This guide is for teams looking for a customer-centric way of identifying, measuring and communicating initiatives critical to growing their business, and will focus on how customers interact with a product and brand at various stages in the customer journey.
So what is a customer journey?
It encompasses the entire experience customers have interacting with your company - from the marketing, to the products, customer success team, sales, and support. Like any journey, there is somewhat of a chronological order to it: as in it has a start, middle sections and an end.
If you think of a journey like a storyline in a movie, the story characteristics - such as the introduction, rising action, climax and falling actions - will exist for most SaaS businesses. However, each business will have a very different story to tell.
The idea is that many customers will go through the same stages in the journey, but how they progress will vary. There are unique needs and objectives customers will have at each step. Thus, it is important to identify them and create your own business initiatives around accommodating them.
The goal here is to provide you with a guide for your entire team to base tactical decisions off of, experiment with and ultimately measure results from, which will allow your team to determine the best actions to take when customers reach a certain stage, and what to expect out of each customer when they do.
From our research, and experience running and consulting for SaaS companies, here are the 6 stages of the SaaS customer journey you should master for your business.
These are people who have not yet signed up to try your service and have never paid you money, but have made a conscious effort to evaluate whether your product can do a certain job for them, and are deciding whether to try it out or not. This process could take minutes to months depending on the business and the product. In this article, we will focus primarily on the stage where visitors interact with your marketing website, specifically for evaluating a purchase.
Where Visitors Come From
Since visitors is our first segment, let’s clarify where they come from. These are people (hopefully in your target market) who become aware of the product or company through different top-of-the-funnel marketing and sales channels, such as social media, forums, blogs, email campaigns, outbound sales, ads, word-of-mouth, SEO, press, or in-person events.
These marketing and sales tactics are used to attract visitors and direct them to the product sales pages where they can make the purchase themselves, or they will get in touch with an additional sales representative who will help them make a purchase.
These people are getting to know your brand, company and product offering. They will be evaluating what you have to offer on many levels. The visitor wants to be impressed and wooed, and you can consider this process to be a lot like dating. You will keep going on “dates” (or engagements with your marketing or sales) until the visitor decides to commit to a long-term arrangement (make a purchase).
Attract the Right Visitors
Just as the visitor is evaluating you, you will also need to evaluate the visitor. In marketing speak, it’s called qualifying. Focus primarily on those who will most likely engage and gain value from the product. Not everyone will, and you want to avoid spending time converting people who will eventually churn. Your time and money is better spent attracting the right customers in the first place, so you can provide them with the best service.
However, if your company is still trying to find product-market fit, and you’re still attracting your early adopters, you’ll likely still be discovering who the right customers are.
Ask Them to Buy or Keep Selling
Ask them to convert, but if they aren’t ready to buy, send them additional marketing and sales material so they can further get to know your company and continue their decision-making process.
Free Tier (Optional)
These are people who have signed up to use the product, but are not paying you money, yet. They are trialing what you have to offer, and sometimes a more limited version of the product. Free trials last typically a week to a month. These users have not received or do not perceive to receive enough value to make a purchase, but they are highly considering the offer.
These users are looking to find value from your product and to decide if it will do the job they need it to, and then some. They have made an indication they are interested in your product, but are looking for further verification to move forward. They are typically not quite sold on your solution at this point.
Lessen the Learning Curve with an On-boarding Flow
It is best at this stage to have users go through an on-boarding process to learn how to use the key-value features of your product. Specifically, users will need to be successful in 1) learning how to use the product, 2) benefiting from the key-value features, and 3) integrating the solution into their existing workflow. A guided tutorial, or intelligent prompts or examples, and experience design will help users do this with much less friction.
Make sure your product lives up to the expectations you set and descriptions in your marketing copy. If you set expectations too high, or if you advertise a product or feature you do not have fully completed, you’ll leave prospective customers disappointed and you will see a high drop off rate at this stage. Make an even better impression by exceeding expectations with additional value adds not mentioned before.
