Let’s be clear up front: Customers love self-service. Customer self-service empowers customers to find answers, how-to tutorials, and other support content on their own without the need for a service representative. Customer self-service usually combines knowledge bases with automated handling of basic administrative tasks. Knowledge bases allow customers to ask and find answers to product-related questions, access step-by-step directions for using and troubleshooting products, and otherwise learn more about your company and offerings. The administrative side of a customer self-service system facilitates account-related actions like resetting passwords and managing personal and billing information.

Web-based self-service systems have become increasingly popular because customers love them. According to a 2015 survey, 90% of consumers now expect a brand or organization to offer a self-service customer support portal. Whether delivered through a website or phone app, online customer self-service systems appeal to consumers who’d rather find information on their own than call or email a support desk. Digital self-service also allows companies to support customers with multiple types of content — text, images, or video — that can be referred back to multiple times on the customer’s own schedule.

Self-service often includes a community element in which customers answer one another’s questions and discuss tips, tricks, and best practices related to product offerings. Whether through bulletin boards, forums, or social media-style conversations, this type of peer-to-peer support can prove a great boon to your brand. When customers offer their expertise to one another, a sense of community is fostered around your brand, consumers become more knowledgeable about your products, and new online content is generated for other customers and prospects to benefit from — all without anything required of your service agents.

A portal is a common term for a webpage or site that acts as a gateway to information and services centered around a particular topic. A customer self-service portal, then, is a name for the home page of a web-based self-service system for customers. Many companies offer a service portal that integrates with the rest of their online properties, serving as a help center”easily accessed from anywhere the customer might be on the site.

Service portals can be added to, or built separate from, existing company websites. A stand-alone portal should maintain the look and feel of the main company site, and live within the same domain structure (for example, support.mycompany.com, mycompany.com/support, and so on). Stand-alone portals are easily connected to your company’s other digital properties with links, though context-sensitive help may provide customers a richer and more effective experience.

Customer portal software allows to you quickly build a self-service portal based on a template, or develop a more involved and customized system, depending on what’s best for you and your customers. Many portal tools are available on a SaaS  (software as a service) basis, which lets you configure and deploy your portal without having to install, host, or maintain additional software yourself. For many businesses, the SaaS model is ideal, as it offers cutting-edge technologies and features without the sunk costs associated with buying and deploying enterprise software. SaaS providers typically include data security, software updates, and IT support as part of their subscription fees, adding to the overall benefits of the model.

Salesforce is one SaaS platform that offers customer self-service tools. Salesforce Essentials, Salesforce’s solution for small and midsize businesses, includes Help Center, while Customer Community offers enterprise-grade community and portal functionality as part of the Community Cloud product. While they differ in terms of specific features, both Help Center and Customer Community allow companies to customize and deploy customer self-service systems that integrate with CRM, marketing, service, and other capabilities already active in their Salesforce instance.

Any customer portal software or service should allow you to spin up a basic self-service offering with little-to-no coding required. Your self-service system should also use responsive design or comparable technology that optimizes the user experience for whatever device and screen size your customers use to access the content. And if your company offers phone apps as part of your product offerings, your self-service portal should support those as well.

Customers want, expect, and prefer self-service options. Beyond the obvious benefits of giving the customer what they want, self-service tools let you provide 24/7 support at a fraction of the cost of staffing a call center around the clock. The benefits of a customer self-service portal go beyond the bottom line. A well-designed support portal gives your customers the power to access help documents, knowledge base articles, and account management tools on their own terms, from virtually any device at any time. When customers are empowered to help themselves, wait times go down, service agent productivity goes up, and new opportunities arise to deliver personalized support. And with the data you’ll collect as your users search, browse, and engage with support content, you’ll get a clearer picture of your customers, their pain points, and what they really think about your brand and products.