A beginner’s guide to a self-service portal

A self-service portal allows customer service teams to manage a place for customers to visit in order to find an answer to their questions. It’s essentially the launch pad for any customers who need support.

From the self-service portal, customers can search for knowledge base articles, visit a self-service forum and use the tools provided to contact support and follow up on previous requests.

Offering a customer self-service portal is a great strategy for all customer service teams because it allows the customer to help themselves - something both customers and growing support teams love. In this guide, we walk you through everything you need to know about a self-service portal software including:

What is a customer support software?

What to include in your self-service portal

A basic self-service portal consists of three parts: a collection of knowledge base articles, a place to view, update and submit tickets and a community forum. Each of these components offer a different way for customers to get help and answer any questions they have. Let’s break down each of these options separately to see how they help provide a complete customer self-service experience.

Knowledge base articles

When customers navigate to your self-service portal, the first thing they often do is search for content that might answer their question. A knowledge base should contain all relevant information about your product or service including a getting started guide, FAQs, step by step how to articles, and even troubleshooting information if things go wrong.

Most self-service portals will have a big, helpful search bar right at the top of the page - it’s the easiest way for customers to get help, so we want to make sure customers don’t miss it!

Community forums

The next best way for customers to help themselves is through the use of community forums. A valuable part of your self service portal, community forums allow customers to talk to each other about best practices, feature requests, and common questions.

Invite power users to help new customers get the most out of your product. Get product teams involved with feature requests and product feedback forums. There’s a ton of benefits to hosting a community forum on your self-service portal.

View and submit tickets

Finally, if all else fails, customers need to be able to contact support. Self-service software can help customers make the transition between searching for help themselves and contacting a human much easier.

On your self-service portal, include a contact us page with a simple ticket form to encourage customers to get in touch if they weren’t able to find their own answer. If you’ve enabled the option, customers can also view the status of their current and historical tickets in your help center. For organizations, it’s possible to allow an admin to view all tickets submitted from the same organization. Allowing customers to keep up to date on current tickets can reduce those “where are we at with this?” emails.

Empower your customer with self-service

When customers can help themselves, things get better for everyone. Customers are happier because they save time and aren’t dependent on your customer support team for solutions. Your support team is happier because there are fewer “how-to” tickets coming in which means they have more time to help the customers that really need it.

Help customers find their own answers

A self-service portal offers a variety of resources for customers to find the answer they need, to the question they have. Whether it’s being able to check the status of an order delivery, searching for advice on a community forum or browsing through product documentation, a well-organized self-service portal will get your customers back to their life fast.

Reduce incoming tickets

Not only is customer self-service portal software great for your customer’s happiness, it’s also great for your business. Every customer contact costs your company money because you need to staff a phone line, respond to an email or assist over chat. If you aren’t focused on reducing customer contacts, supporting your customers can easily become one of the most costly parts of running your business.

Self-service is a customer-friendly way to scale customer support and “deflect” incoming tickets. Customers still get all the help they need, but it costs your business a fraction of the cost of a human conversation. That means that your team can focus on higher-value activities, like troubleshooting bugs, proactively following up with new customers or writing documentation!

Keep customers up to date on ticket status

A self-service portal will often offer a place for customers to view the status of their tickets, as well as tickets submitted by other people in their company. This is particularly helpful for teams that follow ITIL guidelines when dealing with requests - like IT help desks or server admins. Customers will be able to manage expectations internally when they have a full view of their tickets.

Instead of fielding questions like “is this done yet?” or “what’s the status of this request?” your customer service team can actually get to work on the requests themselves.

Features of self-service portal software

Self-service portal software has a lot of different parts to it - some of which will be critical to your business, and others that will be nice to have but are not an absolute must. If you’re looking for customer self-service portal software, there are a few key features to keep in mind.

Multi-product support

If your company supports multiple products or services, you don’t want to manage all of the help desks completely separately. Many customer support portals offer multi-product support so that, while your customers only see what’s relevant to them, everything stays streamlined behind the scenes.

