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This chapter is from the book

Deploying a Customer Extranet Solution with SharePoint

The primary purpose of the customer extranet portal is to service the needs of customers. The customer extranet enables customers to find information about products and services, and place help desk calls. In some customer extranets, client access is provided for things such as invoice payment and viewing account status and payment history. The customer extranet can also be used for document collaboration and managing joint projects with the customer. The content for this type of portal can originate from internal and/or external sources.

Meeting the Business Needs of the Customer Extranet Solution

The business needs of this group include searching for information, aggregating content from multiple sources, providing a dynamic view of relevant business information, collaborating on documents, sharing documents, managing joint projects, resolving issues, and providing a means for business transactions. The SharePoint features used to meet these needs are outlined as follows:

Searching:

  • Providing customers with a means for viewing information about their account by using web parts that access line-of-business applications to retrieve and display customer-related information
  • Enabling customers to find product/service information without having to speak with a service representative using the search features of SharePoint
  • In addition to searching, providing the ability to view the results in a variety of ways depending on the needs by using the filtering and sorting features of SharePoint

Content aggregation:

  • Combining information from various sources into a single source for purposes of searching using content sources
  • Accessing information from multiple business applications into one view using web parts

Dynamic views:

  • Using filters to display subsets of information such as product-specific or location-specific data
  • Using sort capabilities to present the information in a different order

Document collaboration:

  • Sharing documents with clients using shared document libraries
  • Controlling publication of documents using content approval
  • Categorizing documents so that they can be easily found using document metadata
  • Finding documents on a specific subject by searching the document text or the metadata attached to the document

Working on joint projects:

  • Assigning/delegating tasks between parties using a Tasks list
  • Following up on overdue tasks by using views such as the Due Today view
  • Sharing project-related information by using a team site
  • Discussing and resolving project issues by using discussion boards
  • Managing the overall project and reporting on its status by using a recurring event or multiple meeting workspace site

Resolving issues:

  • Submitting issues/questions to a "help desk" using the Issues list
  • Responding to issues in a timely manner by using the Alert feature on the Issues list
  • Having the ability to check the status of outstanding issues by using the My Issues view
  • Managing and tracking issue resolution using views of the Issues list

Business interaction:

  • Providing clients with access to business information such as invoice/payment status by using customized web parts
  • Enabling clients to perform business transactions by providing links to web-based application interfaces and/or customized web parts

Implementing the Customer Extranet Solution

The customer extranet site is implemented using Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and includes Windows SharePoint Services sites. Depending on the specific implementation, Microsoft BizTalk can be used to exchange business application information and provide integration with business applications, while customized web parts provide the link to SharePoint. In addition, integration for SharePoint-compatible applications can be provided using preexisting web parts, developing custom web parts, and/or providing links to web-based front ends to business applications. Single sign-on can also be implemented to make it easier for users to access applications.

In addition, SharePoint now supports Forms-based authentication options in addition to standard Windows authentication. This allows administrators to build a custom ASP.NET Authentication provider to authenticate users against a foreign LDAP source or a SQL table, removing the need to have Active Directory accounts for all users.

Features available on the extranet portal home page include a Links list, announcements, discussion board, and search. The Quick Launch area can contain links to lists such as a limited corporate directory (with the listings for the salespeople and other people who customers typically deal with, such as accounting personnel) and frequently accessed shared libraries such as newsletters, training documents, and product information. Areas can be configured for support, product/service information, and billing information. A content source group can be created for the content in each area to make searches more targeted.

Document workspaces can be used to collaborate on documents. Team sites can be used when working with the customer on a joint project. Content sources can be created for product/service documentation and historical accounting information.

Security needs to be tight to ensure the integrity of customer-specific information. Restrictions need to be in place to prevent one customer from obtaining access to another customer's data.

Outlining Ideas for Using the Corporate Extranet Solution

This section includes some ideas to incorporate into the customer extranet site solution in congruence with the elements previously discussed.

In addition to providing standard content, use audiences to target specific content to an individual or group of users.

Use the Support area for linking to an Issues list as well as a document library containing technical information. Links to supporting websites could also be in this area. Other possibilities would be to include a Top 10 Issues list as well as a download library.

Include a shared library with documents relating to products and services offered and/or links to corporate or other websites that have this information in the Product/Service Information area. There could also be a discussion board on this Area page so that clients could submit product- or service-related questions or requests and provide their ideas and feedback on products and services. When there is a need to get specific client feedback, a survey can be used.

Use applications such as Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 and/or develop custom web parts for the Billing Information area to enable customers to access their invoice/payment information. Alternatively, provide links in this area to a site where invoice or payment information can be provided. There could also be web parts or links to applications or sites where customers can submit payments and/or orders.

Use team sites when working on projects with the customer. Include a Tasks list to document division of responsibility, a Contacts list for maintaining the contact information for members from both sides of the team, a custom "punch" list to document items yet to be completed, and a general discussion area as an alternative to email for documenting project-related correspondence in a central location. Create a weekly status meeting event or use a multiple meeting workspace for tracking and managing project status.

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