Creating something new, like a client portal, is not hard. Creating a client portal that your clients will use is much harder. Most difficult, is creating a client portal that your clients want and are willing to pay for.
Take for example a company that wanted to develop a client portal as part of its digital transformation efforts. The goal was to actively engage with their clients through this portal and stay in touch with them 24/7.
Building such a portal should be relatively easy. There are even several plug-and-play solutions available that will get you the infrastructure to build on for free. Why then, did this firm take many months and not get much further in the planning of this client portal?
It is because technology is not sufficient to make a client portal successful. There are many other things that must fall into place for a successful outcome when creating a client portal.
Getting better innovation results faster.
Innovation projects like a client portal rarely are urgent. That makes that these projects can take a long time to complete. Speed of development, however, is often an underestimated factor in innovation success.
None of our clients work on their innovation projects full time. That in itself is not a problem. The work can be divided over multiple team members, with some team members contributing 1 hour each week on average and others contributing 4 to 8 hours each week. However, if the team together cannot spend between 5-10 hours on their project each week, the firm or the team probably should not undertake the project. Developing a client portal takes time, there is no way around that.
Time spend on populating the portal with valuable and relevant content is probably the biggest cost item for your project. If the team just meets for 1 hour a week, most time will be spent in meetings, without really moving the project further. That alone, makes a slow-moving innovation project time-consuming and energy training. Whereas the faster the project moves, the more energy people get out of an innovation project, and the less impact it has on the overall productivity of everyone involved.
You also want to move fast, to benefit more from the outcomes. If the client portal project takes 6 months instead of 2 years to get developed, that means that your clients can benefit 18 months more from the value this new client portal will offer!
What is fast?
What is fast is a good question.
The teams in our T4 program take 2-3 weeks to put together a very elaborate project description that addresses the market, solution, organizational, and project aspects. Thereafter, it takes our teams another 6-9 weeks to develop a business case that is built on facts. Kudos to these teams, because what they accomplish is pretty impressive, especially considering that in this time period we ask teams to get input from potential users, which alone takes already about 3 to 4 weeks to do.
It takes thereafter another 1-6 months to get an initial solution out - depending on the complexity of the offer. Getting a first paying client and finding product-market fit can take a bit longer – anytime between 2-12 months. Scaling can take indefinitely, as there is no limit to growth.
In practice, these phases are not that clean-cut and are often overlapping because the innovation process is far from linear.
From our research and own benchmark, we know that these timelines are fast, so the numbers above will give you something to compare yourself against.
How do you speed up your project?
How can you speed up your innovation project? Below are a few suggestions, based on our experiences with the teams in our program.
First, a clear process with guidance on what to work on and when, is essential for innovation teams in the workplace to keep making progress.
Second, it helps if teams to focus on concrete outcomes. If goals are too broad, vague, and ambitious, it is often unclear where or how to get started. It works much better to focus on getting a small aspect of the offering working first. That is, instead of trying to change the world, focus first on creating a ripple. Once you have the first successful outcome, then you can build on that success and start changing the world.
Third, assuming the team members all have full-time jobs with plenty of urgent tasks and requests, it is important to create some urgency for the innovation project as well. Otherwise, it simply won’t get done. Weekly meetings with their trainer and weekly progress reports help to create this sense of urgency. At a minimum, these reminders ensure that the innovation project stays on top of everyone’s mind.
Fourth, make sure the team invests enough time in moving the project forward. As mentioned above, not everyone needs to spend hours each week on the innovation project. For a senior member of the team, participating in the weekly 30-minute trainer meetings and spending 30 minutes on giving feedback can be sufficient. However, that only works, if you also have other (more junior) members on the team, who can do the leg work.
Fifth, it is important to maintain speed. Nothing is more motivating and energizing than working on a fast-moving high-energy innovation team!
Getting better results
Clearly, speed only matters if it also leads to better outcomes.
While everyone understands the importance of better outcomes, let us be specific about what that means. As a reminder, it is not about building and launching a client portal.
Let’s get back to our example of the client portal team. After the team realized they should not boil the ocean, they started looking for a concrete objective they could pull off quickly. Awesome – you would think!