Being able to manage billing, move tickets and staff across multiple products will make your administrator’s job much easier.

Engage power users in forums

A self-help portal is a great place to offer community support where users can support each other or a feedback forum where customers can comment on or upvote new feature suggestions.

Forums are an effective way of scaling support because they are “many-to-many” - meaning that many people can provide answers and many people will benefit from reading those answers. For every question or feature request that is answered on a forum, there are fewer tickets making their way into your customer support inbox. If you have a large, active customer base, offering many-to-many support on a community forum is a great way to reduce the volume of incoming tickets. Power users love being able to share their knowledge too - perhaps in exchange for discounts, swag or early access to new features.

Self-service forums can also go above and beyond the scope of traditional customer support. For example, some new users might need general industry advice or want more information on best practices. A forum is a great place to have these conversations without taking up the valuable time of your customer support agents.

Ticket forms

But wait, isn’t self-service supposed to avoid tickets? Yes, but inevitably, some customers will want to talk to your team. Some questions can’t be answered by anyone other than your team!

Ticket forms are a tool for your support team to gather the knowledge they need from the customers submitting tickets. This might include their order numbers, the best way to contact them along with any details about the question or issue they have. Gathering all this information up front in a short, intuitive ticket form can increase first contact resolution rates, and reduce back and forth between your team and frustrated customers.

Managing self-service support forums

In order to get all of the aforementioned benefits out of your customer communities, consider using the following features to manage discussions.

Convert Critical Discussions to Tickets

Even though customer support forums can reduce the volume in your inbox, it doesn’t mean that the forums can be completely left to their own devices. Having a customer support agent available in the forum will make sure that no question goes without an answer for too long. It also means that customers with serious concerns or urgent issues can be pulled into a private ticket for quicker troubleshooting.

The ability to convert critical discussions to tickets without losing context is a key feature for customer support communities. In Freshdesk you can easily pull in the forum thread into a private ticket, let the customer know that you’ll email them directly and resolve the conversation privately.

Identify Popular Ideas

Collecting feedback and feature requests from customers is a full-time job. Collating all that information into something useful for product teams is a different matter altogether. Feedback forums are a great way to talk to your customers about upcoming product priorities and listen to what customers are asking for.

Freshdesk’s idea forum allows customers to submit their own requests and upvote other suggestions. Product managers can jump in to ask questions and provide clarifications. Collecting all of your customers' ideas in one place helps identify which ideas are trending, so your product team knows what to prioritize on the roadmap.

Moderation Tools

Moderating a customer community requires organizing topics, removing harmful or out-of-date information and keeping everything easy to find and access.

In communities, moderation might involve:

  • Merging similar topics or ideas together
  • Blocking trolls or abusive users
  • Assisting users that need more internal support
  • Closing topic threads that get out of hand
  • Archiving irrelevant ideas or threads as the product evolves

Putting in the effort to keep your community tidy will make it a much more enjoyable place for customers to participate. Self-service Portal Software should offer the tools to make moderation simple, in order to keep your community growing.

Organizing self-service knowledge

When customers enter your self-service portal, everything needs to be labeled and the most helpful items should be the most easily accessible. The less work customers need to put in to find answers, the more likely they are to use self-service to help themselves. If your self-service portal is unorganized or chaotic, customers will simply pick up the phone rather than trying to find their own answer.

There are a few strategies your team can use to organize your self-service knowledge for different audiences.

Sort articles by types of customer

Customers can easily navigate to the right collection of articles and support for the product they need help with, rather than wading through a ton of irrelevant articles. Separating out articles by plan type or customer type reduces the amount of effort it takes for customers to get help.

Translation and Multi-Language

Hosting multiple languages in the same self-service portal is a surefire way to confuse customers. Not only will search results be cluttered with irrelevant results, it also means that you have to find a way to organize another level of categorization for each language.

