Do-it-yourself : The importance of customer portals

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Do you remember how it used to be when booking an airline ticket? The normal practice was to use travel agents. They found deals for people and were paid a commission by the airline. Sounds like ages ago…

Today people find their own deals. We search the airlines directly or visit price comparison websites to find both the price and schedule that suits us best. We make our own purchases, money transfers and payments when and where we want. Obvious! But why? It’s not only because we can – the technology makes it possible – but also because it’s human nature. People like to do things for themselves.
In this ‘Do-it-yourself’ (DIY) world, one phenomenon that I find really interesting is the way that buying behaviors that were traditionally considered B2C (Business to Consumer) are increasingly being found in the B2B (Business to Business) environment.
A recent McKinsey research study1  mentions that ‘although customer-experience improvement is typically associated with B2C players, it is at least as critical in the B2B setting. While the nature of B2B relationships makes the reform challenge more difficult, with regard to customer and journey complexity, the competitive advantages and significant bottom-line gains that flow from it make the effort, worthwhile. There is great potential in the B2B realm in using concepts such as self-service, online interfaces, and automated decision rules’.
Based on this, we have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: if we’re in business and we haven’t yet provided a similar DIY option, what’s our reason?

Why many B2B companies are slow to adopt…

While most consumer-driven B2C organizations already have the portal box ticked, I can think of several reasons that B2B companies may cite as to why they have yet to get on board:
  • We don’t see the need. We’re not a consumer goods business
  • It will not be used. Why create something that may not be used by our clients?
  • Online customer portals are so impersonal. We value the direct relationship we have with our clients, and they value it too
  • The business case is not there. If the adoption is low we will just incur cost.

… and why they may be left behind

I have to say I do understand the concerns to some extent, but there is more to it. The Digital revolution is re-shaping the market and the enterprises that understand and leverage it to their benefit will not only survive but flourish.  These are organizations that know communication is a two-way thing. They understand that customer portals don’t just provide self-service facilities like virtual agents but enable other means of real engagement such as enabling a customer to interact with a live agent when the query is more complex.
Let’s take each of the above referenced arguments in turn:
  • Lack of need: implicit in this argument is the notion that the sole function of customer portals is to enable an FMCG-style purchase. ‘If I’m not an online consumer business I don’t need a portal.’ In fact, self service portals provide customers not just with a means of purchase but with a route to information and engagement. A B2B organization’s clients are people too, and people are consumers with consumer expectations. They bring these expectations to work with them and look for levels of customer service they find outside work. Stats show if their needs aren’t met they’re disappointed and the B2B brand value is diminished as a result.
  • Lack of a business case and low adoption: in fact, the development and implementation costs for a customer portal may surprise you, and once it’s been rolled out the costs per contact are very low – lower, in fact, than just about any other form of customer interaction. If something that is both cost-effective and useful in consolidating brand loyalty, is it really just a nice-to-have requirement? In addition – it is not only about the cost – Generation Y/ millennials expect to be communicated with in a relevant way.
  • Impersonality: the implication in this argument is that customer portals are being introduced as a replacement for direct customer contact. They’re absolutely not. Our relationships as individuals with our families and close friends isn’t diminished because we send text messages to them now and then: texting is just one of many forms of communication we use. Similarly, portals enable customers to engage with organizations how and when it suits them.
Enterprises that understand the importance of the digital customer experience are already well advanced on this journey and have implemented customer portals. They are able to serve ‘Generation DIY’ – those who live through a digital interface and want everything to be available online anytime, anywhere – and probably haven’t called a travel agency in years.
1. Source: McKinsey & Company: Customer Experience, Creating value through transforming customer journeys | Winter 2016

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