Making the Most of Customer Portals

Multichannel merchants with high-quality customer service teams are typically sited as industry leaders – and justifiably so. But as helpful and responsive as they are, such teams don’t address all the needs of many customers – particularly millennials – who prefer to get answers to their questions from a company’s customer service Webpage, or through a merchant’s customer service app on their phone. In both cases, they are making use of a merchant’s information “portal.”

Portals are useful for their immediacy, interactivity, and flexibility. According to Forrester Research, 45% of customers abandon orders they are placing online because they can’t get online answers to questions about products or shipping options, while a whopping 91% would gladly use online customer support if it were available.

The optimum strategy to support online customer service is to implement a formal Customer Portal. These come in a variety of formats, some as independent platforms to be integrated via APIs with data from your order management and customer databases, others as a bundled component of an OMS/WMS order management system.

Either way, such portals offer customers secure access to updates about their orders, back-ordered item status, returns, credits, and other useful data. Secure log-in IDs and passwords help assure data security for both the merchant and the customer.

To encourage a customer to return often to the portal (and of course to place subsequent orders), a commonly used strategy is to use the portal to offer personalized coupons and offers available only on the portal site. While these can be sent via email, as well, there is the chance of their being overlooked in the customer’s inbox, whereas a portal presentation gives you the customer’s undivided attention.

B2B customers can enter trouble tickets on a customer portal. They can also access personalized account content and relevant support documentation for technical products.

For both B2B and B2C, a good portal will offer product data sheets, instructions and usage information, product care information, and the option of presenting some of this via embedded videos (which can be displayed full-screen at the customer’s discretion), often via Vimeo or YouTube.

Everything a logged-in customer sees on the portal will be driven and filtered by the customer’s profile data maintained in the merchant’s customer database. This can range from age and marital status (or company size and SIC code) to data on previous offers responded to (on the merchant’s own portal or on other portals through track-back data), on the one hand, to data from third parties like Axciom, on the other.

The CRM+ module from NetSuite, for instance, includes a Customer Portal where customers have 24/7 access to personalized, interactive service. Customers can receive answers to questions, view their order histories, check their order status and place new orders around the clock. They can also revise transactions, submit support issues and query the system’s NetAnswers Knowledge Base. With an open line of communication, and a range of self-service options, this offers a big boost in customer satisfaction as well as long-term retention rates.

A big fan of customer portals is Kaitlyn Jankowski, Support Experience Manager for Charity:Water, which uses Help Desk from zendesk because “sending an email takes time,” plus there are often follow-up questions and emails that can lead to customer frustration. The customer wants quick answers to usually simple questions, which they can find on their own using the zendesk platform.

Even third-party service bureaus can benefit from customer portals. USA Fulfillment, for example, provides clients a real-time view of the activity undertaken on their behalf, with detailed and summary data on orders, inventory, customers, and fulfillment activity – all carefully segmented so that the client sees only the data that pertains to them. If they choose not to use the portal, USA Fulfillment sends them regularly scheduled emails with reports attached.

The USA Fulfillment portal is part of the company’s InOrder OMS solution from Morse Data, which was able to customize a “demo” portal for USA’s prospective customers that can be loaded with the prospect’s own data so they can see how they can keep tabs on the service provider’s activities on their behalf. The portal can be customized by user, with options to manage continuity programs and auto-replenishments for consumables or products with expiration dates.

One final benefit merchants derive from any customer portal: tracking and reporting customer activity on the portal gives you the opportunity to fine-tune offers, functions, and features of your order management Website based on issues and opportunities the customers themselves initiated. Since the customer is, by definition, the beneficiary, this is a solid win-win.

Ernie Schell is Director of Marketing Systems Analysis.

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