July 22, 2016
The Perfect Customer Support Portal (From the Customer's Perspective)

In a Harris Interactive study, customers said that customer service agents failed to answer their questions 50% of the time.  That's a lot of frustrated customers. Can a customer support portal help? The answer clearly is yes - if you implement it right. And implementing a customer portal right means aligning it to the customer's perspective. 

Often, when we design customer experiences we think about it from the business perspective first. What services do we currently offer? What technology stores our customer information? What do we want to enable the customer to do? It's not all about the business, but it's FIRST about the business. That's the wrong approach. 

The first step to a great customer support experience is to understand what the customer wants. How do you do that? 

For starters, don't ask yourself, "does my customer want self-service?" Ask yourself, "How do my customers currently find answers or resolve their issues with my product/service?" Are they automatically calling the hot-line or support desk? How long are the calls taking? Are they searching through online product documentation first or looking at product material on the website? Are they asking questions in customer forums or on social media? 

You need to understand your customers intimately before you can offer them solutions.

Develop Your Key Personas

To understand customer needs, you must ask them. Send out surveys, conduct interviews, and build a set of data to understand your current performance and customer needs. Another way is to track activities on your various online properties, in your call centers and other contact points. 

As you ask questions and compile answers, also develop customer profiles. When you monitor usage activity across customer support channels, you can also develop common profile characteristics if you link the traffic against the actual customers.   

This work allows you to see common patterns, and you can develop a set of personas or user types. One type may be an end user with a basic understanding of your solutions; another may be a power user looking for advanced knowledge, but also willing to share knowledge with your community. Not all of these personas will want to use a customer support portal, so focus on the ones that you see have the potential to benefit from a support portal and set the others aside for now.

Mapping the Customer Support Journey and Content Strategy

This is not a full customer lifecycle journey map; this journey map focuses on the connection points and engagement your persona uses once they have made a purchase. 

Mapping the journey for each identified persona helps you define the key ways that persona gets their information. Much of this you should have already found during your investigation of support patterns, but now you tie each contact point back to a specific journey and persona. 

It's also important to aligning your content strategy around these personas or user types. Make sure you have the right content to drive an issue to resolution across all of your products and solutions and for each customer type. 

Building Experiences with Design Patterns

This approach to experience design for your support portal can take advantage of design patterns. Design patterns enable you to create common components, modules or other elements of a customer portal and plug them into the experience where needed, sometimes with customization. 

Create design patterns for each common method of contact: knowledge-base, support tickets, Q&A, etc. Consider creating two patterns for each method: one that's a full screen web experience, the other a widget or module that you can include on different web pages within the portal based on the design. 

This approach to customer experience design ensuresa couple of things:

  1. You are building the support portal experience the customer (persona) expects. 
  2. You are leveraging design patterns to provide consistency across the experience.

Here are a couple of examples of how different personas and experiences might work:

  • Persona A likes to get right to the point and find out what's happening with their support tickets. The first thing they do when they have a problem or question is submit a ticket. So the support ticket process should be the primary experience for the persona. 
  • Persona B prefers to do some research and find their answers before they submit a support ticket. In this case, the knowledge base and community features would take prominence with a support ticket widget available on the side, or a link in the navigation.  As the persona performs research or uses the community, the types of information available in the primary experience can adjust and be personalized to a specific user.

What if a customer moves from one persona to another? It's possible as needs change in the customer lifecycle. New products are bought, customers get more comfortable with the products they have, etc. The basic design elements of the portal are the same, but the experience can adjust as you learn how a customer uses or needs to use the portal. This personalization of the customer experience shows you are paying attention to their specific needs.

Wrapping it Up

Like everything else, things change. Your customers will change how they want to interact with you. Their support requirements will change. Building and maintaining a customer support portal requires you to monitor usage continually - by personas and individual customers and adjust experiences as necessary.  

If you follow this approach: develop personas, create journey maps and leverage design patterns, the process of continually improving the experience will be much easier. Let's leave you with one final stat. In Understanding Customers, by Ruby Newell-Legner, she states that "it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience."  When you decide to move forward with your customer support portal, keep that statistic in mind and create the experience your customers want, not what you think they want.

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