Everything you do to market to, sell and support a customer requires a different application, each with its own content and data. So how can you tie all your customer data and content together to give you a 360-degree view of your customer and their relationship with you?

Mapping the Enterprise Software Landscape

Organizations invest untold amounts of money into software for a variety of business purposes. Marketing departments get web experience management, email marketing, analytics, search and other applications. Applications for sales include eCommerce platforms and CRMs. And customer service and support have applications like ticketing apps, service request applications, self-service knowledge bases and so on.

Most of an organization's challenges don’t lie in implementing a specific application. They lie in trying to integrate applications to share customer data and content. Unfortunately, this challenge can’t be avoided. No one single platform or suite offers every piece of enterprise software an organization needs to be successful, so they deal with the integration challenges they have — some better than others.

Maybe you can’t tie every application together, but there are groups of applications that, when integrated, enable a seamless customer experience. Let’s look at service and support as an example.

Tying Together Service and Support

Your organization likely has several different applications to provide customer service and support. And these applications — such as Salesforce Service Cloud, Desk.com, Zendesk, Microsoft Dynamics and others — probably reside in different departments under different ownership.

You may also have technical documentation, self-service web apps, customer forums and communities to support your customers. Again, each connection point owned by a different department and separate from the others.

Add in training, product licensing and professional services requests, and the challenge gets more complex.

Your customers don’t think of service and support as different functions, and they don’t expect to call three or four different areas of your company to get different types of support for the product they purchased. What they expect is to make one phone call that doesn’t require providing the same information over and over again.

How do you make that seamless experience on the front-end work on the back-end? How do you integrate disparate service and support apps with different customer data sets and content repositories?

Look to the customer support portal.

Customer Support Portals Provide a Unified View

Portal technology has been around for a long time, but it has new life in the world of customer experience management, particularly with the customer support portal (CSP). A customer support portal enables an organization to provide a fully branded web experience for all the organization’s support needs.

CSPs make it possible to integrate all the backend support and service systems and present customer information via a single interface. This can include creating and servicing support tickets, making service requests, looking at customer product details (what they bought, when, etc.), searching product documentation and knowledge bases, communicating with other customers to help find the answers to questions or issues, and managing training programs.

Typically, your organization would need separate licensing and subscriptions to the software used for those functions. But with a CSP and a robust set of APIs, connectors and federated search the required data is pulled from those systems and brought into a single interface.

A customer support portal enables self-service, which allows customers to look for basic set-up information or resolve specific user questions. Customers can also see the progress of tickets or service requests submitted, can help another customer with a problem they recently resolved, can give feedback on new features or functionality, and much more.

The Technology Behind App Integration

Integrating disparate applications can happen in different ways. The most common is via APIs. Most support and service software offer an API for custom development. This enables a developer to connect to the application from an external system and manage data and content — create it, edit it, delete it and retrieve it to display in another system.

APIs are built on open standards, so they are easily understood and used across a variety of platforms and technologies. Other open standards support development across devices such as mobile and tablets. Examples of open standards used for web-based applications include XML, HTML, SVG, HTML5, Rest, SOAP and others.

Software applications that don’t support open standards will have a hard time in a world where integration and interoperability are critical for good customer experiences.

Customer service portal software platforms should offer integrations or connectors with CRMs, ERPs and other applications. The vendor may also offer services to connect your data and applications to the portal.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a customer portal is user profile and identity management. You need to provide customers with a single login and user account to access all the data and online services. You also want to have a unified customer portal that includes all of the information about the customer: the products they own, their service history, their training programs, renewals, etc. Your CRM should ultimately be the system of record for customer data, but the web portal also needs to manage customer data to deliver services.

Likewise, managing the customer log-in and passwords should be delivered via the portal. Connections to apps and data with Single Sign-On can be done directly through a portal user manager if it's available, or by integrating the portal to enterprise identity systems like Okta or Janrain, depending on how your applications are managed.

The Path to a Great Customer Experience

A customer support portal is only one example of how organizations tie together applications to offer a more seamless customer experience for both the customer and employees trying to help the customer achieve their goals. We also see this kind of integration with digital experience software and sales software.

The key to great customer experience is ensuring the customer can do what they need to do — research a product, purchase a product, request support, look up product info, and so on. Integration between disparate applications on the back-end makes these interactions easier.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  christopher_brown