Multi-language support centers automatically detect the language of the browser and show your customer their native language, or your default support center. Instead of clumping multiple languages together as a subset of your primarily English support center, each language gets its own place to call home - providing a much better experience for your non-English speaking customers.

On the backend, multilingual self-service software helps manage the flow of article translation. Instead of using unwieldy spreadsheets, you can track any new updates that need to be updated in translations and keep track of what percentage of articles remain to be translated. This workflow makes sure that your non-English speaking users are getting the same great experience as the rest of your customers.

With a multilingual support portal, you can create communities for each region and assign a default language. Customers will be automatically routed to the right community and feel right at home chatting in their own supported language.

Keep articles up to date

A knowledge base is not a “set it and forget it” tool. As your product evolves and your knowledge improves, your articles should be updated to reflect that. Improving the way you communicate complex issues to customers will help reduce ticket volume and increase product adoption and customer happiness.

There are a few ways self-service portal software can help you identify articles that need an update. First of all, solicit feedback from readers in the form of a one question survey at the end of the article. If customers suggest that an article is not helpful, offer a free-form text field for an explanation. This feedback can help documentarians flag articles that need an update.

Regularly review older articles for out-of-date screenshots which can create confusion for new users. Check popular articles for opportunities to improve the content - the more customers that visit an article, the bigger the opportunity for sharing knowledge.

Make it easy to get in touch

While self-service is definitely the primary goal of your self-service portal, it also needs to provide an easy way for customers to contact you if they need to. Not every question can be resolved by a help article, and making it more difficult for customers to find a way to contact you will only make them more frustrated.

Making the contact us section of your help center more visible can be scary - you never know how many customers are going to bypass all your helpful self-service content and head directly to your inbox. There are a few ways you can make the flow of customers from your self-service portal into your inbox easier for both your team and your customer.

Custom ticket forms

When customers do choose to contact you, custom ticket forms will help them provide enough information for your team to help them effectively. Asking for basic information means that a helpdesk can route their question to the right person on the right team (for example, send pricing questions to sales, and technical questions to support).

Auto-suggest solutions

If you’re using Freshdesk, you can suggest solutions to customers filling out your contact form one last time before they click submit.

The auto-suggest feature searches your knowledge base using the contents of the ticket form to find relevant articles. Customers can click through to see if the article resolves their issue, or continue submitting the ticket.

We keep saying it but offering customers the option to help themselves before they contact support is great for both you and your customers. You get a reduction in ticket volume, and they get help without needing to wait in a queue.

Setting up your self help portal

Every self-service portal needs to achieve different goals depending on the types of customers it’s made for. Taking a little extra time when designing your self-service portal will create a seamless experience for customers who need help.

1. Understand your customers’ needs

When setting up your self-service portal, you need to first understand the customers you are trying to help. After all, the portal is a resource for them. Here are a few questions you can ask to help better plan out your support portal:

  • Where do they come into the self-service portal from?
  • Are they primarily mobile or browser users?
  • Assisting users that need more internal support
  • Closing topic threads that get out of hand
  • Archiving irrelevant ideas or threads as the product evolves

Once you understand what your users are looking for, identify the types of information or resources you want to include on your self-service portal:

  • What types of information do you need to share? (ie API documentation, Guides, FAQs and Help Desk articles)
  • How many sections or categories do you want to organize your documentation into? This is the Information Architecture of your knowledge base, and this organization makes browsing a much nicer experience for visitors.
  • Does your marketing team have additional resources like e-books, case studies or whitepapers to share with customers?

Collecting all the information first will help you create a well designed, beautiful self-service portal - instead of throwing everything at a wall and seeing what sticks.

2. Set access controls and permissions

Are there parts of your documentation that need to be locked down for logged in users, certain plan types or even internal users? Make sure you set up access controls and user permissions before launching your new self-service portal.

