Understanding, Planning and Configuring The Customer Experience on A Self-Service Customer Portal

6 minute read

September 8, 2011

Understanding, Planning and Configuring The Customer Experience on A Self-Service Customer Portal

Question & Answer:

The core feature of the customer service portal is the ability for customers to ask questions and find answers.  How you set-up your initial Q&A interface is up to you, either leave it open (as we recommend) or break it out by categories.  The reason we recommend that you leave it open is that it makes it easier for your customers to access the initial posts easily and it makes the community look more vibrant when there is not that much content yet.  If the few posts you have are split into many categories, each one looks bare and the community looks equally bare as a result.

This is obviously different if you are importing an existing community into Vanilla.  Through Vanilla’s custom import functions you can migrate from any other type of forum or community platform into your shiny new Vanilla Forum.  You can configure to match the categories of your old forum or re-position your old content in new ways.

You may find in the process of setting up an open stream of questions, that the types of questions your customers are posing are different than the ones you were expecting and that will change the category groupings you would choose.  Once there is enough content in the forum that it makes sense to group them into categories you can look at the existing content and search for natural themes you can use to categorize the discussion.

On the other hand one reason you may want to categorize them from the beginning if you have different types of customers that you want to show only certain categories of support to, or if you have different products or versions you want to clearly separate the support for.  We will touch on this more in the Categories and Roles and Permissions sections.


A critical part of the customer experience is the seamless move from the product they are using to the forum where they wish to find support and knowledge articles.  This is particularly true of web-based software platforms. This is accomplished through a Single-Sign-On mechanism.  To accomplish this you first enable the correct authentication mechanism from the Authentication tab and then do some configuration on your side to enable the connection.  For more information on creating Single-Sign-On connections to your application or site, you can contact us to discuss.


Another critical part of the customer experience is making sure that the customers feel like they haven’t moved away noticeably from the site or application, so the community should be styled the same.  You accomplish this by accessing the open custom design elements of the HTML and CSS.  These are to be found under the Custom Theme tab in the dashboard.  Typically we recommend taking the existing page “shell” from your application or site, such as header, footer and general style and dropping the forum elements into that shell.  If you elect to just match the general color scheme, you may want to select from one of our standard themes in the Themes tab.

Moderator Options:

When a customer asks a question, you as a moderator have different options to choose from.

  1. Edit: you can edit the question to make it more clear for later users who will read the question instead of posting the question themselves, because there are some errors in the question, or for any other reason that you would want to edit the question.
  2. Announce: the announce feature lets you change a question to an Announcement, putting it at the top of all discussions.  This is useful if you feel that a question is particularly pertinent or it is something that is frequently asked.
  3. Sink: buries the question to the bottom of the order, but doesn’t delete it.  You might use this if you think the question is no longer relevant and shouldn’t show at the top, but you don’t want to delete the post and potentially insult the customer who has posted it.
  4. Close: you use this to close the discussion, meaning no one else can post a comment on it.  You might do this if you feel the question has been satisfactorily addressed and don’t want further comments on it.

Questions/Discussion Stream:

In the stream, you see questions as either open or answered.  When a customer sees a comment (answer) made to their question, either by an admin, a moderator, or another customer, they can click on accept and this will mark the question as answered.  To make it easier for both admins and customers to immediately see which questions have not been answered, the unanswered questions are listed in a separate tab.

Activity Stream:

When users login they can see notifications related to their question being answered and a list of questions they have asked with related comments. This can be used as a kind of ticketing system.  If you wish you can even modify the theme to change the name ‘questions’ to ‘support request’ or ‘tickets’ and ‘answered’ to ‘closed tickets’ if you wish to use that terminology.  When a moderator or administrator logs in they can similarly see on their activity profile activity related to questions they’ve answered, discussions they’ve created or comments they’ve made.

Categories and Categorization:

In your theme you will have decided what view to show first, an “All Discussions” view or a “Discussions by Category” view for instance.  If it’s a new forum you definitely want to show the all discussions view and not show categories until there’s been sufficient content to start to parcel discussions as categories, lest you confuse the users and make the community look sparse and not active.  However, there are some practical reasons you may want to plan how you will set-up categories.  For instance, you may have different products or versions that you want to provide support forum.  You may have different administrators handling support for these products.  You may also want to have different member classes have different viewing and editing permissions for different categories.  You set these kinds of things using the Categories tab.  In terms of categorization, however, you can also use the tagging system to group discussions by tag.  You do this by editing existing discussions or questions to add tags for them.  If tagging is enabled for users, they can also add tags for discussions, comments or questions they create.

When you create a category, you give it a title (that will also set its URL) and a description.  The URL that is set allows you to link directly to this category as if it was its own forum.  Someone typing the URL in or clicking the link will see all discussions or questions related to that category.  You can also embed the link to that category in other applications and promote that link in other ways, which is useful if you are using that category to support a specific product or version.

When setting up a category you can also assign custom permissions to different roles you had created using the Roles and Permissions tab or to standard system roles.  Permissions you would assign are for Adding, Announcing, Closing, Deleting, Editing, Sinking and Viewing, and apply to Discussions and Comments.

In addition to categories, you can create sub-categories and move the hierarchy around through a simple drag and drop interface.


There are certain things you will want to inform the users about the first time (or every time) they come to the forum, and you’ll want to put in a prominent place outside of the regular content stream.  You use the messages tab to create this and then you use the theme to position the messages where you want.

Roles and Permissions:

We talked about the roles and permissions in the context of categories.  You access the roles and permissions tab to create new role names or to modify existing roles.  For each new role you will give them access to different categories that have been created, using the same permission types previously listed e.g. Edit, Announce, View.  Creating a new role may be helpful in terms of aligning it with role names from your product, application or service.  Using the Single-Sign-On, you can have the system recognize the role when a user joins and assign them the same role in the forum, if they are named the same and the authenticator is configured that way.

E-mail Notifications:

Sometimes as an admin you want to be notified when a new discussion is created without having to check the forum.  You can set to be notified by e-mail using the Admin E-mail Notification feature, which you can turn on and off.  For instance you might turn this on for the weekend and turn it off for the week.


If you want to be notified whenever a new comment is posted on an existing discussion you can click the star next to a discussion to bookmark it.  Regular members can do this too.

“Chat” Categories:

One way to engage customers on generate a lot of question and answer content as well is to hold a “chat” session.  You would do this by creating a new category for the posts and announce that category and link as taking place at a specific time, e.g. 2pm-3pm on a Wednesday.  You would then set the Refresh feature to a very quick refresh time, such as every 5 seconds, making comments appear almost immediately, just like a “chat” interface.  At the end of the “chat” session you could repurpose the question and answer content into their own discussions to provide more searchable support material.


Speaking of search, you can enable a search box for your support forum that members can use to search for answers to their questions without having to ask.  Train them to use this feature to cut down on the number of times admins or moderators need to post answers manually.  You can do this by linking to existing answers when a duplicate question is posted and explain that customers can find answers in the future by typing in the search box.


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Vanilla Staff

Written by Vanilla Staff

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