Successful businesses know they can’t just rely on exceptional products and services. They must also serve and engage their customer base to inspire loyalty. This used to mean exceptional face-to-face interactions – greeting them at the door and supporting them thoroughly through their buying process and then providing support for any issues they may face with their purchase afterward, usually in person. Even in service-based industries, businesses heavily relied on physical locations where clients could come and meet the people behind their purchases.
Those days are largely over. The rise of technology over the last thirty years has accelerated in this direction, but COVID completely tipped the scales. Offices closed, and employees spread out and away from a central location. Companies benefitted from less overhead and a larger hiring pool.
(It’s worth noting that while the pandemic has sped up this shift to a digital-first customer approach, younger generations have been pushing for more online resources for years. They are more likely to go that route if they can avoid driving into an office and a phone call by handling an issue 100 percent online.)
But as resources move online quickly, businesses risk two significant factors: customer engagement and service. It’s much more difficult to engage customers when you can’t look them in the eye. And all good businesses know the last thing that can be left behind is the customer. Therefore, while technology catalyzes this shift, it also serves as the solution. We recommend a self-service customer portal for companies seeking a way to better connect with their customer base online.
What is a self-service customer portal?
A self-service customer portal is a digital platform that allows customers or employees to access information, perform tasks, and find solutions independently without needing direct assistance from a company’s support or service teams.
These portals are essential for businesses for several reasons:
1. Efficient Customer Support
Self-service portals empower customers to find answers to common queries and resolve issues independently and on their own time. If they want to deal with something at 10 pm, when they finally have time, they can do so. No need to wait for normal business hours and long hold times on the phone.
Reducing customer friction has real implications. More than 50% of customers will switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. (Zendesk) No one can afford that level of churn.
This functionality does more than hand power back to the customer — portals reduce the workload on customer support teams and improve response times.
2. Significant Cost Savings
In addition to preventing customer churn, good self-service portals save costs in even more tangible ways. By enabling users to solve problems independently, investing in a strategic self-service portal reduces the need for extensive customer support staff, saving businesses money in the long run. A self-service interaction online costs most businesses mere pennies. In contrast, a live customer service interaction (such as phone, email, or webchat) costs more than $7 for a B2C company and more than $13 for a B2B company on average. (HBR) As companies scale, the return on investment for a self-service portal only improves.
3. Operational Productivity Improvement
Sure, a self-service customer portal requires an up-front investment, especially if you custom-build one instead of choosing an off-the-shelf option (which we’ll get into later in this post). Most businesses make their money back quickly, though. Self-service portals can automate repetitive tasks and streamline processes, enhancing employee productivity. Think of what your people could do with their time if they left all the tiring administrative work behind.
4. 24/7 Accessibility
When a customer runs into an issue at 9 pm, they usually have two options – stew over the problem all night, getting more upset, possibly being kept up over it, waiting to talk with a CSR (Customer Service Representative) about it during normal business hours the next day.
Or, they could jump online and start troubleshooting the issue immediately. In many cases, they could completely resolve things on their own without your company’s representatives ever even getting involved. Self-service customer portals are available round the clock, providing users with information and assistance whenever needed, whether at 1 am or 1 pm.
Don’t forget — the more time customers must stew over an inconvenience or a problem, the more likely your customers will be to vent issues publicly. Do you want a frustrated customer rage-tweeting at 11 pm? Quick 24/7 self-service functionality helps your business in more ways than one.
5. Increased Customer Engagement
Exceptional Customer Experiences (CX) leverage every customer touchpoint possible to please and delight customers. A strategic (and often customized) customer portal uses every touchpoint as a marketing opportunity. Consider an automated email that goes out following an issue resolution — “Sorry you had this issue! Here’s a 10% discount off your next purchase.” Or, while a customer searchs your FAQs, you can promote a new product or service in the page’s sidebar. Will they want to explore it before they figure out their problem? Probably not, but it’s still a great opportunity for branding and promotion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve checked on an order status online and ended up placing another order after seeing another related product that I had to have.
What should be included in a self-service customer portal?
Now that we understand the benefits of a self-service customer portal, you can start framing the components necessary to make the technology work for your business.
1. Prioritized Customer Needs
The first thing you need to do is properly understand your customers. You may think you know their needs, but as you shift to an online presence, your customers’ needs may shift in the process. Many find their customers want a completely different experience online and even face completely different challenges in the digital space.
Put together a small team to explore your customers’ pain points. Uncover their most common problems and struggles when interacting with your brand and its products and services. What are they looking for in a self-service portal? How would they use it – to find answers, diagnose issues, or troubleshoot problems? All three?
Consider how they prefer to interact with your company – would they prefer completely self-service or a chat option? Then think about how they typically navigate your site – how can you leverage this journey to put the answers they need directly in front of them?
2. Self-service Capabilities
Once you properly understand how your customer would prefer to use a self-service portal, you can identify the functionality you need. These functionalities can include account access for billing history and/or order tracking, knowledge base articles, FAQs, live chat, video tutorials, and more.
