How to design an effective Customer Self-service portal?

According to Microsoft research, today’s customers expect comprehensive service across multiple channels. 59% have used 3 or more channels in a year. Two-thirds of customers prefer to solve problems themselves first. As many as 88% expect to do so online. So what is a Customer Self-service portal and how do you build one?

Who is a digital Customer Self-service portal for?

A digital Customer Self-service portal is a system to manage communication between a company providing services or selling products, and its customers. It can take the form of a website accessible through a browser or a mobile application.

They are usually media providers (telecommunications services, electricity, gas, heat, water, internet, television) that provide contact through a digital Customer Self-service portal, but there is nothing stopping other entities that provide other services daily from also making use of such a service – for example housing cooperatives and communities, developers, banks, clinics, insurance companies, etc.

A Customer Self-service portal will also perfectly fulfil this role in the B2B sector – for distributors or companies providing services to businesses. For example, some time ago we had the opportunity to create a system of this type for a client in the financial sector. We designed a solution for handling debt collection and factoring.

Why is it worth investing in a Customer Self-service portal?

Benefits for business

Would you like to know in which companies we have supported similar processes?

First of all, you save money. On the one hand, the system allows you to automate processes that have so far been performed in the traditional office or by the Call Centre, and on the other hand, thanks to electronic document management, it allows you to improve logistics.

A Customer Self-service portal can also contribute to increasing sales, for example thanks to cross-selling functions, dynamic price lists, loyalty programmes, and/or customised subscription options.

Benefits for the user

The customer benefits are readily apparent, and can individually provide quite strong competitive advantages:

  • The customer can interact with the company without direct involvement of the company’s employees. For example, in B2C – check an invoice amount, pay it, change the mailing address, order additional services, etc., in B2B – check the nearest deliveries, make further orders, check the terms of contracts, etc.
  • Data is available in the cloud 24×7 – the user has access to it regardless of the device they use to connect…
  • …and thanks to Responsive Web Design (RWD) and/or a dedicated mobile application, they can also use the portal on mobile phones and tablets
  • All information is in one place – the user does not have to search for it in e-mails, paper documents or folders
  • Differentiation of access rights facilitates contact and cooperation with various representatives of the client
  • Integration with other tools such as Google Calendar, Outlook, and Messenger gives the client additional options to manage tasks within the system.

Customer service is not just a website

When preparing to design a customer portal, try to consider the entire service delivery process. The interface is only one of the elements that a user will encounter after logging in. To ensure the best possible customer interaction with the system, you need to consider the entire spectrum of experiences that occur when customers interact with your organisation. Even a nice and user-friendly website will not prevent unfavourable impressions that occur at other stages of the process.

An example is excessive wait times for a submitted complaint. Delaying the response for the statutory 30 days often results in negative comments and a loss of customers. If the process itself is indeed taking that long, at least ensure that the customers receive feedback and are kept informed of the progress.

Diagnosing problems is the first step to trying to find solutions. Much of the process can be streamlined with well-designed digital product features.

Real-life example:

A problem in most clinics is the long wait time for patients in the registration queue. Some are waiting to register, while others are waiting to report that they have come for an appointment. The process could be streamlined by an online registration form that allows users to register with the doctor directly. The notification of coming for an appointment could be improved by a mobile application that, based on geolocation, recognises that the user is in the building and displays information about the office number.

What should you keep in mind before starting work on implementing a Customer Self-service portal?

Set key objectives

For some companies, it may be reducing the number of paper invoices sent, for others it may be “relieving” the call centre, increasing sales, or user-retention. It is important that these goals are specific  and measurable. Think about which are very important and which are less important. Prioritisation will be useful in the design process.

Involve users in the process

  • Involving users minimises the risk of mismatching the product with their needs. You will quickly get feedback and verify your assumptions.
  • Involve different representatives of your organisation in the design process.
  • Both the identification of needs and the design itself should be based on teamwork, in which people from different departments and units are involved at different stages. It is worth including people who have direct contact with the recipients, decision-makers, marketers, as well as designers and developers.

How do you design an digital Customer Self-service portal?

