It’s one of the biggest challenges facing businesses today – how do they improve the customer experience and develop a closer connection with their audience? In the past, organisations have looked to traditional customer portals for the answer in the belief they were what customers were looking for.

Many businesses still believe that traditional portal platforms are the Holy Grail for customer engagement – and are intent on pushing this viewpoint to the wider market. Often, though, they make assumptions about what their clients want and what is going to be useful to them. In truth, they should be looking at this the other way round, putting their customers at the heart of the process and getting them to engage with the content in the way they want to engage with it.

When looked at from the customers’ perspective, the reality is that these platforms are often more of a barrier to, rather than an enabler of, closer engagement. They offer restrictive user interfaces and less than optimum user experiences. They often boast rich functionality, but because they are not sufficiently user-friendly, getting full value is difficult.

Typically, it is difficult to search for, or interact with, data using these systems. Implementations are expensive with long software development cycles. As technology is constantly evolving, traditional portals are often dated on launch. Indeed, the average portal now takes around two years to fully develop, leaving just one year of use before the platform technology, design and content all need to updated again.

Popular portal platforms have also found it hard to build in new technology developments like cloud, popular app-like UIs and social media. This failure to respond to changes in user needs means they struggle to offer a modern user experience.

Consumerising The Enterprise

So what’s the solution? The key is to make the portal easy for customers to use. Part of this is about contextualising the experience. Being able to serve up relevant and engaging content specific to the individual should be a key goal of any customer portal provider.

It’s a theme picked up in a recent book, “Age of Context”, by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel which talks about five converging forces – social media, mobile data, sensors and location-based technology, that together promise to change every aspect of our lives. These technologies are increasingly learning more about us and the environments in which we operate. They are therefore better able to contextualise the end user experience and match it to the way we work and live.

This is important. After all, businesses are increasingly looking to consumerise the enterprise and close the gap between the positive experiences many people have of using social, mobile and cloud technologies in the home environment and the rather more restrictive rigid and limited technology configurations that they have become used to in their working lives.

Successful portal adoption and usage is directly linked to the experience of users and their expectations, especially when those expectations have been radically altered by the use of IT in the home. Regardless of the latest technology trends, users now expect their business portal to reflect a personalised view of their needs and interests (just like the ones they employ at home), and be accessible on any device anywhere on any network.

Putting The Customer At The Heart Of Everything

So why isn’t this happening yet? Well, the good news is that increasingly it is. Ultimately, it’s about customer portals that are actually based on customer needs and empower those customers to choose, access and action what they require – anytime, anywhere and on any device. It’s important that a solution not only can integrate with existing CRM portals but also serve up content that is relevant to its users.

The key is to make it personal. You need to provide all the data and information customers need in one place to help them further their business objectives. At the same time, you need to make the user interface as easy and intuitive as possible; ensure it is flexible and can readily adapt to changes in a user’s status or requirements to maximise customer satisfaction levels.

We are all emotional beings. Customers will always ask “what’s in it for me” at every stage of a portal’s use, so your portal design needs to be all about making things easier and more personal. Even in this fast-paced information age, people are still the most valuable resource. Successful portals should provide features to transform user behaviour into useful knowledge and defined results. Remember that the technology trends people like and adopt and use today will change over time, often rapidly as IT and devices change. And so your systems need to be able to change with them.

The one constant in all this though has to be the customer. Everything that they receive has to be specific and relevant to them. With this new approach to personalising and consumerising the customer experience, businesses can ensure that it is and that they at all times remain at the heart of the customer experience.