The team looked for something that they can develop and pull of quickly. They reasoned that using an off-the-shelf solution and populating this platform with news articles and other useful reference materials that already existed, would mean that they could launch a first version within two months!
Unfortunately, this seemingly “quick win” was not very likely to result in a very successful client portal. As their Organizing4Innovation trainer asked, “ Why would clients go log in to your client portal if this information was freely available before and can be found elsewhere for free.” This question made the team realize that they were on the wrong track because if no clients would be using it, they would never be able to iterate it into something better, let alone be ever able to charge for it.
Innovation is not about creating something new
Better innovation outcomes have little to do with creating stuff. It means learning as quickly as possible what clients value and want, so you can create a valuable solution they are willing to pay for. That is what a minimum viable solution should be about.
But, how do you know that you are making the right thing? How do you know, if your client portal delivers value for your clients?
The only people who can answer that question are your (future) users and clients. Talk with them! Or even better, listen to them. As your task is not to sell your portal in these conversations but to figure out the problem they are having with interacting with your firm and its offerings.
Once you know the problems they are experiencing and the challenges your clients face – then you can trust your instinct and develop the client portal that your clients will use, because it addresses these issues for them.
We know our clients!
That being said, many service providers who work closely with their clients, think they know their clients. When we ask them to go out and listen to their clients, their first reaction always is, “We know our client’s problems and challenges! We speak with them every day! It is what they hire us for!”. And they are absolutely right, they know indeed a lot about their clients which is great!
However, how many have walked through the process or solutions they offer in the shoes of their clients? Do you have in-depth insights in what happens before and after they interact with you?
For the client portal, for example, the team wanted to provide clients the ability to fill out and update certain forms themselves.
They answered the question, ‘what do you think your client is trying to do?’ with: “Our clients want to access and update these forms”.
This is how the rest of that conversation between the trainer and the team went:
"Indeed, that is what they are doing – or will be doing. But is that what your clients want to be doing?
Why do they need this form and why do they need to update it?”
“To be compliant.”
“Ah! And what are they trying to be compliant with?”
“And for what purpose do they need to be compliant with labor laws?”
“When onboarding new employees, the contracts that are signed must be compliant with the latest labor laws.”
"So, if I understand you correctly, instead of filling out the form, the process from the client’s perspective is about onboarding new employees in a matter that is compliant with the latest labor laws."
What is it that your client portal should help your client do?
It is about what your clients want and need
Through exercises and conversations like this, the teams participating in the T4 program start to understand what they don't know. Like this team, they may know everything about labor laws and what it takes to be compliant, but they actually never thought about how these processes were fitting in the workflow of their clients. To their defense, they never had to consider these aspects either. Only now, because the client portal is changing how the firm interacts with its clients, it becomes essential information to know. And that is what makes digital transformation so challenging and impactful – as it changes how organizations interact with their clients and it impacts their business model.
For example, assume that this team normally always dealt with general counsel and wanted to build a client portal for them. Then, these labor forms would probably be sitting idle in the portal in case these forms are typically handled by human resources.
That means, to create the right thing, you need feedback loops. Within your team, with stakeholders, and your users. Asking your clients how they do things can be scary. However, it is far less scary than facing the consequences of having built the wrong thing for your clients!
Not yet done!
Now that you know what your clients will be using your new portal for, you are still not done.
The next question is, are they willing to pay? If you put these forms online, will that be seen as a courtesy that you must provide or an invaluable offering that will save your client thousands of dollars a year?
Also, in this case, the trick is to understand the problem from your client’s perspective. As that will give you insights into what the problem currently is costing them and how much you can charge your client.
Are your forms delaying the recruiting process? If so, probably having immediate access is worth something to your clients. However, if these forms have no priority because they will be stored somewhere on a file to be compliant and are part of the many forms an employee should sign as part of the onboarding process, the value of having immediate access is probably not worth much.
As I said at the start, creating new things is not the hard part of an innovation project. Creating something new that your clients want to use is much harder. And most difficult is creating something new that your clients are willing to pay you for!
While reading, I hope that you have also realized that building a successful client portal means that the business must get engaged. It is not the technology that will make your client portal. Success depends on how well this new portal serves the needs of existing and/or new clients.