Meeting customer expectations in manufacturing and B2B: how to select the right customer portal

Written by Hans Neele, Managing Partner.

Many manufacturing and B2B product companies are noticing shifts in customer needs and expectations, eight of which I discussed in my previous article in this series. In this article, I will outline one crucial step towards meeting a majority of these shifts – the introduction of a digital layer or more simply put: a customer portal. This portal serves as a foundation, enabling customers to make purchases and access services via online channels. 

You’ll learn about the crucial steps manufacturing and B2B product companies need to take to select a customer portal that aligns with their business objectives. Discover the limitations of traditional ERP systems in meeting modern customer demands, the importance of setting clear objectives, and how to choose between niche applications and integrated platforms for a seamless customer experience.

What is a customer portal?

A customer portal is a digital platform that offers customers secure, personalized access to various services and information related to your products or services. It enables your customers to manage their accounts, access support and documentation, make purchases or payments, and communicate with you through a single user interface.

The portal is designed to enhance customer experience by providing a convenient, self-service option that is available 24/7. By consolidating resources and services in one place, such a solution helps reduce the need for direct contact with customer service representatives, streamlining operations and improving satisfaction.

A Customer Portal addresses the following of the previously described behavioural shifts in customers:

  • An increasing demand for personalized experiences
  • Heightened expectation for digital interactions
  • Desire for self-service options
  • Need for speed and efficiency 
  • Rising expectations for omnichannel experiences
  • Demand for enhanced post-sale and support services

So, how do you determine what to do, what to select and how to integrate a digital layer in an existing and generally complex IT landscape? Especially when faced with the complication of operating one or several ERP systems, none of which are fit to support contemporary customer portal capabilities.

Step 0: Recognizing the Limitations of Traditional ERP Systems

The journey begins with acknowledging the limitations inherent in traditional Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. While invaluable for operational tasks, they often lack the customer-centric features essential in a digital environment, such as personalised customer engagement and real-time interaction capabilities. These systems were designed for internal users, not your partners and customers and thus do not provide modern portal capabilities.

And since ERP changes are known amongst IT leaders to be complex and potentially risky, the idea of developing portal capabilities directly on these ERP systems is quickly deemed impractical for most.

So, how do you proceed to achieve your desired future state—a seamless portal environment that your customers will love? It starts with setting the right objective and selecting the solution that aligns with this goal.

Step 1: Set your Objective

It is crucial to start thinking about your expected business objectives and outcomes with questions such as:

  • How do you envision the future? 
  • What will be different in how your business collaborates with customers once you have successfully implemented the portal? 
  • What internal capabilities, insights will you have gained?

Different companies have slightly different objectives when they embark on such a journey.

Maybe you are a manufacturing company that sells mostly through partners and wholesalers. You generally do not know who your end users are and have very little data about how they perceive your products and whether they are happy with you as a company. You would benefit greatly from connecting directly with end-users by providing customer service through digital channels and regularly surveying them.

Or you are a wholesale / B2B product company that primarily sells products through sales reps. Your customers are increasingly interested in ordering online, having their orders and invoices in one place, etc. Or maybe you want to service a certain segment of customers that do not warrant a named account manager. They would benefit from an online commerce environment with automated communication driving cross / upsell and customer retention.

Whatever your situation, you start by defining—with your consulting or implementation partner— your ultimate objective. Typical features that may over time become part of your online portal environment are

  • Support for Different Digital Channels (e.g. App, Web, Whatsapp, Social)
  • Sales and Customer Service Features (e.g. lead mgt, sales forecasting, customer support)
  • Webshop Capabilities (e.g. product catalogue, storefront, payments)
  • Marketing Automation (e.g. automate and personalize customer Interactions)
  • Analytics and Data Management (e.g. customer behavior, NPS, sales trends)

Now it is time to start thinking about what technology to use to get to your desired future.

Step 2. Choose Between Point Solutions and Integrated Platforms

In the world of customer focused applications, portals and CRM, you basically have two options:

Option 1: The Patchwork Portal Approach

Option 1 involves consolidating various niche or point-applications that deliver targeted functionalities, such as case management, both for internal use and as a customer-facing portal. This approach might initially seem appealing because it allows every team to choose applications they prefer. However, there are significant drawbacks to consider.

Firstly, while some applications may offer integration capabilities for particular use cases, most do not. Although certain applications might excel in their specific functionalities, many do not stand out as much as they claim.

Consequently, the portal features provided by each application tend not to merge into a cohesive customer experience. Data fragmentation across these applications means no one has a comprehensive view of customer data, much less the insights needed to inform daily decisions and actions. Although your customers will have the ability to get online service or order some replacement parts online, the overall experience will likely not be in line with the expectations customers have. They have seen far better results in their life as consumers.

Option 2: The Integrated Platform Approach

Your 2nd option is the adoption of an open and comprehensive platform (such as Salesforce) as the core of your customer-facing processes, with point-solutions integrated only where absolutely necessary. You’ll find that a number of challenges you will have in option 1 will disappear:

  • Integration of processes and data comes out of the box on the platform, so you’ll spend less time integrating data or manually pushing data files from system to system
  • Whether you wish to use the data internally or externally, identity management (i.e. the rules who can see and use what data and functionality) comes out of the box
  • Your marketing, sales and service teams (even the customer if exposed in a portal) have a single view on data and insights
  • And if you are truly lacking basic functionality, the platform provides the toolbox to configure and develop these functionalities yourselves.

Step 3: Evaluate Customer Portal Vendors

When evaluating vendors after exploring your options, here are some tips to guide you:

  1. Avoid Paper-Based Processes: Traditional Request for Proposals (RFPs) often result in vendors claiming they can meet all your needs without really demonstrating their capability. Instead, focus on engaging in meaningful dialogues and insist on seeing live demonstrations to truly understand the value they offer.
  2. Leverage a Consulting Partner: A knowledgeable consulting partner can be invaluable in setting clear objectives and documenting your key requirements. They bring experience with various vendors, assist in translating solutions to fit your specific context, and can help develop a comprehensive plan for implementation, ongoing development, and support, ensuring you’re not just buying licenses but embarking on a sustainable journey.
  3. Integration Capabilities: Evaluate how seamlessly the vendor’s system can integrate with your existing IT landscape. It’s crucial to look beyond immediate features to ensure the solution allows for ERP data visibility within your portal and can trigger ERP processes effectively.
  4. Support for Internal Business Processes: Verify that the system supports the alignment of your internal business processes to enhance the online customer experience, ensuring that the solution facilitates a seamless and efficient operation.
  5. Flexibility and Customization: Consider whether the system offers not just standard features but also a flexible platform that allows you to develop your own business rules and functionalities tailored to your unique requirements.

These steps will help you select a vendor that not only meets your current needs but is also capable of supporting your future growth and evolution.


For manufacturing and B2B product companies, integrating a digital customer experience layer is essential for meeting the new sets of expectations customers bring to the table, and thus for thriving in the digital age. Understanding the limitations of traditional ERP systems, choosing the right digital platform, and leveraging its features can transform customer engagement and operational efficiency.

Salesforce stands out as a viable solution, offering a wide range of functionalities tailored to enhance the digital customer experience and its ‘open’ platform integrates seamlessly with your existing IT landscape.

In this series of articles, we take a closer look at how these changes are affecting the industry: