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The Importance of Creating an Online Customer Portal with a Sense of Community

Written by Gabrielle Wathen on March 14, 2019 at 11:30 AM

How to Effectively Use an Online Customer Portal Software Platform

Have you ever spent time with a toddler who is discovering their independence? The moment a growing tyke learns how to do something new, they feel the need to try and do it themselves. There is a certain level of excitability that comes with their newfound independence and fierce determination – not to mention, a common distaste for being told ‘no.’ Sound relatable?

As grown adults in the modern age of tech booms, DIY-everything, and continuously rising customer service expectations, I don’t think we’re that far removed from the demands of a toddler who wants to be in the driver’s seat of their own experiences (and I’m not surprised).

Did you know that 89 percent of U.S. consumers expect brands or organizations to have an online self-service support portal?

A traditional business portal is generally one-size-fits-all, while an online community has the ability to create a more personalized experience for customers. But whether you call it an online customer portal, online community, or knowledge base, the essence is the same – you’re leveraging technology to meet expectations, address the evolving demand for customer self-service options, and improve the overall customer experience (CX) through empowered knowledge sharing and engagement.

Recent years have seen a big shift in customer support as technology rises to meet the evolving demand for customer self-service options, and self-service adoption is projected to keep rising.

Customers want, expect, and often prefer online self-service options to get help and answers.

  • 91% of survey respondents said they would use an online knowledge base if it were available and tailored to their needs (Coleman Parkes for Amdocs)

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

  • 80% of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services, with 57% reporting having stopped buying from a company because a competitor provided a better experience (Salesforce)

If you want to support your customers' desire to self-serve while simultaneously increasing loyalty, the creation of a customer portal alone isn't going to get you there – it’s just the beginning. You need an online community platform with support capabilities that increases the all-around customer experience.

When you use online community software, you're not only getting a portal to manage basic transactional data, you’re utilizing a solution to improve customer satisfaction and success on a broader scale. The good news? You’re in a great place to learn more. Keep reading.

Why Do Companies Create Online Customer Portals?

While the reasons your customers 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 and increasing online engagement within the community. Let’s dig in.

1. To Provide Self-Service Options & Reduce Customer Support Costs

Providing self-service options is probably the most obvious reason for creating an online customer support community or client portal. In this robust engagement economy, there are several ways that companies are engaging customers and that customers are demanding to be engaged. An online 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 systems of record for customer data.

Resource: 5 Reasons You Need to Integrate Your Online Community and CRM Today

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.

But it goes beyond that - modern day online communities contribute to overall customer satisfaction (learn more about how to reduce customer support costs the community way). If you provide your customers with value, you’ll benefit, too.

Take it from Jama Software - their online support community serves as a primary knowledge base that customers often reference first for help. Data shows that even when customers do create a formal support ticket, 73 percent of Jama’s responding staff found many inquiries can be solved with ease by linking a customer directly to the best resource on the community.

Case Study: Jama Software's Online Community Success Story

2. To Provide a Convenient Place to Centralize Information & Tools

When your customers need information about your products, you want them to come to your company to find the answers they need first, 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.

This doesn’t lead to happy customers. Thankfully, your online customer portal can centralize information and resources so that customers know where to find what they need - at all times - and can access the necessary tools to solve problems as they arise. And with single-sign-on capabilities, customers have a better user experience 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. Online communities can add value to the customer experience in a way that transforms your customers into loyal brand advocates.

3. To 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 (increasing the likelihood that they’ll advocate for you). More from Jama:

“Our ticket volume has continued to go down since launching a community in 2014, even though our customer base has grown. The tickets that do come in are more technically challenging than they were in the past."

-Kristina King, Jama Software

4 Elements of an Effective Online Customer Portal

Simply 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 engaging 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. Teach them something. Make it a win-win.

WEBINAR RECAP Q&A: The Value of Community in Customer Success

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 yours:

1. Empower 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. Help them help you.

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 knowledge base 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 helping customers build valuable relationships with each other and your brand.

2. Effective Search Engine Capability

If your online customer portal is meant to be a source of education for your customers, you need to make sure they can access the information they need with ease.

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.

3. Informed Segmentation

You may 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 (who would’ve thought?). Recognizing this distinction is critical to customer success, so 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 needs access to different information than an end user.

PS: If you put your customer community data to work with the power of marketing automation, you can up your segmentation efforts to include more personalized targeting (just another element modern-day consumers expect). The result? Ultimate customer success.

4. Exclusive Customer Information & Updates

To ensure your customers use your online customer portal, run as much of your company communication as possible through the portal. Remember: It’s not just a portal for information, you’re creating a sense of community among your customers. Companies with effective online customer portals make this website the center of the customer communication strategy.

Be sure to 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 knowledge base, the value of the knowledge base diminishes quickly.

Customers like to feel in-the-know, so providing exclusive information and updates within your community is an essential driver if you want them to recognize the value. Do they know what’s in it for them? 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: Streamline Self-Support & Improve Customer Success

Having an effective online customer community or client portal not only helps to decrease support costs, but it also 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. Focus on providing real value within your customer community.

Want to learn more? Check out our blog 3 Customer-Focused Benefits of an Online Community and don't forget to download your copy of our eBook below for next steps.

Download your free guide to buying and implementing a customer portal.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2014 by Joshua Paul. It has since been refreshed to make sure we’re giving you the latest and greatest.

Topics: Customer Communities, Online Community Software, Customer Support, Online Community

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