Although there have been many technical advances in delivering greater productivity and value to business to business (“B2B”), customer and supplier relationships, I’m not convinced that customer self-service portals are one of them.
Receiving supplier invoices
My major issue is with receiving a notification by email telling me that my latest invoice is available for downloading.
I then have to go to the website, sign in (direct click from email died with GDPR) and fetch the invoice. That’s a lot of signing in to different portals, especially if I have hundreds of suppliers invoicing my business weekly. For those not familiar with this process, it is the virtual equivalent of physically visiting the supplier premises to get the invoice!
The good old days are not the ones where we received the invoice through the mail. That involved even more manual paper handling, mail received and sorted in reception. It was then taken to a physical mail inbox, opened and sorted by accounts payable clerk, etc.
The better, more recent days, are when the invoice is attached directly to an email – just one simple click to open! Even better if you have software like automated accounts payable software with email management. This means the invoice is automatically put into a workflow and routed to approvers, or matched to purchase orders and receiving documents. Frictionless processing, unless there is an exception to work on.
Multiple portals for the same business
Some large companies even have multiple divisions with different portals! I made a choice a few years ago to centralise all our telecoms (landlines, mobile and broadband) through one supplier. They may have carried the same brand but they were far from united.
Consequently I now have to receive three notification emails a month. Each time I need to sign in and navigate three different portals to retrieve supplier invoices for each service from this one supplier.
Nonetheless, there are some valuable services to be had from a B2B self-service portal.
For example, you can view your invoice history and perform a supplier reconciliation, often order simple things like replacement sim cards and other additional services.
However, rather like the submission of personal data for “free” services on the internet, the portal does not come without a trade. Self-service can mean serve us. So playing fetch your invoice, for example, is the cost of seeing your statement.
If you read my three moans above from a consumer perspective, one transaction at a time, you will wonder where I’m coming from.
Self-service websites like Amazon, developed with the consumer in mind, offer great benefits when it comes to ordering, delivery and payment. Consumers are willing to carry out duties historically delivered by the supplier, as the user experience is much simpler than driving to the shops!
In B2B I would argue the portals often have been designed primarily with the suppliers needs in mind. This can be a negative for customer service.
This is made worse where there is a failure to integrate them properly with other business applications. If for example where the portal allows the customer to amend data, it does not look good if these changes are not reflected in subsequent communications with the customer.
Worse still is where they are under-resourced, reflecting cost cutting by the supplier rather than a value add for the customer. One example being underqualified staffing of chat functions, unable to provide any value beyond a promise of getting back to you. Doubly disappointing if there is no follow up.
These weaknesses erode the value of the brand and can contribute to decisions by customers to change suppliers. This problem resulted in me changing my telecoms provider!
Carefully designed and executed B2B customer portals can deliver value.
However, asking business customers to sign in to a portal to retrieve their supplier invoices does not. Is this an example of taking technology one step too far?
It’s time for a rethink.
Please don’t send me any more notification emails, just send me the invoice directly!