So, you've decided to launch a customer portal. You're now one step closer to creating a gateway for your customers to connect and collaborate with your company. Your new portal can become a central part of your customer retention strategy and help you expand your relationship with customers as soon as people start using it.
You're living the customer experience dream, right? Not quite. Before you reap the benefits, you need to actually set up, or implement, your customer portal platform.
Implementing a customer portal takes some planning, and while all levels of your organization should be involved, the bulk of set-up and ongoing care typically falls to marketing and support teams. Since most of your company's resources are usually focused on acquiring customers, these teams often have limited experience implementing customer-facing website.
To help ease the process, here are some steps to help set expectations and guide you through your customer portal implementation, as well as some tips on preparation and best practices.
Before You Get Started
Make sure that you have the right team in place. If everyone isn't on board and on the same page, you may have to change things several weeks or even several months into the process. Changes can slow down your implementation process and create frustration within your team, so get the right people involved from the start.
Even with an all-star team, be flexible and realistic. The process for creating a web-based portal website for customers does not look the same for everyone and depends on individual organizations, their customer bases, and the chosen portal platform. You can develop a general plan and goals when you start, but remember that they will likely change as challenges come up and your needs evolve.
Regardless of the shifts along the way, you can lean on your customer portal platform provider for guidance and expertise. Ultimately, you have to make the decisions about what is best for your business, but your portal provider can be a great asset in avoiding common mistakes and helping you see the outcomes of certain decisions.
Customer Portal Implementation Steps
There are six general steps that most implementation processes follow.
Step 1) Initial Assessment
The initial assessment is an exploratory conversation between your organization and the people setting up your customer portal, usually the portal platform provider. They need to know what kind of team you have in place and your software or technical experience. Even if you're not strong in a specific skill set, such as technical expertise, your platform vendor should be able to support you in those areas. Depending on your team and capacity, they'll adjust their approach to the project in order to provide you with the best experience.
Step 2) Objective Analysis
This step is all about you and your target audience. During objective analysis, your portal platform company will take an in-depth look at your organization's goals. What do you want to do with your customer portal? Increase engagement? Generate reports from your metrics? This is the time to explain your plans to your platform provider.
Don't leave your customers out of the plans, either. Your implementation team needs to know who will be using the portal, their interests, and their online communication preferences, so they know what content and engagement opportunities make sense for your audience. Once your vendor understands what your business and customers need, they'll be able to plan the portal.
Pro Tip: Conduct research among your customers using interviews and surveys to help determine what type of content and engagement opportunities they're interested in. If you don't have people on staff to conduct this research, your portal vendor may have a team that does it for you. You can reuse the primary research in other aspects of your customer engagement strategy as well.
Step 3) Iterative Development
Iterative development is a back-and-forth stage that requires a lot of communication between your company and your platform vendor. You'll likely have one conversation with your vendor about what you need in terms of engagement, a brief quiet period while the vendor builds your portal, and then another conversation about what you need in terms of content outlets. This sequence of making decisions, configuring the portal, and getting rapid feedback will continue until your platform vendor has built out a solid customer portal for you.
Pro Tip: Don't focus only on high-level goals like engagement in this step. Get down to the nitty-gritty and explain exactly what engagement means for your organization. Is it user-generated content? How will you encourage users to create content? Through a blog? Specifics, such as knowing that you want a blog, help platform companies build out the correct portal pages and tools.
Step 4) Integration
Integration is a pre-sale conversation, so you should already know that your portal platform can integrate with other software such as your CRM, marketing platform, or learning management system.
At this point in the implementation process, you need to go beyond just capabilities. Have a picture in your head of what you want the final data flow to look like, including what interaction your different software systems will have with one another, such as single sign-on for your customers or synching customer data across systems. Often, you'll also need to have some IT expertise on your side to support the integration. If you don't have an IT or software team in-house, consider talking with contract teams well in advance of this step.
Step 5) Training
After integration, your portal will be largely complete, meaning that you can start learning how to use it. The good news for you in that you followed an iterative implementation process, so you've been using your portal platform all along. To make sure you have a complete understanding, your portal platform vendor should provide training on how to use the platform, which will depend largely your organization and your unique configuration.
If you're very tech savvy and want to run with your portal, figuring out the details on your own, that's great. This will be a very short step. If you're not, then customer portal companies will usually base your training on what portal modules or functions you think will be most valuable. Depending on what you need, they might give you a lot of training all at once, or feed the information through over time, giving you space to learn and practice.
Step 6) Go-Live
Go-live has different meanings to different companies, and you will need to decide what it means for you. Does go-live mean that the portal is complete? Does it mean that the portal is ready for a soft launch? Or is the customer portal entirely finished and available to all your customers?
Whatever criteria you use to define go-live, remember that at this point your portal is finished and you should already have some content created for it. A tip sheet on how to use your new customer portal is a good place to start. This will help jump-start participation, and ensure that your portal is not entirely empty upon launch.
Implementation Process Takeaway
Keep in mind that even after your platform vendor has walked you through implementation, you're not finished. Customer portals are living sites, and will constantly evolve based on their users. They require customer engagement strategies and content plans, as well as regular maintenance and updates.
Having the right team in place to help you choose, implement, and run your portal on an ongoing basis is essential. Your platform provider is part of that team, and may be able to help you even after implementation is complete. Look to your vendor for added services and solutions to your common problems, and you'll find ways to consistently provide a better experience for your customers.