Digital Transformation , Product Management , Strategy — 11.05.2020

Customer Portals: What They Are, How They Support Your Business, and the 2021 Trends to Know

Lacey Lavies, Executive Partner, Product Strategy & Client Experience

Customer portals often emerge as a result of needing to bring business online or to digitize some key part of customer engagement. They often start as a check the box offering or to serve a niche customer need. Over time, generally, one of two things happens. They either become an afterthought or the obvious home for new use cases that emerge over time.

As we talk to businesses about their digital transformation plans, “redesign our customer portal” comes up more and more. For many companies, the afterthought from years ago is now a key part of their business strategy. For others, the massive surge to digital in 2020 has forced businesses to take this seriously.

Before we can talk about customer portal trends, and how you can plan to improve yours, let’s first align on what a “portal” is. 

What is a customer portal?

A customer portal can be any digital means to offer value and/or communicate with your customers. Here are a few examples of what that can mean:

A digital front door to access services. 

  • For businesses that provide ongoing services, the portal is a way to offer digital versions of those services, and a way to continue communicating and offering ongoing value to customers. 
  • Examples: Your banking portal, your employee benefits portal, your pet insurance portal

A digital community.  

  • People like what you stand for and want to find others like themselves to connect with and learn from. Digital communities offer customers this opportunity to connect and share, but they also create a new avenue to generate interest and create loyalty.
  • Example: Drift community, InVision community, Hubspot Community

Customer self-service capabilities.

  • Rather than visiting an in-person location to get what you need or using manual methods to track down information or make changes, many companies offer self-service portals as an alternative. This saves time for customers and can improve internal efficiencies as well.
  • Examples: BMV/DMV Portal, FedEx printing services portal, MyAccount portals

A virtual support desk.

  • For companies that have a strong customer support component, the portal is a way to share helpful content (videos, FAQs, articles), guide customers to answer their own questions, and get in touch with the right person.
  • Examples: Zendesk Help, Delta Faucet Customer Support

In these examples, the consistent theme is that a digital customer portal is an extension of the brand promise your company has made to its customer. It needs to be as helpful and easy to use as the service or product your company offers outside the portal itself. Eventually, the customer portal itself can be a launchpad to create more revenue opportunities. But before we start thinking that far ahead, let’s first see how portals evolve alongside the business.

How customer portals should grow alongside your business

Your portal’s capabilities should evolve as your company and offerings evolve. And as such, it should remain focused on the changing needs of your customers. As I mentioned earlier, often one of two things often happen after the initial launch of a customer portal. You’ll want to avoid both: 

  1. The portal becomes a second fiddle priority. Proper attention is not given to keep it, and it’s value to customers, thriving. 
  2. The portal becomes a collection of capabilities that easily drift over time into something that does a lot of things. But it doesn’t solve real problems or provide cohesive value to your customers. It’s thinking about “here’s all the features we have to offer” vs “here’s the key value we are focused on providing.”

To avoid these issues, the focus needs to remain on the customer’s goals and shortcuts to answers and solutions. In addition, the content and capabilities need to evolve and change over time. This also means stripping away things that are no longer offering value.

To get the juices flowing on how customer portals can be an amazing and fruitful offering for both customers and your business, let’s look at some trends for what companies are doing right, as well as questions to ask yourself to pinpoint opportunity.

Customer Portal Trends

Simple and easy self-service

Allow your customers to get what they need, easily and on their own time. A wonderful first step is to assess where the friction lies. 

  • Why are they asking for help with, today? 
  • What questions do you get? Repeatedly? 
  • What unmet needs do they have?

Understand their goals and what causes friction, then provide an intuitive and simple way to address these goals via self-service capabilities. Intuitive cannot be understated as an important part of this equation. If it isn’t intuitive, you risk providing a portal for customers to self-service, but then still answering phones to help customers use it. 

Curate the experience – More push, less pull

Predict customer needs, and push information or capabilities to them – when and where they need and want it! It’s no longer enough to provide access to the information or process that people need in a portal. This was great 10 years ago when digital access to anything felt magical and efficient. Today, the best integrate touch-points into the customer’s workflow, seamlessly. 

  • Identify areas where you may have the thing the customer is looking for in the portal already, but you’re requiring them to dig to get it. Red flag comments from internal team members that include, “They can do that/get that in the portal” or “We have a report for that!“
  • Ask, at what point in the day/process do people need X?
  • How can we serve it up to them, perhaps even before they know they need it?
  • Can we use a different channel to provide the information more effectively? Think push notifications, an email summary, or surfacing an important stat in the context of what a customer already doing in the portal.

This is how you delight customers and keep them coming back. They feel like you get them, you respect their time and want to make their life easy. And they become more loyal in the process. 

More problem solving – Understand the actual customer needs vs perceived efficiencies

Solving important and impactful problems for your customers is key to a valuable experience. In order for your customer portal to evolve with the company and customer needs, you must deeply understand those evolving needs. What mattered last year may not matter anymore. And a new offering or capability may open an opportunity to service customers in new ways via digital means. The most important piece here is staying connected and in tune to your customer’s actual problems.

  • Have you talked to your customers lately? Really understood their goals and what matters to them?
  • Why do they log in? What are they trying to accomplish? What is getting in their way?
  • How has your portal changed in the past year to adapt to the customer needs and most important challenges? 
  • If so, are you tacking that additional capability on? Or are you adjusting the workflow of the portal experience to best meet their needs?
  • Are you improving areas of the portal that customers don’t value?

At Innovatemap we often find that most of what is offered in a portal is noise. Half isn’t useful. Workarounds are used to get what they need. There are always a few simple nuggets that emerge as key problems to solve and key impact drivers. Less is more. And less can be even more amazing if structured in a thoughtful way that maps to the customer’s workflow, and gets them to their end goal as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

How to apply these customer portal trends to your own portal

Experiment with a new approach in one area

  • An easy win here could be to align on high-value information that customers need and want. Surface this information in a clear and concise way as they enter the portal experience
  • Frame up questions your customers want answers to, and present this information to them!

Consider conducting some customer research to help find more ways to serve your customers

  • A series of meaningful conversations with customers can surface gold as it relates to what to offer and how you offer it via a customer portal.

Find outside help – through an agency like us! 

  • Fresh eyes and perspective on a potential or existing solution is often the magic ticket to providing a clear experience that customers value and love to use. Agencies like Innovatemap can uncover insights via customer research and translate those insights into a valuable, intuitive and sticky offering to keep your customers hooked.