Invariably, people will still have questions and concerns you never thought to answer through on-boarding, especially when you’ve just launched your product. Make sure you or a team member are available to answer questions or offer support if it’s needed. Having well-written support documents will help as well, but often times, people will opt to speak with a real person. Make sure to adjust support documents with new insights gleaned from speaking with customers.
Keep Asking for the Sale
The greatest initiative at this stage is to convert these users to paying customers. Don’t lose sight of this goal. If the user has gone through all of the on-boarding and you see engagement in the key value-adding features hit your predetermined threshold (or if you’re just starting out, look for what you would consider to be high engagement), then ask them for the sale.
Visitors and free-tier users who have now converted to paying customers. They see enough value in your product to make a purchase. Coming from a free tier, they could be acquainted with your product already.
It’s good to consider this as an intermediate step. It’s also the most crucial step to get right for long-term customer success. Even though you have won the sale, there are still a lot of expectations and criteria to be met before your customer adopts your product for the long-term. It’s important to remember that your customer is also still learning about your product, especially if you offer additional features not available in your free plan.
Continue to Impress
Since these customers are now paying you money, they should be treated with additional care and respect. Make them feel important and respected for choosing your product. If you can make a great first impression, and wow your customers early on, you will be well on your way to winning them over for the long-term.
Always Onboard Customers to New Features
You will need to onboard your customers to any new features or products that they have not seen in the free tier. On-boarding customers effectively and focusing on the right key value features are the most important criteria for reducing churn in the long-run.
Integrate the Product Into the Customer’s Workflow
In order to make the product “sticky” to the customer, you’ll need to assist them with integrating it into their workflow. You can do this by creating intelligently designed product integrations with tools this customer already uses.
This way, your customer’s routine will not be disrupted unnecessarily. You will not be asking too much of your customer, and they will be able to see the added value of using your product in-conjunction with other applications they are already using.
Provide Pre-Emptive Personalized Support
During this time, you will want to watch for opportunities to give additional educational material or assistance where needed. These customers are still learning how to use your product, and some of them might show special interest in a certain feature, or they will have additional questions about another. Try to determine what your customers needs are before they express them to you, and act preemptively. You could send in-app messages and tips, email reminders and supplementary guides. This will save them time and energy, and ultimately provide them with a better user experience.
When first starting out, you could give each customer the same material, but as you build out this process, customize the material by looking at the interactions customer have with your key-value features, and whether they experience difficulties with certain on-boarding steps, for example.
Automation is your friend here when you get to a certain size, and can afford it. When you’re small and only have a couple signups a week, you can probably create personalized support and educational material and send messages ad hoc. However, once you grow, using customer behavior monitoring and automation tools will be key.
Offer Quality Support Material
Depending on the difficulty level of your product, you might want to put together a user manual or additional tutorials that customers can opt into. These materials will be for non-key-value features and advanced setting only. If you believe this material would be invaluable for teaching your customers to understand the key benefits and how to use them, then they need to be incorporated into the on-boarding flow.
These are paying customers who have performed all necessary steps in the on-boarding process with the key-value features of the product. They have found enough value and have had enough motivation to learn how to use your product. These are still relatively new customers and have yet to show signs of habit formation.
At this stage, customers will be working on integrating the product into their existing workflow more comfortably and are looking for better ways to use the product with reduced friction. This is the habit formation stage. It’s important to remember that customers are still likely evaluating the effectiveness of your product.
Check the Pulse of Engagement
Your customers will need to use your product to gain value from it. Each business will have a different benchmark for engagement, and you’ll need to identify or discover your optimal levels.
High engagement in key-value features is great, and it means your customers are well on their way to becoming long-term adopters of your product.
Low engagement could be an early warning sign that the customer will churn. If customers are not gaining value from your product or they aren’t using all of their plan, they are at a significant risk. It’s best to intervene early before they start to form negative opinions about your product or service, or worse, decide to cancel their plan.
How you intervene will depend on your internal marketing or customer success strategies.
Provide Additional, Personalized Support
It’s common to encounter some hiccups with newly activated users. Sometimes it takes a bit of adjustment and continued work to integrate the product fully into a workflow. It’s important to make support available to these users who are having issues.