Start with a thorough understanding of the company and the product

  • Think about which channels are used by the user, what activities they perform, and how they perform them – e.g.: can the user terminate a contract by phone?
  • Analyse the existing processes that concern the user.
  • Check the collected statistics – for example Google Analytics or data on phone calls, e-mails received by the service desk If the company has done any research in the past – review these reports and related materials.
  • Analyse and organise information about the ecosystem of your product(s). Research the capabilities and limitations of other systems with which the designed solution will work.

Exploration – check what the competition is doing

Do desk research. Check what your competitors are offering their users, what functionalities their customer portals include. Look broadly – other industries can be a good source of inspiration. Pay attention to trends. Even if you are only going to build a simple Customer Self-service portal, it is worth knowing that other companies  are already investing in advanced or innovative solutions, for example in voice interfaces – such as Direct Energy (the screenshot is from the provider’s website).

You can also conduct a Service Safari. This is a method in which a researcher takes on the role of a customer and performs certain actions (e.g.: opens a bank account, completes a purchase in an online store). This allows you to learn about the processes, and find out what positive and negative impressions appear at each of their stages.

Get to know your users

Find out who is using your company’s products. If you do not try to segment and analyse their activity, you will not know  the customer needs that you need to answer.

How do you find out? You can conduct research called IDI, or in-depth interviews with users. This is a conversation based on a scenario that helps you to learn about the needs and context of product use. Ethnographic research will provide you with even more information. It is based on an interview with the user and observation of their behaviour in their natural environment (e.g. at a customer service point or in a store).

We conducted this type of ethnographic research for Tauron (a key player in the energy sector in Poland) to find out what the behaviours and motivations of its customers are during stationary customer service, and what their attitudes are towards digital service.

You can also use shadowing (where the researcher accompanies the user and observes how they use the product in their natural environment) or focus group interviews, commonly known as focus research (a discussion of a small group of users led and supervised by a moderator).

We conducted this type of ethnographic research for Tauron (a key player in the energy sector in Poland) to find out what the behaviours and motivations of its customers are during stationary customer service, and what their attitudes are towards digital service.

You can also use shadowing (where the researcher accompanies the user and observes how they use the product in their natural environment) or focus group interviews, commonly known as focus research (a discussion of a small group of users led and supervised by a moderator).

Analyse the information

From all of this research, you will learn what the main needs of your users are in the context of the Customer Self-service portal you are designing. How does their journey progress from the moment of contact with information about your product, through registration, to settling a particular issue. At this stage, it is important to diagnose users’ problems, needs and impressions at each step.

Work out a solution

Now it is time to look for solutions. A good way to do this is brainstorming, during which, together with the project team, you will determine the answers to the problems identified in the previous phase. At this stage, a list of functionalities of your Customer Self-service portal should emerge. It is not worth putting limitations on the group when formulating ideas – the time will come for that later.

It may turn out that the solution to the main user problem is not a complicated customer portal, but a simple form that will streamline only the most difficult single process. Write down all the ideas. Even if you will not be able to implement them all at once, they can serve as a list of subsequent phases of product development.

Create a prototype

You can make clickable mock-ups, in black and white, which will simulate the look of the Customer Self-service portal, micro-interactions and transitions between different pages. The main advantage of mock-ups is that the person who analyses them can focus on the type of information, the way it is conveyed and the whole process, rather than on the look of the system (colours, images, or fonts used).

Test the prototype

Get feedback from potential customers. You can do this by organising usability tests, where the user performs certain actions on the site according to a pre-developed test plan. If using your customer portal does not require specialised knowledge (for example, specific use cases in a financial application), you can do so-called guerilla testing. To do this, go to a cafe or other public place to ask people for their opinion. If you have the opportunity, do several rounds of testing. Between rounds, adjust the prototype and see how users react to them.

Create a client portal

Now you can focus on developing the Customer Self-service portal. If the people responsible for the technical aspects have been involved in the whole project until now, feasibility issues should not arise at this point. Involving a technology partner in the entire design process of the Customer Self-service portal is very important, as it helps avoid additional costs, delays and inconsistencies between the design and the final system.

One final piece of advice – after the system has been implemented and put into the hands of users – ask questions, do research, analyse data, and make changes as necessary. In short, continue to develop the solution according to the needs of your customers.

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