I have talked in other blog posts how I believe that the successful residential service provider in the future is going to have a choice to make between being what I call a dumb pipe provider or a full service provider. And there are merits to both approaches.
But should you elect to take the service provider approach you will be selling many smaller and niche products to your customers instead of the handful of major products you sell today. It may be a decade until voice and cable TV become 100% commoditized, but every year there will be fewer and fewer customers buying those traditional products.
One of the tools that service providers are going to need for selling multiple services to customers is a customer portal. This is a website that allows customers to see a menu of what is available to them. Last week I wrote a blog entry about upselling your current products to your customers as a way to immediately affect bottom line and a well-designed portal is a great tool for enabling that process.
Here is what I envision as the perfect customer portal:
- The ability for a customer to see what services they are already buying today.
- An easy-to-use menu that shows what else is available, categorized to make it easy for a customer to browse your products.
- Product descriptions that explain the benefits of each available product.
- Ideally, a video or demo for more complex products showing how they works.
- The ability to offer sales specials as a customer browses to entice them to try the product.
- A tie-in to your provisioning system so that the customer can buy, or even just try the product as they shop.
There are a number of customer portals in the telecom world today and I have yet to see one that works in this ideal way. Just last week I went in and changed several things on my AT&T Wireless bill. I found a lower cost voice package and the portal let me easily change plans. But in doing to it deleted my text messaging plan and decided I desired to pay 25 cents per text message. That took a call to fix. And I wanted to delete a feature that gave me lower cost international calling and that also took a phone call to fix. There is nobody bigger than AT&T and they don’t have their portal figured out correctly. But what they did have was a lot better than nothing because it enabled me to familiarize myself with their various plans so I could decide what I wanted, without having to involve a person in that process. I was glad to have the portal, and I just wished I didn’t have to make two phone calls to finally complete what I wanted to change.
Some of the better portals I have seen are from the major cable companies. They often offer so many different programming packages that having them all explained on a portal is a great way for a customer to shop without tying up a customer service representative. But from what I can see, none of them yet give customers the ability to change products without talking to a live person before it is finished.
I think a lot of companies hesitate to build a portal because they don’t want to commit the resources needed to build the ideal one. But there is no reason to wait since even the largest carriers haven’t perfected the customer portal yet. There is nothing stopping you from starting your portal now to let your customers see the wide range of your existing products. Every one of my clients has a number of products that they barely sell. I believe that there are a lot more customers who would buy products like unified messaging if they understood what it could do for them and if they knew that you offered it. Think of building a portal as a way of communicating with your customers.
If you are going to start a portal or improve an existing one you should consider including some of the following functions:
- Let customers check their bill on-line.
- Let customers make a credit card or bank debit payment.
- Let customers change product parameters like their Internet bandwidth.
- Make it easy for customers to order Pay-per-view events.
- Let’s customers place a tentative order even if that just prompts you to call them back.
So I recommend that you create a portal today that does some of these functions. There is probably not going to be some magic program available that is going to let you create the perfect customer portal all at once. Rather, this is likely to be an ongoing process. Because of that, do what you can for now, but do so in such a way that you are prepared to evolve your portal into a powerful tool for you and your customers.
Finally, I would note that there is an additional set of functions that are sometimes referred to as a customer portal. On smart switches you can build a web interface so that customers with advanced voice features can maintain the settings for those products. While this is certainly a portal function, this is more of an operational function and not a marketing function.