On Freshdesk you can also choose whether users from the same company can view other employee’s tickets. This makes sense for B2B products where there is a system administrator, but it should be turned off for B2C self-service portals.

3. Customize your theme

Make your self-service portal stand out from the crowd by customizing your self-service theme with your company’s branding. Your help center should feel like a natural extension of your website - because it is!

Keeping the look and feel of your self-service portal consistent helps build trust with your customers. They know that they are talking to the same company they purchased from because everything looks the same. Freshdesk makes this easy by providing plug-and-play themes that can be quickly updated with your logo and brand colors. Or, if you’ve got bigger plans, use the CSS editor to fully customize your self-service portal right down to the bare bones.

It’s also great to bring your brand personality into your self-service support center. That might be as simple as including pictures of your customer support team (yep, real people work here!) or updating the text to reflect your brand voice.

Finally, use a custom domain to reinforce your brand identify and remove any third-party identifiers from your self-service URL.

4. Direct customers to your self-service portal

Once you’ve set up your self-service portal, make sure it’s easy for customers to find. Add a link in customer communications, ticket autoresponders, on your homepage and in-product. Welcome new customers with an email that showcases your help center. They will probably need help at some point - so make sure they know where to go to get it!

Frustrated customers don’t want to Google for your help center - so don’t make them. All of your customers should know that the self-service portal is the first place to go for help.

Choosing the best self-service portal software

When it comes to choosing your self-service portal software, there’s a multitude of things to consider. Creating a list of requirements from your team and from across the company can keep your search focused. Decide what you absolutely need in your tool, what features would be “nice to have” and things you definitely don’t want. Put all of these requirements in a document and check off requirements as you evaluate different tools.

Here are five things we think every team should consider when it comes to choosing a vendor:

Integrations

If you already use a help desk, e-commerce platform or a community forum tool, you’ll want your new self-help portal to integrate with them seamlessly. Ensuring a good fit between your platforms will save you a world of trouble when it comes to implementation. Plus - customers will be able to navigate from tool to tool without becoming overwhelmed. If your helpdesk offers a built-in self-service portal (like Freshdesk does) this is a definite advantage.

Check out Freshdesk’s Marketplace to see everything our self-service portal currently integrates with.

Security

If your customers submit sensitive information through a help portal, you definitely want to make sure you’ve got security locked down. But the security of your self-service portal shouldn’t be up to you - instead, choose a vendor that you trust to consistently deliver a secure experience for your customers.

Features like custom permissions, active directory support and single sign on (SSO) can help keep your customer’s information away from prying eyes.

Ease of Use

Ideally, your self-service portal is simple enough to set up that anyone on your team could manage it. If you need an administrator or professional services contract just to get a basic site up and running, is the pay off really worth it?

If your company is growing quickly, you want your self-service portal to be easily editable by people on your team. A user-friendly interface will help your team manage updates and empower agents to improve the customer experience. When evaluating a new tool get as many people on your team as possible to get hands-on and see if they find it intuitive.

Support

When your customers are depending on your self help portal, you want to make sure you have access to quick and quality customer support. Some companies will leave you waiting 24 hours or longer for a response, especially if you aren’t considered a VIP customer.

Self-service portals are business critical software, and your vendor should treat it that way. Before committing to one platform, try contacting their support team to see what kind of help you get - and be aware that it’s probably not going to improve after you sign the contract.

Cost

Understanding the associated costs of new software is always part of the evaluation period. Some tools allow you to pick and choose the features you need, but adding additional functionality later will cost your team a fortune.

If you choose an all-in-one solution with a helpdesk, self-service portal and knowledge base all included, you can often reduce the overall cost of your customer service tool stack.

Sign up for Freshdesk’s self-service portal today!

The right self-service portal software will help your team consistently create the quality of customer service you want to provide. That’s why over 150,000 businesses choose Freshdesk. With a powerful suite of features built into an intuitive UI, your customers will get an amazing customer experience right out of the box!