Consider it the holy grail of field service — a way of tapping into technology to bring customers and partners together in a single place where they can schedule or track a repair, review the service history of a piece of equipment, find maintenance tips or learn about upgrades. Bye-bye spreadsheets. So long, communication snafus. Good riddance to endless phone calls and Post-It notes.

Until now, high costs, the inability to update accounts in real-time and static off-the-shelf technology sold by middlemen have made the goal of customer portals for field serviceonline “portals” elusive. So troubled were past attempts at field service portals that IT managers would roll their eyes at their mere mention.

Self-Service Through a Single Screen

No more. Today, thanks to the cloud computing boom, field service organizations can offer customers and partners true one-stop shopping. In return? Lower overhead costs, improved customer service and more efficient processes from requesting a service to tracking parts inventory.

Today, “companies can leverage the concept of a portal — a single screen — putting everything at the customers’ (and partners’) fingertips,” said John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research at the Technology Services Industry Association, who explained the concept last week in a webinar, “Portals for Field Service: Your Secret Weapon,” hosted by TSIA and sponsored by ServiceMax.

Let’s say your customer needs an equipment service. Instead of randomly clicking through the company’s website, sending an email or picking up the phone, she’s able to log into her company’s service account, request and schedule a service, and track the entire process from beginning to end. She could also look at the warranty, review past services performed on the equipment and join discussions with other customers in a community forum.

“From research, one of the barriers to self-service is that customers have to visit various areas of [a service] website to get key information,” said Ragsdale. Customers don’t like click-a-thons. A portal, he added, “can put all of [the necessary information] in one place for a single customer.”

New Ways to Engage

But the promise isn’t just about reacting quickly when the need arises. Giving customers online access to a place where they can view everything they need to know about their equipment also opens the door for a field service company to engage existing and prospective customers in a whole new way, suggested Vidya Chadaga, the director of product marketing at ServiceMax, a leading developer of field service management technology, who also spoke during the webinar. This includes up-selling through alerts about product upgrades and cross-selling related products.

Similar benefits apply to portals for resellers and other partners. Service firms have tons of logistical data and information — scheduling, parts inventory, warranties, work orders, etc. — they need to share internally and with their partners. Portals give service firms and their partners a single point of entry where all of this information is readily available. Everyone can see an up-to-the-minute report on the status of a customer service request, identify an escalating problem and know when a specific part left a warehouse.

This 360-degree view helps service firms to hold their partners accountable, said Chadaga.

All of this has been made possible by the cloud. Unlike third-party portals of yore, today’s cloud-based portals are embedded directly into applications, require little if any customization, and upgrades are seamless, automatic and invisible to the service provider. There’s zero need, for instance, for downloading new software or phone calls to technical support.

Getting Started

Pentair, a Minneapolis-based water-treatment company, has embraced the new age of online portals, according to Chadaga. With $3.3 billion in annual revenues, Pentair claims its customer and partner portals have enabled it to cut the cost of administering warranty claims and to do a better job of tracking inventory.

So where does a field service company enter the brave new world of portals?

First, don’t rush. Verify that your or other platform integrates with the portal technology you choose. Make sure your portal and corporate website have a common look and feel. Then, enable your customers to access their portal quickly and easily through your main website. Next, be aggressive about marketing. Customers and partners won’t use these new tools if you don’t.

Portals have long seemed out-of-reach in field service. No more.