Industry 4.0: Customer portals vs. Customer’s portal

Roy Chikballapur

October 29, 2020

“I come not to praise customer portals but to bury them”. [Repurposed from Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar]

In this post, I hope to trigger a debate within the Industry 4.0 community on the need for so called Customer Portals that are proliferating among the industrial machinery and supplies companies at the moment.

The inspiration for this post were conversations with prospective customers these last weeks. An MRO 4.0 team that we spoke to at a leading industrial materials company, wanted to develop predictive maintenance services to notify customers when specific maintenance became necessary on the industrial assets like tanks, pipes, valves, flanges and rotating equipment. While they had already spent 2 years building their customer-facing portal with an IT-house, they were yet to build the services that they intended to offer on this portal. When we dug deeper, it became clear that a typical customer’s installed assets that they intended to service with this portal were not only a very small percentage (about 3% at its best) but also were not universally mission-critical for their customers. I am a bit conflicted by this experience. 

On one side, it is great to see that even supplies manufacturers are interested in adopting 4.0 technologies in their service offerings. On the other hand, I fear that the 4.0 hype has infected so many companies, that many have lost sight of the core value proposition that lies at the heart of their raison d’etre.

This underlined the Tale of two cities situation between Machinery companies and MRO service suppliers on one side, and their customers on the other side. Let me illustrate how differently each side views the same industrial plant and the unmitigated data disaster that this approach will cause at scale.

I must admit that we are biased in our position. Our opinion is that, Customer Portals are not only unnecessary, they are even counter-productive to the objective of digitising customer-supplier interactions and delivering digitalised services. Here is why:

  1. Customers barely use these customer portal.

The amounts that companies are investing are astronomical considering the fraction of time that their customers/users will actually spend on the system. And this is just to build/customise their customer portals, without even improving the data quality and digitalising the services that the customers are hoping to access. 
If the supplier’s services cover under 10% of the customer’s critical assets or under 30% of the customer’s assets on the whole, it is unlikely that even strategic customers will login to such a supplier’s customer portal more than half a dozen times a year. 
As a result, brand benefits delivered by a slick customer portal cannot be reliably quantified. All the bells and whistles will make a minimal impact on their top-line or bottom-line. I’d challenge any industrial company that disagrees, to publish their customer monthly logins and time spent per session.

2. Customers have no incentives to enter data on these system and help your data mining effort.

It’s challenging enough to incentivise one’s own employees to be disciplined and exhaustive about data entry quality and data governance. The likelihood that a customer’s employee will login to your system and key-in or upload any data that doesn’t offer a direct and immediate benefit for the customer is zero. This once again challenges the business case for a customer portal as the source of customer insights that can lead to new service offers or more purchasing.

From Customer Portals to the Customer’s portal

Customers don’t pay to access the Customer Portal, hence it is difficult to determine if the customers really want/need such a personalised space. While no customer will not welcome such an initiative, the ROI for the supplier in investing in such infrastructure is still being validated. However, customers do pay for the services delivered inside such portals and, many that we have spoken to, affirm they are likely to pay even more if it can be integrated seamlessly into their work processes, thus resulting in real efficiency gains for them.

This is only possible by architecting digital efforts differently than is being done today. As in the offline world where branded pens and USB keys served as a reminder of the brand, branded services that customers can consume as they perform their activities offer a more compelling way to showcase various service offerings and facilitate further enquiries and purchases. Examples of such conveniences are not difficult to imagine: spare parts price lists that customer can refer to as they prepare their monthly budgets, maintenance guides that they can consult while they are troubleshooting, in front of their equipment, alerts from predictive maintenance algorithms that they can view while they are scheduling the maintenance jobs for a work-shift, digitised service-visit reports that appear in the newsfeed of the machine as they perform compliance audits – these are all processes that customers are asking for greater efficiency and effectiveness, thanks to the digitisation of their supplier’s service offerings.

Isn’t it better to invest in services that can be delivered to a Customer’s Portal than to spend millions in building Customer Portals that few will ever use?


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