Clients are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. They not only expect excellent communication, they expect you to leverage technology to provide a delivery experience that’s tailored to your services and their project. That means that simply emailing files back and forth is no longer good business practice. You need something more official, a place where clients can access all the information they need and can easily communicate with you in a secure fashion.
What we’re talking about is a secure client portal.
It’s hard to imagine why you’d use anything else! In this article we’ll cover:
- What is a secure client portal?
- Why use WordPress to create a secure client portal?
- What functionality is required for a secure client portal?
- What WordPress plugins can you use?
What is a Secure Client Portal?
Simply put, a Secure Client Portal is a place where clients can securely log in and access project information and perform project-specific tasks like asynchronous communication, approving deliverables, paying bills, etc… Essentially, it’s a one-stop location for all information and tasks related to the client’s project and your service.
As security is becoming increasingly more important, ensuring the information is adequately protected against hackers and others who shouldn’t have access to the details and capabilities within.
Why Use WordPress to Create a Secure Client Portal
Our definition above of “Secure Client Portal” is broad, so there are many different ways to go about creating one. In many ways traditional Software as a Service Project Management solutions like Trello, Basecamp, Asana, and Monday.com would qualify as a client portal. You could also create a client portal using Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box.com.
These are all great tools in their own rights, but are lacking in many ways. Specifically:
- They typically have high monthly costs
- Minimal ability to customize how they work
- They often have some of the capabilities you need, but rarely all of them
- Clients are logging into someone else’s websites (rather than yours)
- Clients (and you) need to log into multiple platforms
This is why we feel WordPress is the perfect platform for creating a robust and secure project portal. Here are the features that make WordPress stand out as a client portal solution:
- Low cost
- Completely customizable
- You can utilize the thousands of existing WordPress plugins as needed
- Everything can be accessible in a single place
- Your clients will log into your website
- You own all the data
It’s hard to imagine why you’d use anything else!
So how do you go about it? We’ll let’s first discuss what you need or might want in a client portal.
Client Portals: What Capabilities Do We Need?
Client portals have two minimum requirements:
- Client logins
- Secure content
Once addressed, you can layer on additional capabilities. As these are the most important requirements, let’s start here.
As mentioned above, security is a critical aspect of any client portal. Clients are unlikely to use a tool that is insecure and it could potentially lead to liability issues for you should any sensitive information be leaked. For that reason you need to start with the ability to login.
Luckily, WordPress has user accounts and login capabilities out of the box. For this requirement, we don’t need to do anything. You can create accounts for your clients, set permissions and users can log in and reset their password.
Every project requires some level of sharing information. This could be project details, important dates, timelines, deliverables, etc… Having one place to access this information is a large part of any client portal.
When it comes to securing content, i.e. protecting content from the public and outside users, WordPress is lacking. You can mark content as “private” which prevents the public from accessing it, but other logged-in users still have access. This is an issue as Client A shouldn’t have access to content for Client B.
This is an area where we need plugins to help us better control content access. We’ll cover our recommendations in the next section.
Now that we’ve discussed the two essentials, let’s talk about what other capabilities you might need in your client portal.
Many projects require the sharing and management of important documents or assets. These could be proposals, specifications, deliverables like design files, videos, etc… regardless of what the documents are, the need to not only share files, but also manage the status of those files, is common.
DropBox, OneDrive, etc… are all great tools for sharing files but few of them actually have the capability to manage the review and approval process of documents. Typically there are some assets in the scope of a project that clients need to approve, and keeping track of what’s been approved or is incredibly valuable in a client portal. This way clients know what they still need to review and you know what you need to revise.
Hopefully you’re not still managing projects through your e-mail. There are lots of robust and powerful project management tools that make keeping track of all the important details like tasks, milestones, dates, deliverables, and conversations much easier.
While you don’t need a project management system in your client portal, it is very nice to have. That way all the information is located in a single place, and clients only have to log in one time to access everything.
Similar to project management, there are plenty of ways to communicate digitally including Slack, e-mail, Zoom meetings, etc… while these are great tools in their own right, they suffer from similar issues that a separate Project Management system has. It means important project details are spread-out across multiple systems making it harder for clients to remember which system to use and where to find information.
Invoicing and Bill Pay
Again, like the two capabilities previously mentioned, you could use Freshbooks, QuickBooks, or one of the dozen or so other tools available to send invoices and accept online payments but you’re faced with similar challenges. More systems to pay for, manage, and clients to interface with. Clients can’t log in to one place and see all their important documents, information, and get a summary of their paid and open invoices.
You can also miss out on valuable automations and integrations! If you have invoicing and bill-pay integrated with your project management tool you can automate specific actions to occur like triggering invoices at key times.
Finally, if you’re delivering complex proposals it’s nice to wrap them up into a single system which will save you time, effort, and allow better integration of this key business process into your client portal.
What WordPress Plugins Can You Use?
