Customer Portals in Ecommerce

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Customer Portals

I have recently sold my old house and purchased a new one, which provided a multitude of opportunities for frustration and miscommunication. My phone was stuffed with text messages and emails. How I wish either of my realtors had a robust customer portal to make the process easier and less stressful! As chance would have it, I am working on a project to design a customer portal for a financial services company. I’ve interacted with a variety of customer portals before. While most of them have ranged from mediocre to awful, my auto insurance company has an excellent portal. It’s like a shining light in a dark world of terrible customer experiences. A good portal helps build customer loyalty and should make life easier for employees in customer service roles. What are some of the lessons I can take away from my own experiences with customer portals that can inform the design I am working on now?

Customer-Centered Portal Design

  • Is there a sequence of events that the customer needs to be aware of? Let them know what it is and where they are in the process. For example, if I’m applying for a loan, at what step is my application? Don’t oversimplify it either. I went to a lender’s website that advised “let the process play out.” No thanks, I prefer doing business with companies that don’t talk to me like I’m six.
  • Do you need your customer to do a thing? Tell them what you need from them and make it easy for them to accomplish the task. For example, if I have submitted a car insurance claim because of a wreck, give me an easy way to upload photos of the damage from my phone or computer.
  • Minimize the necessary person-to-person interactions. It’s not that I don’t like you, but I’m a busy person with lots of demands on my time. I don’t want to have to call you, sit on hold, or be available for your callback. That’s why I’m going to your portal to self-serve. When I needed to cancel my cable internet service for the house I sold, my ISP provided no online mechanism to accomplish that. I called and was informed that “due to higher than normal call volume, hold time is currently two hours.” SERIOUSLY? I had to drive across town to their office for a two-minute task. During a pandemic. Thanks.
  • Don’t ask customers to repeat tasks in person that they’ve already done in the portal. If you do, you’ll quickly train them to NOT waste their time using the portal! A typical example of this is a medical provider asking a patient to provide their insurance information in the portal, and then demanding their insurance card when they walk in for their appointment.
  • Don’t bait and switch. If you don’t have the capability in your portal, don’t imply that you do. A classic example of this is providing a link to “schedule an appointment” which leads to a phone number or an email form. My doctor’s office does this, and of course when I call, the scheduling clerk is out to lunch. Oddly enough, I can schedule an online appointment with my hairdresser, so I know it can be done.
  • Don’t direct your customers to a portal if it doesn’t make life easier for THEM. If your portal exists primarily to allow you to reduce staffing, your customers will figure that out. You didn’t build it for them; you built it for you. You’ve just outsourced your work to the customer and possibly (probably) made it HARDER for them to do business with you.
  • Fix your back-end processes. I can’t stress this enough. Your portal may be pretty and easy to navigate, but if it still takes you a week to provide your customer a quote or a report requested via the portal, then your customer satisfaction isn’t going to improve. In fact, it may go down because that fancy portal raises expectations that your processes cannot meet. Customers will figure out that the portal doesn’t provide them value and they’ll keep calling or emailing instead. It’s better to do two things in the portal really well than ten things poorly.

Most importantly, talk to your customers! Meet with your best customers. Meet with your angry customers. Ask them what they want and need. Ask them to show you how they use the portal and figure out what makes them happy or unhappy about the experience. You can track metrics which will help identify overall trends of use, but real conversations will provide insights that you won’t get any other way. What they tell you may surprise you and change your priorities.

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