Collaborating with peers can fast track projects, help generate new ideas and increase participants’ confidence levels improving the chances of success. We show how in a short case study about developing a Customer Portal at the Service Leaders Network. 

A customer portal lets your customers past your company’s reception desk and exposes your inner business processes to them. Some, like Amazon, have made it their core business and do it well but for many, it can sometimes be like getting caught without any clothes on. In one word: embarrassing.

Despite this, the B2C world has embraced new technology and a digital mindset with savvy -to transform the on-line customer experience in our everyday lives. Naturally, the B2B world is following suit albeit more slowly. Everyone has a website, but these folks, especially those in the industrial environment are a little more cautious about inviting the customer into their parlor. They worry about the risks such as security, brand image and safeguarding their intellectual property.  They are wary of becoming too distracted from their technology leadership and of course, they want a return on their investment.  However, for many the simple fact is that having and leveraging a customer portal is fast becoming a necessity.

With this in mind, a group of Service Managers from a variety of industrial companies got together as part of the Service Leaders Network*, to exchange ideas and experiences not only on how to develop and deploy a customer portal but also how to make a business case for it in the staid world of industry. The outcome illustrates the power of collaboration -how working together with peers can lead to improved, more efficient and quick solutions.

In a first “scoping” workshop the participants together with a subject matter expert practitioner from a global aero-engine manufacturer quickly put together a hands-on outline of how to go about developing, implementing and justifying a customer portal from an industrial service business perspective. They then decided to enrich the framework, so they could better apply it to their own company situation by going through a series of benchmarking sessions comparing and contrasting different portals, the ways they were developed and the business reasoning behind that. The chance to talk in-depth with the specialists and managers who had designed, delivered or maintained them proved to be especially informative and productive.

The result reflects a best practice framework on how to approach this challenge, rich with hints and tips to solve real-world issues that can save time, make the process more effective and reduce risk. Ultimately it helps drive the business case and the expected ROI which was a key concern.

The framework consists of five cohesive and integrated elements defining and explaining the process:

  • Roadmap and Tools
  • Motivation and Value
  • Conceptual Development
  • Business Case Development
  • Implementation and Change Management

Roadmap and Tools

The roadmap defined the phases of development from concept definition through specifications to implementation (incl. maintenance and renewal). Crucially it addressed a set of deeper questions to be answered and problems to be solved at each phase and the tools and methods required to do so. There is significant value for people to visualize this on one page so that review is easy. This allows quick prioritization and refinement of action plans and resources as well as higher-level project management and control.

Motivation and Value

This element deals with the understanding and communication of both the qualitative and the quantitative benefits (and risks) specific to implementing a customer portal in the particular environment and how to integrate the former with the latter -from customer and competitive perspectives:

  • Competitive environment and trends
  • Customer expectations (in the context of broader competitive offerings and experience)
  • Improving the customer experience / journey
  • Opportunistic issues (e.g. process overload, unrelated changes to IT systems)
  • Dealing with security risks (e.g. one entry point to applications, e.g. ticketing)
  • Impact on process, sales and marketing costs
  • Impact on customer loyalty, attracting new customers and revenue

Conceptual Development

Here the focus was on customer and user experience and the fit with corporate strategy and organization. Keys to this phase were issues of:

  • Developing and communicating a clear value proposition for customers/users
  • Achieving optimum user experience both externally and internally
  • Strategic fit with corporate, including with regard to branding and image
  • Understanding and addressing organizational implications e.g. process changes, resourcing, access to data, etc.
  • Developing a vision not just for the “now” but also for the future in terms of a 3-4 year time frame.

Developing the Business Case

Building on the “Motivation and Value” element (above), the Business Case element was about finding practical ways to realize the potential benefits while minimizing costs and risks; And elaborating a vision of how the business would operate with the Customer Portal versus previously while quantifying the financial impact. This included exploring pathways to monetization which may not have been available previously as well as the possible effect on those areas of the business which would be enveloped or subsumed (automated) into the portal. This part is more specific to each participant company, so individual research and effort needed to complement the collaborative project approach. Nevertheless, some common guidance for everybody included:

  • Have a good grip on the cost side as this is more under your control
  • Provide a clear and credible rationale for sales and revenue improvement assumptions
  • Emphasize the specific value for customers/users

In this phase, the ability to test out ideas with peers and get constructive critique and encouragement were deemed particularly beneficient to participants.

Implementation and Change Management

A customer portal project can be a good catalyst for driving customer focus in the organization, as it effectively brings the customer into the business processes of the company. This is good as it builds customer intimacy, but it also means a business must have both a high reaction capacity (be very flexible) and be proactive and focused on the right outcomes for customers.

Hence the involvement of key stakeholders throughout the program development and deployment was perhaps the number one piece of experience-based advice, followed by communication and more communication.

From a technical perspective, the group felt it was necessary to be very mindful of all issues concerning data management, in particular, management of master data as well as data migration as it is here where significant pitfalls and often unidentified risks lie.

Enriching understanding through benchmarking

What the group also found is that it is one thing to jointly develop a framework for a common challenge, it is completely another when practitioners start to share experiences and discuss the reasoning behind actions and decisions.  These discussions touch on the real practical difficulties such as mindset, politics, and funding that define the difference between theory and practice. Hearing why or why not decisions were made from people who have made them bring a richness to the collaboration process that cannot be underestimated. And it underlines the importance of in-depth benchmarking for understanding.

A good case in point is the different perspectives to the basic (but not trivial) initial question “Why a portal?” The answers helped managers see that value (and objectives) may take many forms and come in different varieties. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

  • Coordinating multiple GoTo market channels & brands
  • Single point of entry for all users into a customer’s digital journey
  • Single workplace for customers, employees, and partners
  • Sales & marketing hub
  • Improved management of knowledge base and digital tools through greater transparency
  • Digitizing processes
  • Spare parts sales optimization
  • To keep up with competitors
  • Reduce Customer Support costs through self-service

This in-depth discussion and multi-pronged approach help managers see value that they had not perceived previously and so make a more compelling business case to budget holders. Often the decision to develop a portal is a leap of faith and the business case a means of justification. With these discussions, managers can be more confident in defining and articulating both the open and the hidden value based on the experiences of their peers and outside experts. And it also allows managers to de-risk the project.

On a final note, collaborative projects such as this -and the broadening and deepening of horizons they allow- help managers gain confidence in themselves and in their own and their organizations’ capability to execute complex programs. This makes a big difference to both their effectiveness, their productivity and their capacity to succeed -which in turn reflects on their ability to convince decision-makers. And it helps to drive ambition for the future.

The value of collaboration between peers is real and significant. It helps accelerate progress towards objectives, enables better and deeper understanding of issues, expands horizons and drives innovation while reducing risks. 

But it is not a panacea. It requires good preparation and the meeting of certain conditions:

  • Groups need time together to get to know each other and building trust is key to a successful project
  • Participants must commit to contribute -not only to receive
  • There is a need for expert facilitation to ensure balanced and engaging conversation, and keep progress on track
  • Expert know-how is valuable particularly in kickstarting thought processes
  • And while it’s important that participants share the same broad industrial space, it is equally important to have diversity in terms of narrower industries, experiences and maturity levels with regard to tackling a particular business challenge. This allows fresh approaches unhindered by preconceptions and assumptions and reduces the risk of groupthink.


* The  Service Leaders Network is a unique environment where senior managers can collaborate on challenges and projects to improve performance and become more competitive. It gets into the nitty-gritty of real problems, over an extended period in small groups. Other offerings of the SLN include benchmarking, collaborative research, insight events, and expert On-Demand support.