based customer or client portal not only helps to decrease support costs, it gives your customers much-needed access to information and other customers. Since self-service is a popular option in the “I can Google that” era, an online customer portal helps your company control (and have insight into) the flow of information and the access your customers have to solutions. But, it can’t be all about cutting costs. In order to motivate your customers to utilize your portal, you need to make it a worthwhile platform for both them and your organization.

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Tags: Social Business, Customer Communities, Customer Portal Software

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