Key Considerations When Deciding to Build a Customer Portal Internally

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

I recently had a conversation with a prospective partner who currently has an internally built grower portal. He was clearly stressed and used this reference from a children's book (and a classic Harrison Ford flick) to describe his team's challenges figuring out what to do next for their digital strategy.

"It's like we gave the mouse a cookie and now he wants the milk, but we don't have any milk to give them!"

This is not a unique issue, but actually quite common. It tends to happen when enterprises whose core competencies lay outside of technology attempt to build complex customer-facing digital tools. There are, of course, many competent IT teams and third-party development shops that serve these businesses. But when you combine project-based work with teams that lack (for good reason) the time to do their own extensive user research of customer needs, launching a successful digital platform can be a challenge.

To combat this, some enterprises decide to make significant investments in evolving traditional IT teams into software development organizations. Nutrien, for example, is hiring User Interface (UI) designers and User Experience (UX) Researchers and has spent time recruiting product managers with eCommerce experience. They have also built a software engineering team of over 100 employees based on their Loveland, CO campus, and have committed to spending $60M this year on their digital initiatives. So, short of making significant organizational changes and investments to focus on a digital strategy, putting this work on your existing internal or external IT teams is a very tall order.

Building software that meets the initial requirements of customers, employees, and executives is the (relatively) easy part.

But what and how to build the next iteration is when internal IT teams or third-party development shops are most challenged. So, what does this project-based roadmap look like? It’s probably something like this:

  1. You decide to build a digital portal internally.

  2. The business gathers requirements and looks at competitors’ offerings.

  3. These requests then get passed to the IT team or a third-party development shop.

  4. The IT team works on Version 1 (V1) for the next 9-12 months and launches it. Yay! V1 is out the door. The team now moves onto the next project on their stack, which is probably something that had been deprioritized 12 months ago to build the digital portal.

  5. Good news, V1 is a massive success. Customers and employees love it and you are inundated with requests and feedback.

  • Note: V1 could also be a failure because it is buggy or has low adoption rates. Now the business is calling for it to be immediately fixed or pulled down altogether.

  1. The business determines that V2 is necessary, and they go through budget approval, resource allocation, and prioritization for this project.

  2. The IT team determines that they will get started on V2 once they complete the next 6m of work that was initially put off to create V1. After this amount of time plus three months of work on V2, it launches based on the feedback and requirements that are now over 9 months old.

  3. New feedback and requests come in and we are back to step #6, repeating the process indefinitely.

In the meantime, your competitors that decided to partner with a SaaS (software as a service) provider who solely focuses on powering grower portals. They had V1 out before you started developing yours, which was quickly followed by V2 just two weeks later. They are now at least 12 months ahead of you, and on V20 by the time you launch V2.