Outline how to build comprehensive information and then keep it up-to-date. Be clear and concise. They should cover all topics important to your customers, and when things change, this documentation should also. There’s nothing more frustrating than searching for an answer only to find outdated information.
3. Ease of Use
Make your portal easy to use and navigate. Use clear language, get to the point, and leverage intuitive design. Include a search function that allows customers to find the information they need quickly and easily. We also highly recommend making it mobile-friendly, as many customers prefer to use their smartphones.
Don’t skip this step – even if all of the information and resources are consumable. If the customer struggles with accessing them due to a lack of platform support, they’ll never find their answers.
A scalable platform accommodates future growth, and when you put your customers first, growth is sure to follow. Build on a platform that you can easily update and expand. Work with a technology that can handle customer traffic increases. If you build custom and on a cloud platform, you can leverage cloud services to scale up and down to save on costs but always be ready for a rapid increase in customer portal traffic.
The more information you put online, the greater responsibility (and risk) your business takes in protecting it. There are varying levels of this – if your self-service portal is limited to a set of FAQs, you just need to lock down the content management flow.
However, if your self-service customer portal saves credit card information, home addresses, and other personal information, you must take care in how you handle and protect that data. There are many ways to do this – implementing encryption at rest and identity access controls to ensure secured resource management, for example. You can also require your customers to use particularly strong passwords or MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication).
5. Promotional Strategy
Before you start your build, consider how you’ll promote your portal to your customers. How can they use it if they don’t know where it exists? Some kind of email campaign will need to inform your existing customer base, of course, but don’t forget to add it to your onboarding process for new customers so they can use it as a resource immediately.
To encourage continuous and scaled use, promote its functionality within your normal customer communications, not just once on launch day. Encourage your customers to explore it by including email links, invoices, order updates, and more.
6. Measurement and Tracking
Continuous evaluation of your portal is critical to its success. Outline a way to track usage and its overall effectiveness. You’ll, of course, need to establish a baseline for this and then establish goals to measure the portal’s progress. Consider monitoring its number of visitors, live chat engagement, video tutorial watch time, etc. You can then get even more strategic with specific goals – how many customers made a second purchase after checking on an existing order, for example.
Eliminating barriers for customers will be an ongoing challenge – where do they get stuck? When do they leave the portal, and does that mean they’ve solved their issue or just given up? For example, if they log in on a Sunday night, skip around for 20 minutes, and then call the next day for help, they’ve had to try two different channels to resolve an issue. And the first and primary channel didn’t work.
Regularly report on these numbers to help you keep your eyes peeled for opportunities for improvement.
Building Your Self-service Customer Portal
Now that your team has done all the planning for your portal, it’s time to build. You have two options – an off-the-shelf option or a custom-built one.
Off the shelf Self-Service Customer Portals
We’ve found that almost every business we’ve worked with in the last 20 years has needed some sort of portal for its customers. The market has been paying attention, and there are plenty of off-the-shelf options, often segmented by markets and industries.
Off-the-shelf solutions come with a form most of the features that businesses need. The downfall, though, is in the customization of these features and functionalities. Companies must figure out how to hack their way through the platform to get exactly what they want.
These solutions often come with a comprehensive product roadmap, though, so customers can provide feedback and expect improvements. Additional functionality, though, is largely out of their hands.
They also pay a regular fee for the product – usually an annual license or subscription. This protects you from variable pricing, but you’ll pay it forever. And at renewal, the price can increase.
If a platform goes under, you’re also left with nothing. The risk for this is relatively low but always there.
Key takeaways: An off-the-shelf customer portal offers a stable and secure platform at a set price but has limited features and the risk of a square peg-small hole challenge.
Customized Customer Portals
Comparatively, a custom-built solution can come with whatever feature your business dreams up. Your initial development phase can include anything and everything you’d like your portal to have. If you build it correctly, adding new features can be a simple process, which means your portal can easily adapt to the market and scale with your business.
The initial cost of this, though, can be high. You pay for your technology up front. The benefit to this is that the investment does end. And outside of the occasional feature addition, you significantly cut costs following the deployment of your portal. (Support costs, like hosting, may continue.)
And, of course, the technology always belongs to your business. You invest in something you will always own.
Launching a Custom Self-Service Customer Portal
If you decide to move forward with an off-the-shelf option, I encourage you to do your research. Compare the platform against your core needs and determine where it falls short. Ask about the product roadmap to understand where you’re headed. Then, research your costs and see what the long-term investment for your company is.
If you are interested in learning more about a custom-built self-service customer portal, our team can help. We design and develop portals unique to your needs to revolutionize your customer support and enhance user experience. Tailored to our clients’ brands, it reflects their values and messaging, fostering stronger customer relationships. Our consultants and developers deliver sound and secure technology your company can rely on for yours to come. Elevate your customer experience to the next level with a personalized, efficient, and always-available self-service portal that showcases your commitment to your customers. Contact us to speak with a consultant.