What is a Customer Portal, and Why You Need Full ERP Integration to Have One?


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How can you make your customers feel taken care of?

B2B customer portals often provide eCommerce companies with as many benefits as their product catalogs. Customer portals enable client access to proprietary company information such as ordering history, customer account information, shipping addresses, past invoices, price quotes, credits, credit limits and many other resources. These ERP connections include third-party integrations, product configurators, special catalogs and product resources like white papers, materials information, supply chain details, special pricing tiers, detailed specifications, etc. A client portal ensures that everything B2B customers need is ready and easily available to expedite placing an order, researching a product or managing their accounts.

Client portals can function as key pillars of marketing strategies that focus on customer acquisition, getting established customers to increase their orders and countering competitors' efforts to solicit customers away from the company. The portal system draws from enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management software to provide each customer with the right online experience, level of access, customer service and convenience that foster better user experiences and resolve problems instantly. The benefits of client portals include:

  • Providing better user experiences for each customer that match or exceed what B2C companies offer
  • Managing multiple customer stakeholders and decision-makers including employees who are authorized to make purchases up to predefined limits
  • Designing intuitive features that help to track customer behavior and transform it into sales leads and other useful intelligence
  • Personalizing content for customers
  • Synchronizing information from a hodgepodge of internal systems and external resources
  • Synchronizing information from a hodgepodge of internal systems and external resources
  • Enhancing the company's ability to upsell, cross-sell and provide custom quotes
  • Increasing real-time visibility to fuel sales and growth

Customer portal implementations focus beyond simple, one-time transactions to provide an overview of everything that a customer has done or might want to do on a modern B2B eCommerce platform. The portals can provide quick, customized access to historical information in the company's ERP system to facilitate connections to reordering information, research, invoicing history, buying trends, stored ship-to addresses and other critical customer intelligence. These portals also provide B2B companies with better tracking of customer behavior for segmentation purposes, generating sales leads, identifying changed buying habits and triggering timely marketing messages.

Understanding the ERP-Portal connection

A client portal only works as well as its connections allow, so that's why B2B companies need full ERP integration, updated SOA to handle internal and external links and advanced business intelligence gathering. CRM system integrations are also important if developers want to create a comprehensive portal that can handle everything from customer service to producing real-time reports that provide an integrated view of multichannel company operations. Typical ERP connections that can be accessed through portals include:

  • Calculating global shipping charges and taxes for customers
  • Administrative uses for integrating multiple systems and databases
  • Using native SEO tools
  • Importing business intelligence
  • Generating reports and customer analytics
  • Providing invoicing and account histories
  • Increasing front-facing functionality with integrated back-office connections
  • Getting faster answers to questions and handling many customer service issues through self-service features
  • Providing tips and best practices based on customer profiles, ordering histories and searches
  • Connecting customers with vendors, third-party resources and peer-to-peer support
  • Delivering a knowledge base on products, materials and product interoperability and interactions
  • Managing content based on customer profiles
  • Giving customers a forum to express their opinions, suggestions and concerns
  • Gaining direct customer feedback on new products and marketing promotions

If the customer portal doesn't connect to every allowable software resource, the company will inevitably end up with multiple databases, time lags between updates, slower performance and fulfillment delays. Some B2B companies just don't bother offering their customers real-time information because of the practical difficulties of collecting, extracting, collating and manually entering data in multiple areas. Business decisions and even order fulfillments suffer as a result when ERP integrations aren't available to access data and transmit it everywhere it's needed in real-time. If companies assign employees to do the work manually, then the company isn't operating at its peak efficiency because people are called away from their core duties.

Strengthening user experiences

Customers will experience greater empowerment when using portals, which strengthens engagement and loyalty. By 2017, analysts at Gartner, Inc., predict that two-thirds of customer service will no longer require human support.[1] B2C customers have long integrated self-service across many channels, and B2B companies can meet their more challenging requirements with fully engineered ERP integrations for customer portals. A recent report found that the customer experience will overtake price and product quality by 2020 as the most important decision-making criterion, and customer portals deliver state-of-the-art B2B user experiences.[2]

Making the user's experience better on each website visit means keeping track of customer preferences, making it easy to reorder, finding past invoices, recommending substitutions for out-of-stock or discontinued products, making intuitive recommendations and supplying appropriate content choices based on the customer’s progress in the ordering process or sales funnel.

Delivering dynamic content

Every B2B company faces the same challenge when designing a sales portal -- figuring out how to deliver the right content to the right customer at the right time. Most companies have hundreds of resources, PDFs,white papers, product demos, videos and other resources, but choosing the right combination of supporting content becomes almost unmanageable when the material must be found and forwarded to customers within a short window of time. Strong ERP customizations automate the power of personalizing and delivering content to customers at the right stage of the sales process.

Portals function as the most progressive kind of ERP integration

Customer portals are usually among the most advanced uses of API integrations, so it's important to develop full ERP and CRM integrations. ERP connections are most critical because portals usually connect with catalogs, sales departments, inventory management, pricing software or staff pricing specialists, existing price quotations from staff and salespeople, company credits and incentives, product informational resources and third-party company stakeholders like vendors, shippers and distributors.

A recent survey found that two-thirds of B2B customers actually prefer self-service over the complexities of explaining their problems to multiple company representatives over the phone.[3] The same article found that three-fourths of customers consider self-service more convenient that live service, and Forrester Research found that company buyers are now considering whether companies make their online experiences enjoyable and easy as a major factor in choosing with whom to do business.

Providing customers with 24/7/365 service and self-service options frees staff time, reduces operating expenses and even fosters greater customer satisfaction than providing staff members who often can't help but become harried and resentful when handling issues that could easily be automated. B2B companies can reduce costs, deliver better customer experiences and generate astonishing operating efficiencies by fully integrating ERP systems with their eCommerce platforms and providing customers with intuitive, highly functional customer portals.

Choosing the right customer portal development team

The key criteria for developing a customer portal include implementing the right eCommerce platform that has a flexible middleware or API layer where ERP, CRM and other business applications can easily connect in a modular, secure and scalable environment. The developer should offer development-cost transparency and willingly work with your internal IT team in the development process. Choosing experienced consultants who specialize in B2B applications and collaborative development will ensure that you'll get custom-tailored ERP integrations that will drive customer portals that are functional, comprehensive and easy to use.

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