As we move into a new, but temporary, era of social distancing, your business is likely starting to have meetings focused on cutting short term costs and streamlining customer engagement. These meetings will probably include a review of your existing digital solutions and a discussion on existing paper-based and/or physical customer interactions you could transform into a digital solution. And unless your industry is in software services, these solutions will most closely resemble the form of a customer portal solution.
What is a Customer Portal Solution?
Simply put, a customer portal solution is a secure, web-based portal that enables a business to securely provide access to or collect customer data. Providing and collecting customer data can take many different forms:
- Document submission and/or generation
- Collecting online payment
- Event registration
- Service scheduling
Though some customer portals can grow into full-featured solutions, most are isolated and provide a specific set of functionalities to customers.
Below, I share some things to consider when reviewing or implementing a new or reviewing an existing customer portal solution.
Customer Portal Considerations
1. Infrequently Accessed Portals
One of the most frustrating experiences I encounter when accessing customer portals involves account management for infrequently accessed portals – accessed only once or twice a year, typically to pay an invoice for services rendered. For example, a customer receives an invoice via email, which includes a link to the company’s payment portal. The portal requires the customer to manage a username and password. Unfortunately, it’s been six months since they used their password, or they can’t seem to remember if this version of the password included extra special characters required by the password security. Now, they must use the forgot password link and reset their password, just so they can submit a payment.
Consider instead simply generating a UUID (Universally Unique Identifier) for the user record and skipping any account authentication or authorization. Configure your customer portal URL to accept the UUID as a required parameter for your URL. The link, which should look something like https://portal.mywebsite.com/c120b39d-91a3-4d1d-bb87-27f2ad849109, can then be sent to a verified customer email address. Clicking the link should take the customer directly to an auto-populated form where the submission can be as simple as confirming a payment using an existing customer payment profile.
2. Portal Availability
Every month I attempt to login to my internet provider account at the beginning of the month to pay my bill, and their payment portal is slow or completely unresponsive. It took me a couple of months before I realized the issue is not a slow connection but rather poor planning on the internet provider’s part. Although my invoice due date is not until later in the month, my payday falls at the beginning of the month; that is when I pay my bills. The Internet provider has failed to accurately anticipate their peak usage — the time of day or even month when a customer portal experiences the highest user load. In the case of my internet provider, this would appear to coincide with payday.
Optimal Performance During Peak Usage
How do you ensure optimal performance for your customer portal during your peak usage? If your customer portal solution is already in a production environment, consider implementing access logging and system usage logging to get an understanding of your peak usage times. Access logging can be a simple as collecting an access timestamp for portal access on a per user basis. This will help you gauge the number of unique users accessing the portal in a given timeframe. System usage logging will tell the story of your CPU and Memory usage for your servers. If either is consistently spiking at normal intervals during the week/month, your customers may be experiencing slow load times on your customer portal.
Mitigation strategies for production issues typically involve load balancing your production environments or dynamic resource allocation with a cloud provider such as Amazon Web Services. In the latter scenario, when a tolerance threshold is met for CPU or Memory usage, your production environments are automatically upgraded by the cloud environment to meet the peak usage demand. After the demand drops off, your environments are automatically scaled back to normal. This can be a very cost-effective way of ensuring high availability for your customer portal without the price tag.
If you are implementing a new customer portal solution and have peak usage concerns, consider load testing a replica of your proposed production environment. Load testing helps determine at what usage your portal becomes sluggish or unresponsive for users. You can use the same mitigation strategies defined above to improve performance if necessary.
3. Portal Usability
A few weeks back, I was booking a hotel online for an upcoming trip. When I got to the payment screen, the form required I check a checkbox to agree to terms and conditions. I click the checkbox, and nothing happens. I cannot submit payment and place my booking.
Frustrated, I refresh the page, try again, nothing. Curious, I load the same website in a separate browser instance, same thing. I inspect my browser console (a way to see errors happening in real time from your browser) and notice an error generating with each click of the terms checkbox. The programmer in me decides to investigate, so I ran a quick google search for the error generated and determine that a recent library update to the code controlling the checkbox is the culprit. Satisfied that the issue was not with my environment, I found a similar hotel in my destination city and booked with them.
Usability issues can come in all shapes and sizes and range from simple user frustration or, as in the case above, a loss of revenue. Below is a quick hitlist of usability checkpoints to consider for your existing or new customer portal solution:
User Acceptance Testing
There’s no better way to ensure you avoid the usability issue above than to implement proper User Acceptance Testing. First, your organization should define a set of user stories to accompany your customer portal. These should define specific testable scenarios that users can take on the customer portal solution and cover all areas of functionality. Testers should document any outcomes outside the testing scenario.
Remember to test with as many different user bases as possible. A grandmother will interact with your customer portal in a completely different way than their grandchild, and you need to account for both.
Is your website mobile friendly? Does it work well on all aspect ratios and devices? Simply implementing a responsive CSS framework such as Bootstrap is not enough. Create separate design comps that display what your website should look at all every aspect ratio. Then complete User Acceptance Testing to ensure your website functionality is consistent for each supported ratio and device.
While all portals should be completed with security in mind, handling of some user data requires adherence to compliance standards such as HIPPA and PCI. Leveraging cloud hosting platforms, such as AWS, can provide certified compliance for many standards.
Do you need to support visually impaired users or multiple translations? You should identify these needs as early as possible and bake them into the application architecture to avoid missing or incomplete support.
Next Steps for Your Customer Portal Solution
My team and I have built, enhanced, and increased performance for dozens of customer portals over the last 15 years. We have created a comprehensive list of best practices for customer portal solutions through our own development efforts and are happy to answer any questions you may have. Contact us to learn more.