Educational and Motivational Content
Your users aren’t going to be experts at using your service and gaining the full benefits right away. After learning the basics during the on-boarding process, it might be time to launch a campaign to help turn your beginners into experts, and introduce advanced features.
Make the material more relevant by send your customers articles or guides using drip email campaigns or messages in the application, right when they trigger an action on your platform.
Customers who have gone through every necessary stage of the the on-boarding flow; they have formed habits around using your product, and have effectively integrated it into their workflows. These customers use the key value-adding features on the platform on a regular basis, and have been doing so for a significant amount of time now.
Primarily, customers at this stage want things to run reliably. Customers will be looking for answers to any support tickets in a timely manner, and to have any bugs or hiccups handled efficiently and with grace. Whenever possible, customers will be looking for you to go the extra mile, and show them that you value their business, as they value your product.
Monitor Engagement and Alert if it Drops
It’s especially important to make sure engagement does not drop below a predetermined threshold. At this stage, you’ve won over and trained new customers. From a business perspective, it’s typically less expensive to keep these customers than to acquire new ones.
Make sure to check in with your users to better understand their sentiments about your service. Are they satisfied? Do they have any concerns or questions? Most people do not take the time to give you feedback or ask questions on their own accord. If your customers chose to do so, give your due diligence on their feedback. It’s also important to show your appreciation by sending a personalized follow-up message.
Prompt for Referrals
Hopefully, at this stage, your customers are satisfied with your product and brand by some measure. Some of these customers will take it upon themselves to refer their friends or connections to your platform. However, many will not carry this out to its full extent or remember to do so in a timely manner.
A formalized referral program would be worth looking into. Customers would be especially motivated to send a referral if you gave them a reward in return. This could be credits on your platform or a ticket in a raffle. You can get creative here.
Referrals are a great marketing tactic and help to create a viral loop. These loops are generally more profitable and effective over most other marketing efforts.
Send Up-sell Promotions
When customers are happy with your product, they will be good candidates for up-sells. There are two different kinds of up-sells: 1) buy more of the same product, or 2) buy an additional product.
You can tell if the customer qualifies for the first up-sell because they will have used all or most of their current plan. You can send them a friendly, personalized invitation to upgrade their plan.
For the up-sell to an additional product, you will not be able to qualify these customers as easily. If these customers engage with marketing material for the additional product, try sending up-sell promotions as in-app messages or emails. You could even offer a discount for the first month or so for the customer to try out the new product before making a purchase.
Look for Trends to Understand Your Market Better
At this stage you can start to understand the optimal usage for different customer segments or the market as a whole. You can use population data to measure future customers against, which will help improve overall customer engagement and satisfaction over time.
Customers who value your product and want to use more of what you have to offer. They have chosen to pay you for either more features, additional products, or more of the same product on the platform. This is always an upgrade, not a lateral purchase. Customers find enough value in the product and have been able to fit it into their workflows and are now extending it to other workflows.
These customers are seeking to find additional value in your product and want to know this up-sell will do a good job for them, as the first purchase had. They will be looking for a consistent experience, and the same level of quality on all fronts - product, support, customer success, etc.
Always On-boarding, and Make it Personal
These customers are typically your most satisfied. However, you need to make sure they go through any on-boarding procedures during their time in expansion to ensure they remain satisfied customers. At this time, you should know how your customers best digest your content if you offer multiple formats, so you can make any applicable personalizations to their on-boarding process.
Expansion is a natural progression for every business. In order to grow, you need to have features and products replacing your legacy offerings. Aim to have customers expand when you launch new products or features, otherwise, you might find competitors cropping up with products that better meet your market’s needs.
In addition to the 6 stages of the SaaS journey, there are a few additional stages worth mentioning - for when customers stray from the path. These steps are included in a different section because it is not recommended to focus on the problem at these staged. Instead, adjust your business initiatives in the main 6 stages to reduce the prevalence of customers who reach the following, additional stages.
These are customers who have purchased your product, who have activated, but have started using the key value features on their allotted plan less and less. These users might have started to ignore marketing or customer success messages. They might also have an increased number of support tickets or have encountered a high number of bugs or issues using the product.
