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How to optimise online self-service portals

25th Jun 2009
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If you want to encourage customers to help themsleves online then you need to deliver an effective online self-service portal. Accenture's Brian Sprague gives his tips.

Sometimes customers are happy to help themselves when it comes to web sales and support offered by a company. However, while online self-service portals are supposed to make this experience quick and hassle-free, a recent survey revealed that 55% of consumers rated their self-service experience as about the same, worse or much worse than it was two years ago. In addition, 65% of consumers have switched providers because of poor service or products - and that's just among technology firms.

Despite these problems and especially during these challenging economic times, a robust online self-service and support portal is a competitive necessity, a key strategic differentiator and a growth-engine opportunity. These are all drivers of high performance. Companies that fail to recognise this and do not take the steps necessary to enhance their sites could risk losing large numbers of customers and come out of the market downturn in a worse position than they were in before it began.

So how can you align online self-service support capabilities with customer needs and preferences?

Start simple

To build a successful online support service, companies must get the basics right. This means that before they introduce advanced features, they should focus on common support tasks that can be completed simply and quickly. The site must be based on an information architecture that provides direct access to the site’s most helpful user functions. It also needs to have features that facilitate successful completion of user tasks. These include sign-on authentication, a clear path for users to provide feedback, easily accessible links and multiple methods for submitting requests.

When building a portal, the customer reigns supreme. To design a highly relevant and compelling user experience - an all important goal in customer service - designers must understand customers' intentions, how they use the site and why they visit it.

Ask your users for answers

Content is paramount. To build a strong content base, companies should leverage new Web 2.0 technologies. This approach will allow them to draw on the aggregated knowledge of their customers by:

  • Using blogs and forums.
  • Supporting wikis for user/site developer collaboration on issues.
  • Providing tools for rating, tagging or flagging helpful information.
  • Offering RSS feeds, such as forum entries or news headlines.

These methods can enable users to receive updates on issues that interest them personally. Companies can create a site that helps confirm that their customers can access the exact information they seek and that the information provided will be up-to-date and accurate.

Be fast

Because users are notoriously impatient, providing information quickly is as important as delivering the right content. Users don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort obtaining the correct answer. They appreciate an experience in which their problems are solved by the first customer service person they contact. Given this, two key capabilities need to be delivered: Search engine optimisation to help bring customers to a company’s website, and robust site search to help enable a company’s customers find what they need quickly.

Optimising a search engine is a process of editing and organising content and links on a website to increase its potential relevance to specific keywords on general search engines, enabling customers to view a snapshot of their results. Couples with a dynamic filtering of results and navigation, customers can sift with ease through data they find most useful. These search tools also allow companies to track searches to see which ones are, or aren't, receiving results. Also, this tool can help companies provide user-generated tagging of data to enhance the search function, making it possible for users to rank the usefulness of search results. In this process the bottomline goal is enabling the customer to get the answer faster.

Personalise your service

Customer segmentation is an effective tool to help guide what customers see on a site. Consider this hypothetical example: A communications, electronics or high-tech company knows that one of its customers (let's call him John) is a technology whizz. Therefore, the site should present content dynamically to him, in a way that is appropriate based on his knowledge, rather than from the perspective of a technical novice. If the company also knows that John has purchased product XYZ, it can dynamically present technically detailed content for that product. The site will also present all the standard things one expects in a personalised portal, such as who John is, what John has purchased, what his prior case history is and entitlement rights.

Leverage tools
Leading companies do not fight incumbent niche providers, they figure out ways to use them to add value to their sites and customers. There are several examples of using outside tools to push information to user desktops and homepages, including embedding YouTube videos or providing gadgets from sites such as Google and Yahoo. This adds value for users by leveraging common tools to help address customers' needs efficiently, enhancing user experiences and increasing portal flexibility.


To stay current and relevant as products and customers’ needs continue to evolve, companies must change. Successful support organisations often try to get smarter and seek incremental changes to their products, services and processes, and make these enhancements easily available to their customers via online support portals. These groups allow and encourage their customers to post new product ideas and they invite their customers to vote for the best.

Such groups also track the problems in their product lines through the information they gather from their support sites and third party sites, for example, by monitoring chatter about their company and its products on social networking sites and proactively responding to it. They also pull key knowledge back into their sites and use this data to solve those problems in their next generation of products. In this way, products and services become more closely tied to customers’ needs and desires.

Brian Sprague is a senior executive in Accenture’s customer service and support practice


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