Luckily most of the functionality we outlined above can easily be obtained through the use of free and (affordable) premium WordPress plugins. Let’s go through each capability and discuss what plugin you might want to use.
Since user accounts and logins are covered in WordPress’ core functionality, secure content is the heart of any client portal. Here are three plugins we recommend for securing access to content:
Users Ultra Member (free)
Users Ultra Member is a free WordPress plugin that allows you to control content access based on membership packages. While not specifically designed for client portals, you could easily create a membership package for each client and then use this plugin to restrict access to relevant content to said memberships.
Users Ultra Member works with any content type so you can restrict access to any type of content you put into WordPress including proposals, invoices, mock-ups, projects, etc…
Restrict Content Pro (paid)
Restrict Content Pro (RCP) has a more robust offering as you’d expect from a paid plugin. Unlike our previous example, it allows more fine-tune access of content, automatic expirations, payments, automated emails, etc…
RCP is great if your client portal needs robust membership capabilities, where you’re automatic signing up, access to content, accepting payments for memberships, etc…
If you’re a client service provider and want a portal that serves as a one stop location for project and company information, RCP might not be a perfect fit.
Project Panorama (free and paid)
Yes, this is a shameless plug — but this is exactly the use case Panorama was built around. Panorama is designed to be a secure client portal, specifically for providers who want to store all the necessary information, project updates, documents, and communication in one secure place.
We’ll go into all the capabilities a bit more later on, instead we’ll focus just on the ability to secure content.
Panorama allows you to restrict access to content to specific users or teams (i.e. groups of clients.) With Panorama you’ll get your own brandable login screen, and can create and assign information to clients knowing the information is protected and safe.
Using our free “Pages & Memberships” add-on you can create custom pages and restrict access to specific projects, users, or teams/groups.
Yes, another shameless plug for Project Panorama… but it really is the best Project Management plugin for WordPress. With Panorama your clients get a visual breakdown of project status and key project details all in one place. With just a glance they can see what’s been complete, the timeline, and what will happen next.
Panorama has all the project management features you need including:
- Task management and assignment
- Document storage and approval management
- Timelines, calendars and deadlines
- Track budgets and expenses
Document / Asset Management
For managing important client assets and downloads we recommend:
Document Library Pro is a paid plugin that allows you to organize files into folders, create categories, tags, and secure them. Using the content security plugins above you can easily embed important files for clients into the portal landing page of your choice.
FILR is a powerful plugin to display and secure document libraries in WordPress. It allows you to upload files, organize them, and secure them to specific users ensuring only the people intended to access them can actually access them.
It has many additional powerful capabilities like setting expiration dates, or limiting the number of times the file can be downloaded.
Yes, Panorama does this as well. I’ll stop belaboring the point, but Panorama does allow you to upload documents/assets and has workflows for managing approvals. Clients can mark documents as being reviewed, having feedback, or as approved. Additionally they can send messages about the document so you can communicate as well.
E-mail is messy, very messy. I’m sure you’ve missed important emails or found them in the spam folder. As our inboxes are being bombarded by social media, newsletters, and shopping sites it’s harder and harder to keep track of important communication through email.
Pulling this communication into a client focused area ensures everyone can keep track of the important discussions happening on a day to day basis. Here are the plugins we recommend.
Front End PM is a simply and easy private messaging system accessible all through the front end of WordPress. You and your clients never have to go into the backend of WordPress, you can simply communicate right through your branded website.
If you need a bit more than e-mail through WordPress, you can setup your own social network with the free BuddyPress plugin. This allows you to take advantage of popular social media platform capabilities like groups, private messaging, status updates, and creating connections.
If you’re looking to make it easy for your clients to schedule appointments with you through your client portal, look no further than Simply Schedule Appointments. This free and premium plugin allows you to setup time blocks and sync with your calendar, so your clients can schedule an appointment right through your website.
You get the point, Panorama has a robust communication system. P.S. we have integrations for Simply Schedule Appointments and BuddyPress.
Invoicing and Bill Pay
When it comes to invoicing and Bill Pay we really don’t recommend anything other than Sprout Invoices. Sprout Invoices is a robust invoicing plugin that has all the features of SaaS products like QuickBooks, FreshBooks, Harvest, etc…
Some of my favorite features include:
- Invoices & estimates
- Scheduling invoices
- Online bill-pay
- Reoccurring invoices
- Partial payments / payment plans
If you want to create, deliver, and control access of your proposals through WordPress then take a look at WP Proposals. You can create branded and beautiful proposals right in WordPress, with a host of additional features that can make proposal management significantly easier including:
- Proposal tracking
- Email notifications
- Proposal templates
I’d argue that a secure client portal is essential for any business. Your clients expect it, and it allows you to deliver a better service. While you could try and string together a series of SaaS solutions like Google Drive, Dropbox, and some project management tools — the result is a handful of disconnected systems, each costing you money and frustrating your clients.
By building your client portal directly into WordPress you can get the functionality you want, all in one place, for less money, and ultimately you’ll have happier clients.