Customers disengage for many reasons. By finding the root cause of the disengagement, you can better understand their motivations and objectives. Generally speaking, customers are becoming less enthusiastic about your product. They are typically either 1) dissatisfied with the service, 2) their business is no longer in need of the services, or 3) they never found value in it in the first place. Customers might be looking for alternative solutions to their problem.
Discover the Root Cause
It's important to uncover what issues your customer is having. Sometimes you can glean insight from drilling down further into different engagement metrics - such as, you might notice engagement with marketing copy, but not with key-value features of the product.
You can also gain more information by talking to the customer. You can send a personalized, automated message, or set up a phone call or meeting in-person for more valuable customers. This is a good idea when your business hasn’t yet reached product-market fit, or when your churn rate is higher than a few percentage points. There might be serious work your teams needs to do on the product, positioning, marketing, etc.
In some cases, you can keep key customers around while you improve minor issues or possibly even fundamental issues by offering a discount on the product until it’s fixed.
Intervene as Early as Possible
When you pick up on warning signs that your customer is disengaged, it’s best to start the intervention process early before any decisions are made to unsubscribe. After you discover the root cause of the problem, you can take action towards re-engaging your customer.
Create Re-engagement Campaigns
If the cause is known or maybe trivial, you can automate sending a message to try to re-engage your customer using insights gleaned from their behavior or cohort.
These are customers who have purchased a plan, but have now downgraded to a lower paid tier. They have not canceled their subscription entirely.
When this happens, customers are typically just not using the product enough or cannot afford the higher tier after a price increase. There might also be external factors.
This sometimes happens naturally and uncontrollably, as companies have external factors like budget changes and a contracting number of users. If that’s the case, you need to make the customer feel welcome and encourage them to continue to use the product.
Finding the Root Cause
Some things to consider would be engagement, plan usage, and customer support tickets for context clues. Again, you may want to reach out directly to the customer if the reason isn’t obvious.
Find Ways to Add More Value
If your customer has reduced their plan size because they aren’t using your product enough, then you might need to look for ways to better integrate the product into the customer’s workflow. Additionally, find ways to improve the product offering to add more value if too many customers are not using their full plan.
These are customers who have purchased your product and at some point canceled their subscription completely.
Some of the most common reasons customers churn are 1) they are finding less need for the product, 2) a competitor has a better offer for them, 3) they are generally dissatisfied with the quality of the product or service, or 4) the customer is not using the product now, but they plan on returning at a later date. Keep in mind, customers can have multiple reasons for leaving.
For the customers who have been acquired, but never reached the activation or engaged phases, it’s likely that they were never on-boarded properly, or they never saw enough value in the first place.
If you believe the value proposition is correct for the market, but customers are not understanding the product properly or able to use all of the key-value features, then yes, there might be a problem in your on-boarding process. You might want to dig deeper into where customers are getting stuck and how you can improve the experience to reduce friction, and ensure customers learn how to use the product’s key-value features fully.
If the value for the customer did not exist in the first place, you’ll need to rethink your product or market selection to better meet the needs of your customers.
At the later stages, if your customer churns, it’s likely that these customers found too many friction points in your product, or did not effectively integrate it into their workflows.
You might want to take a closer look at your user experience and/or more advanced features where the friction could be introduced. It'll take some investigation and trial-and-error to determine what the causes were here.
One option for collecting feedback is to set up an exit interview for customer before they can officially cancel their plan. Otherwise, reach out with an email, phone call or in-person meeting.
These are customers that have purchased the product, but canceled their account, then re-activated their account on any plan.
If you can pinpoint why customers left in the first place, understanding their reason for returning might be easier. Regardless, customers will need a quality, personalized experience upon returning, including acknowledging there was a prior relationship. If the customer had any concerns that caused the churn, they will be looking for those to be addressed.
Once customers have gone through the process once, you can better personalize the on-boarding experience for those who are returning. You can simply welcome them back and give them the option to fast-track their on-boarding or brush up on how to gain the main benefits of the the key-value features.