Extranets is a technology word that’s been thrown around countless times over the last few years. It’s a word that has about as many different definitions as there are snow flakes falling in Montana in the dead of winter.
Although this article is not about what an extranet is, exactly, it’s important that we agree on a workable definition before moving into the meat of the article. For simplicity’s sake, we are going to call an extranet a semi-secure external network of networks that uses Internet technologies as the protocols for communication.
By definition, one of the greatest benefits of an extranet is that it allows certain individuals to gain access to information that you don’t want the public to be able to view. An extranet, in this example, will use the network of the Internet and its communication infrastructure and protocols, but will have an enhanced security level so that only specified individuals can access the information.
With the definition out of the way, let’s move onto what’s important… a highly useful way to utilize this technology. One of the best uses for an extranet is for enhanced customer support.
Welcome To The Customer Lounge
The golden egg in marketing is to retain happy customers, who not only keep buying from you, but also tell their friends and associates that you are the greatest company in the world. They believe in you, and word-of-mouth sales are invaluable. A prime use of an extranet is to help make those customers happy through top-shelf customer satisfaction.
A “clients-only” extranet is a great way to deliver all types of communications, such as online support, product updates, new product releases, delivery and order statuses, and general customer-related news. For example, you could have a secure, password-protected area and offer your customers their own individualized passwords. Beyond the benefits of reducing your mainstream support costs and more effectively fulfilling the needs of your customers, you also begin to develop an online community. This sense of community will have far-reaching benefits.
Imagine your web site being the source for all the information any of your clients could want about your company and your products. Now throw on top of that, the ability for your customers to communicate with each other about how they are using your products, creative ways to implement them, as well as general business topics that are of interest to your market.
Your site is now becoming more than a place of information, it is becoming a destination; a place to hang out and find answers to problems. Once this takes place, your company will be viewed as more than just a vendor or supplier, you’ve become a partner and a resource. Once that beautiful word of mouth starts spreading, you will see direct effects on your bottom line.
The Real-Word Example
Often these technological solutions are left in the proverbial research lab, and never quite work in the real world. Well let’s dispel that myth by pointing to a real company using an extranet for customer support and “lounging.”
To raise the customer support level and save money, The HARRIS Group established an extranet for its customers. The software development company was able to put new product releases, fixes, and updates inside a password-protected area where only customers were allowed to access them.
The technology greatly decreased support costs because all of these items had traditionally been shipped next-day air. The HARRIS Group also experienced a greater sense of community with its customers. The company established a message base system where customers could post messages and network with other customers and HARRIS Group employees.
Knowing you can support your customers by relying on Internet technologies is the tip of the iceberg. You need to realize that people want to feel like they are part of something big and useful. An extranet for customers via your company may just be that “something” that your market is looking for. If you can successfully pull that off, you will see the double whammy of business, an activity that both increases revenue and decreases cost.
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