SmartAdvice: Using Web Portals To Solve Business Problems - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications
02:27 PM

SmartAdvice: Using Web Portals To Solve Business Problems

Web portals can be far more than a sales channel, The Advisory Council says. Also, decide what you want to accomplish before jumping into a CRM system.

Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers two questions of core interest to you, ranging from career advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to [email protected]

Question A: How should we decide when portal technology is an appropriate solution to a business problem?

Our advice: Portals work best for business problems that require large volumes of data to be customized and delivered to large numbers of customers. Some examples where portal technology is desirable include not only the obvious news services and channel sales, but transaction services, customized content delivery, self-help kiosks, and other types of processes that fit the high-volume and customized data profile.

Web-sales portals represent the most visible aspects of online sales. Amazon, eBay, and other well-known sites with millions of transactions a day are the retail leaders, but there are thousands of smaller Web storefronts. For smaller retail operations, there are many off-the-shelf turnkey options, but for anything more complex, plan on spending both money and resources to do it right. Don't forget the need for trusted and integrated security.

While the principal buzz in the business community is the spectacular success of companies such as Yahoo and Google, which are purely portals, Web portals can serve many business functions beyond just another sales channel -- content aggregation, application integration, and search services, to name a few.

Hundreds of companies have used portal technology to advance client relations, create supply-chain linkages, and profitably deliver content to their global customers. Many companies have turned to portals to manage employee-benefit packages. While portals can be expensive, complex, and difficult to maintain, when properly implemented they can effectively reach large numbers of customers and deliver highly customized content.

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Transaction services -- financial transactions conducted online between a business and its customers, are another application well-suited to a portal architecture. Transaction services include managing the communication between a business's E-commerce applications and credit-card payment processors. A portal in this role must ensure that personal financial information is transmitted and viewed securely.

Content-delivery portals are proliferating as companies figure out how to delivery personalized content securely and profitably. Content-delivery services range from training videos to archival document and information services such as ProQuest and Hoovers. The technology behind these large, sophisticated content-delivery sites requires integrated databases, transaction processing, identity management, and network security, as well as high availability and fail-over capabilities to insure good customer experiences and repeat business.

When considering portal services for your company, look at the type of content that you're planning to deliver, and how the user will access it. If your business objectives require delivering highly customized data to a large customer base, then Web portals should be part of your IT planning.

-- Beth Cohen

Question B: What factors are important to consider in selecting a CRM vendor?

Our advice: As with any business-transforming project, it's essential to understand how the CRM solution will fit your business and IT environments.

What are your business needs and what type of CRM solution do you want to implement? Without a clear understanding of the end goals and objectives, the project will be set to fail.

First Things First
Some things to consider in planning the project include:

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  • Are you looking for a unified view of customers and prospects? That is, do you want to keep customers and prospects in the same database, or separate them?

  • Do you need a multichannel touch-point-management-system that enables you to manage your customers via Web, E-mail, call center, etc.?

  • Do you want single- or multiple-channel communications to customers and prospects?

  • How do you handle your sales funnel? Do you have a broad-based marketing approach, a highly focused direct sales force, or a mix of both?

  • Are you looking for an integrated solution or a mix-and-match best-of-breed approach?
  • To Get Started
    After you've settled on your basic approach, you then need to analyze the organizational environmental factors you're operating in. Some questions that should be addressed include:

  • How large is your business? Small enterprises have qualitatively different needs than large ones, even in the same industry.

  • What are your core business goals? A high-touch, premium-price business strategy requires a very different CRM approach than a high-volume, low-cost strategy.

  • What is your real budget? The cost of a narrowly focused sales-force-automation solution will be considerably less than the cost of a comprehensive customer-relationship-management system.

  • What are your business's "cultural" values? Understanding who you are can help you choose a vendor with a management style that fits with your organization's way of doing business.

  • Does management prefer doing business with a major CRM vendor, or will they be comfortable using an emerging vendor to gain technological advantage?

  • How much customization will you need? How closely does the software fit your business and IT needs out of the box?

  • Do you want the vendor to manage the solution, or are you planning on running it in-house? Many companies fail to realize that their "data" is their business, and should be kept in-house.

  • How will the application be supported throughout the organization? The success of a CRM system depends on the training and support provided to the users.
  • -- Sue-Rae Rosenthal

    Beth Cohen, TAC Thought Leader, has more than 20 years of experience building strong IT-delivery organizations from user and vendor perspectives. Having worked as a technologist for BBN, the company that literally invented the Internet, she not only knows where technology is today but where it's heading in the future. Her specific expertise includes building scaleable, robust IT architectures, operating systems, desktop support, process improvement, program management, IT and business alignment, security, and integration of networks, applications, and systems.

    Sue-Rae Rosenfeld, TAC Expert, has more than 20 years experience as an IT project manager and business analyst, primarily in the financial industry. She has special expertise in data analysis, data modeling, and converting systems into new platforms, including mainframe to Internet and intranet server environments. In addition, she trains IT professionals in project-management fundamentals and Project Management Professional exam prep. She is an active member and volunteer for the Project Management Institute.

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