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The hidden power of portals

Vince Cancasci
The hidden power of portals Vince Cancasci

A hotel manager would never delegate its front-desk service to the building's architect. So why, then, do so many companies task their IT teams with designing customer self-service portals?

As a user-experience designer, I have observed this pattern among service-based companies in industries as far ranging as insurance, healthcare, financial services, and more. Too often, companies treat portals like an afterthought, reducing their value to a tool that cuts costs or lowers call center volume. As a result, these companies either fail to involve UX designers, strategists, service managers, marketers, or data scientists in the process of developing their portals, or they simply purchase portal software from a vendor without considering its implications for the overall service experience or brand.

This is more than just a missed opportunity. If the design of your portal doesn't take stock of your customers' wants and needs, then the end product will likely deliver a sub-par experience that alienates customers and tarnishes your reputation. Moreover, misalignment between your portal, call center, sales force, website, and other external-facing functions can create inconsistencies that negatively impact everything from operations to customer retention. Left unchecked, these problems will cannibalize your brand, albeit slowly and quietly.

The good news is, investing in UX design can change all that. A portal whose design is based on customer insights can provide several competitive advantages for your company. Here are five big ways that your business can benefit, highlighted using familiar digital services and apps.

Improve operational efficiency

A well-designed portal can dramatically improve the efficiency of your customer-service operations while lowering its costs. Companies receive the greatest benefit when their portals are built to automate simple tasks, such as addressing requests for documents or making basic changes to customers' policies. Consider, for instance, how Southwest Airlines' portal allows flyers to easily check in to flights, pull up boarding passes, and change flights. This reduces strain on Southwest's customer-service representatives, improves satisfaction among customers and makes the entire operation run more smoothly.

Capture more data about your customers

The better your portal is designed, the more your customers will use it; and the more that your customers use it, the more data you can gather about them. It's no secret that this kind of data can have huge benefits for your company. For example, it can deliver key insights into how your customers think, act and respond to your services. It can inform the development of new products or help you uncover business opportunities. And it can help you figure out how to tailor your offerings to individual customers. This is one of the reasons why Amazon is such a dominant force in the tech space. It leverages data to develop a rich understanding of individuals' behavior and preferences while keeping tabs on the marketplace at large. That information allows the company to know how, when and where to iterate its offerings to remain relevant. 

Create, test, and deploy services faster

Portals make it easier, faster, and cheaper to add new service offerings to your repertoire. They're also great vehicles for testing prototyped versions of services before you invest time or money into a full-scale launch. Another bonus: The adoption of these services happens faster if they're delivered through a portal that your customers are already using, such as an app. The various loyalty and payment apps of Starbucks (a former client of Blast Radius) have allowed it to innovate and pivot at a blistering pace, contributing in a very real way to its continued dominance of the hyper-competitive world of coffee. This was only possible once the company saw their digital service as a key component of the overall service journey for their customers.

Connect and centralize your offerings

Portals enable you to connect your company's offerings and park them all under one umbrella. This can lead to a superior service experience for your customers and build their loyalty to your brand. Consider the example of Google Now, which functions as a personalized service hub for users. By pulling data from the Google products that individuals already use (e.g., Gmail, Calendar, Google Maps), Google Now is able to provide fast and easy access to everything from traffic information and weather reports to email and texts -- all in one place.

Differentiate your brand

Every notice how, when you're shopping for car insurance, all of the companies look about the same? It can be hard to distinguish between these companies because their offerings are so complex.  Often, it's not until you need to use their services -- most notably, when you need to file a claim -- that you can make a value judgment. That's one of the motivators behind State Farm's Pocket Agent Mobile App, which allows customers to easily submit claims for car accidents through mobile devices. By offering this unique self-service experience, State Farm has differentiated its brand and addressed many of the pain points associated with filing insurance claims.

If those reasons aren't enough to convince you to invest in UX, consider this: Consumers are now demanding more from portals than ever before, while fears about managing sensitive information online are at an all-time low. In this day and age, investing in the user experience of your self-service portal is essential to the health of your brand.

Vince Cancasci is associate director of user experience at Blast Radius

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