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Self-service portals are springing up everywhere.

Some customers love them, while others shudder at the thought of involving a database in their problems. At the same time many companies are doing a poor job of implementing self-service or avoiding it altogether for fear of driving customers away.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By understanding the potential benefits of a well-integrated self-service portal, you’ll be able to make sure yours doesn’t suck (and even pick up some new customers in the process).

So why consider a self-service portal?

Increased Customer Personalization

Providing each of your customers with unique login IDs and personal profiles will make customer service easier for both customers and your reps. Not only can both parties access the customer’s queries (past and present), they should also be able to view the customer’s purchase history, orders she might have placed, support tickets she has open and her activity on community forums (more on these later).

Keeping a complete profile of a customer’s experiences with your brand – the good as well as the bad -- does two things: it empowers your reps to take on fresh cases confidently and deliver faster, more tailored service, and it also lets customers review the journeys they've had with a brand. Customers should also be able to amend their personal details at any time, as well as change any product reviews or ratings they may have left. Giving your customers this kind of control lets them know they are in charge and are not subject to decisions made by your brand alone.

Personalization should also come into play regarding the content your customers see when they visit your portal. Articles, product updates, latest news, how-to's, tips and tutorials should be based on what products the customer has purchased, as well other things they've shown interest in. You can learn more about these interests and hobbies by tracking their behavior on social media and the web -- or by asking them. Offering customers additional advice on the things most important to them lets them know you care about making their life easier -- even if it doesn't sell your product.

A Stronger Customer Community

Mixed in with the prospect of self-service is crowd-service -- the process of customers helping other customers. This should be a strong part of any self-service portal as not only does it encourage customers to seek out information for themselves, it also builds strong peer relations and community surrounding your brand.

Forums where customers can post questions and help one another can take a massive strain off your reps, allowing them to handle the bigger problems that cannot be solved through peer assistance. However, these forums should also be appropriately moderated, so a company representative can jump in if necessary.

A strong social media presence is a key element of providing this community-related support. Throug dedicated social media feeds such as Twitter and Facebook, customers can not only receive guidance from customer service, but from one another as well. Your social platforms will also be your main channels through which to share and promote helpful resources, such as blog posts, articles, videos and webinars.

According to Steven Van Bellinghem of B-Conversational, 55 percent of customers like the idea of peer support, while 58 percent say they would be happy to help others. Gartner reports that organizations that integrate communities into their customer support strategy could see cost reductions up to 50 percent. This makes it possible for companies to offer a broader range of services, and if their experience was satisfactory, customers will be more likely to use the same channel the next time.

Boost community by recognizing users who help others and possibly rewarding them with discounts and free gifts, depending on the level of contributions. Invite knowledgeable customers to contribute a blog post in exchange for a freebie, or pass links to their own how-tos as a way of saying thanks.

Don't overlook the true purpose of the crowd-support ideology. When your customers buy your product, they don’t just sign up for a service, but are being welcomed into a unique, trustworthy community. This community should operate on the basis of everything your brand represents -- your values, beliefs and attitudes. Let customers know that when they chose you, they chose all those other things as well. This can sometimes result in your most powerful marketing tool.

Boosted Web Traffic

The bigger your creation of assistive resources, the more social engagement you will likely experience and the greater the chance of your content being shared. These blogs, videos and how-to's that circulate around the web are a great way to increase your brand awareness and encourage other pages to link back to your website. This leads to better site authority and higher rankings on Google.

You don’t need to be an SEO expert. A well-crafted knowledge-base article has the potential to rank highly all by itself, even if a user wasn’t searching for your brand in the first place. This not only helps drive potential customers to your site, but establishes trust from the get-go.

Will Self-Service Replace the Customer Service Rep?

Self-service gets a bad rep because some people think it threatens the true nature of customer service. But this is far from the case.

According to NICE Systems’ 2014 Global Experience Survey, 88 percent of customers still prefer to speak directly with a rep over the phone to get a problem sorted (even though they use on average six different channels to get in touch). Other studies have shown that customers will always prefer a real human to be on hand to help ... even if they’d like to try helping themselves out first.

A good customer service strategy comes down to choice. So it’s only natural that self-service would be a part of that choice.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Donald Lee Pardue