Welcome to the Productize.co Q & A series. I will take a theme from my weekly coaching calls, review the recordings and mash up my (sometimes outspoken) point of view into an actionable post. I talked to three different entrepreneurs about this question during the week.
Please note – my advice is one size fits most. Just like there’s an alternative point of view for every commonly touted startup maxim, there’s also an edge case that won’t fit here. If you wholeheartedly disagree with what I’ve written, reply in the comments.
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Let’s dig in.
What is a client portal?
A client portal is a web interface where a customer can log in to use your service. Client portals are also sometimes referred to as a customer dashboard or a customer-facing dashboard.
Here’s a brief walkthrough of a few portals, ranging from simple to complex:
What problems does a client portal solve?
A client portal:
- Improves a client’s experience
- Reduces the cost of serving a customer by providing self-serve options, like invoicing, billing, task/ticket submission and so forth
- Creates a new channel for customer communication
- Enables you to track user behavior programmatically
- Can increase the *perceived value* of your service
*Perceived value* can take a few dimensions. As a customer, you might be expecting a customer dashboard when you sign up for a service. If you just just get a bunch of emails, you might feel short-changed. As an investor, you might look at a dashboard as a differentiator to other alternative investments.
Do I need a client portal for my product, service or productized service?
The short answer is yes, but.
The longer version of the answer is yes, but have I asked myself some hard questions (we’ll get to these).
So, building a client portal is fun.
Wireframes, sprites and CSS, oh my!
You get to create a good experience for your customer.
You offset a lot of manual and/or transactional work, like changing a credit card or a plan.
Entrepreneurs love tinkering on projects like this and therein lies the problem.
You may dilute your focus on what matters in favor of what feels like work.
Building a customer portal before you hit scale it is like split-testing your website when you’ve got 100 visitors a month. It’s too early.
Allow me to lay down some #bigfax.
A client portal is not your product.
I repeat, a client portal is not your product.
It is a layer that helps you communicate with your customer.
It’s a different layer, but it’s often no better or worse than an alternative like email, slack or in some cases, snail mail.
The value that your product delivers is what your customers care about.
Let’s use a metaphor.
“Putting lipstick on a pig.”
For the record, I’m vegetarian and think pigs are cute.
The premise of the metaphor is that you’re trying to dress up something that is inherently ugly.
In a business context, this can mean you build some portal software while you break the underlying value promise to your customer over and over again.
Let’s say you:
– DON’T have a portal and you break your promise by delivering subpar work or wonky product experience.
– DO have a portal and you break your promise to your customer by delivering subpar work or wonky product experience.
The layer does not matter.
The customer will still be upset. They will look for an alternative. They will likely churn.
So, how far can you go without a client portal?
Before the GoDaddy acquisition, WP Curve didn’t need one. So we didn’t build one.
In the early days, we use a Frankenstein process of Gmail pushing to Trello, with manual customer ticket management through Google Docs and human review. That doesn’t scale much past 100 customers, but it did the job.
Then we moved to Helpscout.
Then we built a layer on top of Helpscout.
Then we built more layers on top of Helpscout, but team adoption was low because Helpscout already did an amazing job. Re-engineering it was a waste of time.
We built a few custom tools and used a few apps to help automate repetitive stuff, like password resets and screenshots, but there was not a significant benefit from building a dashboard at the scale we were operating at.
Once we actually hit scale (post-acquisition), we built a fully-fledged client portal.
Here’s another example to drive my point home.
I work with one client who has hundreds of thousands of active subscribers. Their service is email only and they are growing like wildfire. Here are some of the questions they needed to answer to say yes to finally building a client portal:
- Does the math of a client portal make sense on a hard-cost basis? Yes.
- Will the customer service team eventually burn out without one? Yes.
- Is there a path to generating more revenue because of the portal? Yes.
- Will it help us scale into alternative product lines? Yes.
So, how do you figure out whether it’s the right time for investing in a client portal?
Be intellectually honest with yourself and ask the following questions, or find yourself a CEO Coach who will:
- Am I putting lipstick on a pig?
- Am I prematurely optimizing around a process that has limited throughput?
- Will a portal yield significant process improvements or customer benefits? If yes, what are they?
- What is an appropriate stage (scale) to implement a solution? A revenue milestone? A number of customers? A number of tickets or transactions?
- Are there other growth-related activities that I should work or invest in that supersede the priority of a client portal?
- At what stage will I absolutely need a portal, because the hard cost of not having one outweighs the investment?
- What alternatives exist? Can I stitch together a few apps to get me across the line?
- Have I exhausted the available alternatives?
- Do I understand the minimum viable portal I can build with apps like zapier, typeform, airtable, etc?
- Once I’ve built a portal, do I have the necessary resources (people and money) to support it 24/7 and improve upon it over time?
- Do my customers even care about a portal? Have I asked them? When I build one, do I plan to ask them their point of view on what they care about?
I welcome your comments.