Tl;dr - We all use portals frequently as consumers. Yet they are unusual among lower-middle market industrial manufacturers. When companies try to build something in-house it almost always fails - prior to launch or shortly thereafter. So turn it over to the marketing team. They have the tools and mindset to launch quickly and affordably and to build it with buyer value in mind.
Pull the CX Thread to Unwind the Buying Journey Knot
In recent articles, I've explored how multiple blogs1, CRM custom objects2, conversational marketing3, and a knowledge base4 contribute to improved buyer experience. These "tools" are typically "owned" by marketing from a technology management perspective, and implemented through integrated efforts of marketing and sales.
It's easy to assume that because the manufacturing marketing team leads on these tools they're primarily for prospect interactions and lead generation. That's an incorrect assumption. They all impact the customer experience - and through that, they contribute to the sales effort for new logos and up/cross sales and LTV (lifetime value.)
- multiple blogs provide channels to provide different information for different audiences (e.g. "tech notes" for maintenance contacts vs. problems/solutions for engineers who are researching)
- CRM custom objects help to capture information to improve speed and efficiency of technical and customer support
- conversational marketing can help visitors find their info faster - regardless of their job function or prospect/customer status
- a knowledge base delivers self-service info concisely
This is important context because manufacturers should understand the impact of carefully planned technology on their ability to attract, win and service customers - to provide improved customer experience and increased efficiency for their team. We have to break the mold of thinking of ERP for purchasing, BOMs and invoicing - and CRM for contact management.
A customer portal is another relevant example. Let's dig in.
What is a Customer Portal?
When we talk about customer portals for capital equipment customers, a portal is a section of the website which provides and limits access to specific known customer users and consolidates important information about their products and orders. It might include serialized machine information (model, install date, last service date, warranty expiration, associated parts orders, explosion drawings and operator manuals, key component models/SNs and associated "tickets.")
As consumers, we often turn to our own "order history" in portals on various e-commerce sites, or a list of various devices like those associated with an Apple ID. It's helpful, and it seems pretty simple superficially.
Let's stop for a moment to clarify what a customer portal is not.
It is not a member access area.
While each is an example of website areas that would require registration, they are different situations. One is focused on specific contacts/companies and their specific purchases - the customer portal. This is for one contact or a handful.
The other provides access to information that isn't public but isn't specific to a contact - a members or subscribers area. This is intended to exclude random visitors, but provide common access to a large number of users who are entitled to consume it.
Machinery companies should consider both. The customer portal, which I explore in more detail below, helps customer maintenance and operations teams manage their specific assets or purchases.
The members' area could be appropriate for a variety of use cases. Examples include sharing information about the product roadmap that isn't trade secret but isn't for broad public consumption, or for user groups/communities. This is a topic for another day.
How NOT To Build a Customer Portal
There are two approaches to building a portal. One is very IT/development focused. The other is to turn it over to marketing.
This choice creates angst and reactions in many industrial manufacturing firms. There's a common perception that marketing doesn't have the technical horsepower or understanding of the intricacies of what technical users require. Therefore, the thinking goes, we need to reserve this task for the experts.
There's no doubt that marketing will need support and guidance as they establish the parameters for the customer portal. The bottom line, though, is that they are best positioned to launch a portal that is both helpful and easily supported.
Because in small and lower middle-market firms, the alternative doesn't work.
The reflexive approach - the IT solution - is slow, expensive, and complicated to launch. But worse, it is poorly supported (a one-off project normally with a single knowledgeable point person who has other responsibilities and may change jobs), often built on a platform selected for reasons other than customer experience, and simply too cumbersome to keep accurately populated with data.
In this scenario, not only is the infrastructure fragile, but the process of populating each portal and controlling access is clunky and often manual. In many cases, the information which is to be delivered isn't consolidated. Order date, for instance, may come from the ERP or separate accounting system. The manual might come from a reference library. And component SNs would be found in a machine history folder on some shared server.
That means that while there's an initial burst of energy resulting in some information being loaded, it's often limited ("Let's start with manuals" you often hear) because of the work involved.
The contact access database also has to be separately built and maintained. Customer users have to be manually added to a "system" that they may soon forget exists and which has a separate administrator for password resets, access issues, and other support.
In theory, as a project is proposed to management, this is a familiar approach. In practice, it's doomed to fail, and in many cases never gets launched because it's so cumbersome.
How TO Build a Customer Portal
The solution will feel uncomfortable for many skeptical IT and technical folks.
Turn it over to marketing.
How is this possible?
Going back to the beginning of this article, technology that's "owned" by the manufacturing marketing team is focused on solving for the buyer, ease of use, and agility. If you've implemented marketing automation and ERP projects the difference will be painfully clear.
But how could marketing succeed with this initiative?
First, go back and take a quick re-read of the article on custom objects. The important data should exist in the CRM - a tool that marketing operations and sales operations should easily manage. Some will be manually entered there (e.g. tickets details, component model/SNs, and probably warranty expiration date) and some will be synced (e.g. parts orders, sale date, etc.) from other systems. With established and refined process and accountability, the information will be contemporaneously captured and accurate because it's important to business function, efficiency, and customer experience.
Second, the industrial marketing folks should be building on a platform that integrates customer-facing functions around a common, purpose-built, database and code set. This is the value proposition of HubSpot for Manufacturing. Customer portal software, like email marketing, knowledge base publishing, CRM custom objects, restricted user access, and other features are built into a single integrated platform.
HubSpot recently relaunched their Service Hub which includes native Customer Portal capability. With that, many of the complex security, development, UX, user access, and support challenges are solved. A bit of development support is all that's necessary to pull the various properties into a useful layout.
This means launching in a week, with very small expense - compared to six to twelve-month planning projects that fizzle even as (IF) they launch.
Solve For the Buyer - A Call to Action
Regardless of the framework on which you build a customer portal, there's one key factor in success.
It has to provide value to the user - the customer. That means ease of use, simple experience, rich in the information they'll need (not what's easy to provide), and developed for their requirements.
This is a common marketing mindset, yet very different in orientation than IT and engineering.
I'll close with an exhortation and two caveats.
Buyers increasingly expect this sort of self-service information, but they're skeptical because what they're actually provided is often unusable.
A properly built customer portal can provide real value to users, and elevate your brand while improving operational efficiency simultaneously.
If you build it for yourself it will fail. Don't.
Further, if you wait a competitor will beat you to it. And while it may seem like this is insignificant compared to the value provided by your product itself, this is representative of the aggregate impact of customer experience on your long-term brand perception and performance.