User portals, also known as extranets, are powerful tools for engaging with customers, partners, and suppliers. For many companies, the user portal gets even more traffic than their main website. But what are the key reasons for creating a portal, and does it actually bring any real benefit to the business?
Let’s take a look.

What is a user portal?

A user portal is generally defined as a website with secure log-in access to centralised functions and information. It provides a personalised experience, based on the user’s profile, and often brings together various sources of information in a single, consolidated view. (The wider term “web portal” is typically used for resource pages open to browsing without logging in.)

The power of self-service

One of the biggest drivers behind developing a user portal is the potential for self-service. By giving users the ability to find the information they need without having to contact you directly, you can save the business a great deal of time and resource.

Typical portals

These are some examples of typical user portals and how they are being used commercially.

  • Support portal
    Busy professionals don’t want to spend time sitting in a telephone queue waiting for help. So why not give them an alternative?
    The user portal format lends itself very well to the concept of support, as it makes it easier for users to find potential solutions to their own problems without having to call your support helpline. However, to help prevent the business from becoming a “faceless enterprise”, many organisations choose to add chat windows for added live support within the page.
  • E-commerce or sales order portal
    Whether it’s B2B or B2C, the ability to order 24/7 saves time and resource for both customer and provider.
    Online sales order processing is one of the most lucrative investments a business can make. For a company that provides products or services that people buy on a recurring basis, a secure sales portal can be an incredibly powerful way to keep customers coming back again and again. Once they have registered on your system, you can introduce them to loyalty schemes, discounts, timed reminders to re-purchase, and much more.
  • Partner, reseller or affiliate portal
    For a product vendor, a partner portal can be immensely useful. This is where you can provide access to key documentation like manuals, sales guides, and marketing materials. An advanced partner portal may provide direct access into a specific area of the CRM or order system, where the partner can find leads and register any deals they have identified. For a large, complex structure of partners at different levels, this is where much of the day-to-day interaction happens. The portal can play a key part in on-boarding new partners, especially when using training modules and demo videos. This is also an easy way for vendors to ensure everyone receives important updates and communications.
  • User community
    Over the last decade, many businesses have chosen to build their interactive presence using public platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn. However, the constant changes in display algorithms and interfaces can often be a source of frustration as it’s out of your control – and there is no ownership of user data. This means that many organisations are now turning back to the idea of private user communities where they have full control of how information is being shared and used.
    Building a community-focused solution also means that you can target your user base in much more specific ways, to promote and upsell your products and services.

Off-the-shelf or custom?

There are many plug-and-play user portal solutions available. Most of them specialise in one aspect of the portal functionality, such as Zendesk for support, Handshake for e-commerce or for communities. Although these will typically be great at doing what they were designed for, there is always an element of unnecessary or missing features.

Some solutions could provide the basics for what you need, but will inevitably charge over the odds for additional functionality that you may never use. Also, business requirements might change over time. You could end up with a rigid solution that can’t deal with your new process or product.

A custom made user portal can sometimes be much more cost-effective, especially as you maintain full control over functionality, design, and the roadmap for future features.

Don’t rush into the portal

Introducing a user portal into your business is a major decision and one which should be given plenty of consideration. Spend time mapping out the key features you need and want, and how you anticipate a portal solution evolving over time to match your strategic direction. Contact several solution vendors and developers to get a good overview of options, and make sure you get a transparent cost proposal that fits your budget.