Gone are the days where customers could be supported by posting a phone number and email address, and then letting support representatives drive resolution directly. Customer portals are an expected and necessary tool in the war chest of effective support organizations. The effectiveness of these portals can go a long way in increasing representative efficiency and reducing the overall volume of issues.
The challenge with realizing the full potential of a support portal primarily comes down to one thing- and that is data. More specifically, how the portal leverages data that already exists within the organization.
It does not take long for organizations to realize some common challenges about the data they want to provide to customers:
- Support representatives do not have the time to move data to the customer facing portal
- The concept of “customer facing” is not equally applied within their own organizations
- Customers aren’t just looking for manuals or guides, they want information that is pertinent to their specific problems
- The information that can solve the customer’s problem is often spread amongst multiple back end systems
These challenges can quickly lead organizations into thinking that the right solution is a purpose built customer portal software, implemented with time intensive data cleansing and publishing processes. However, this creates both resource and infrastructure burdens on the existing support and IT staff. In the end, the only thing that has been achieved is having yet another place where data is duplicated and where keeping it fresh and maintained is as expensive as the initial deployment.
The solution to avoiding these issues can be found in infrastructure that already exists within the organization. For example, take a software company that utilizes SharePoint for internal collaboration and team sites, team foundation server for bug tracking, SalesForce.com for CRM and support issue management, Exchange server for email communication, and Documentum for document management. That organization already has all the necessary parts and pieces to create a highly capable customer facing portal. All that is needed is software to connect those systems, apply security schemas to control what a customer can access, automatically apply rules to determine items available for customer consumption, and centralize the access to all applicable information into a single portal.
The good news is that SharePoint can act as the central portal, where access to the specific information the customer is looking for is delivered in a familiar search based approach. Rather than creating a new disconnected portal, SharePoint can provide access to all aspects of data the customer is interested in.
Some examples of data that could be accessed by the customer in this scenario are:
- Maintenance contract information held within the SalesForce.com CRM so the customer sees when their contract expires and what their contract covers.
- Software release information held within the team foundation server system so the customer sees which bugs are being delivered with the next software release and which issues are in review by the product management team.
- A catalog of emails exchanged with the support team stored within Exchange so the customer can access the history of past issues or easily search for information shared in prior email exchanges.
- An index of all support cases stored within SalesForce.com Service Cloud so the customer can see open cases and full details of all closed/past cases across their organization.
- A list of all marketing documents and user manuals stored within Documentum for the specific products the customer is licensed for.
In all cases, automatic classification rules can ensure that data exposed via the portal is authorized for external consumption and specific item security is respected to ensure that only information the customer is allowed to see is returned. A support portal designed and delivered in this way avoids the integration of yet another portal technology within the IT infrastructure and eliminates the care and feeding costs associated with deploying the necessary information to the customer portal.