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Most helpdesks have something sort of a backend and a frontend - the agent facing side and the customer-facing side. The agent side has functionalities that let agents answer tickets, publish knowledge base articles and answer forum posts. The customer-facing side is called the customer portal and it mainly consists of the:

Even though a helpdesk can function without a customer portal, setting it up can be really advantageous to your support team. It makes sure that when someone has a problem, they can comb through your documentation and community discussions for solutions first before raising a ticket. This way, your agents don’t have to spend time answering certain questions again and again. And your ticket volume also becomes more manageable.

A customer portal also lets companies provide different kind of support to different levels of customers. Parts of the knowledge base and Forums can be open exclusively for paying customers or logged in customers.

Everything from the URL of the customer portal to the layout can be customized so that it looks like an extension of your website/product.

Some companies don’t have the personnel to manage a k-base and forum. Others like to provide support only through email and keep it as personal as possible. Businesses like the two above can just disable the customer portal and have just the agent side helpdesk.