This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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Someone downgrades a plan.
Deletes their account.
Doesn’t convert on a free trial.
Doesn’t click a “try it now” button.
All of these are very common things that happen in SaaS, and there are a million blog posts and books about stopping these things from happening.
This isn’t one of them.
(Bear with me.)
Before we dive into the finer points of conducting an interview with someone who has canceled, I want to talk about what lies beneath them for the founder-operator: the feeling of rejection.
For the bootstrapped founder-operator, someone downgrading/canceling/not upgrading hits deeper and hits differently than they do if you were just trying to hit KPIs within a larger company. And I think this is something we don’t really expect, and in my experience, don’t really talk about. We don’t really process these experiences, but they are real.
You may tell yourself “this is just business and I’m being silly for taking this personally” and try to steel yourself and move on. You might think what I’m saying right now is over-thinking this, over-analyzing it, over-emotionalizing it. I accept that.
But… a downgrade from your highest-priced plan might feel like a punch in the gut. It might make you momentarily rethink a decision you made to hire a part-time contractor or think about how it puts X more months in between going from side project to full time. It might make you feel worried whether this will really work, whether you can really do this. Even if you’ve been doing this for a long time, you might start to worry if there’s a pattern, or if there’s something you’re missing that threatens the company. Especially if you get two in a day.
Or you might wonder why people aren’t converting on your free trial or signing up on a landing page. Why isn’t it good enough? What am I missing? When you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and limited time into something, it hurts.
I want us to take a moment to notice that these feelings of rejection come up, that even if small, they are real, and that they are normal. It is okay to feel that pit in your stomach or that rush of heat to your throat when you get a cancellation. It is okay. I am here to tell you that how you feel is normal and that you are okay.
Take a breath.
Now that we have made space for those feelings, I want to dive into the topic of this issue: talking to customers who have churned.
I put you through this uncomfortably-full-of-feelings intro because in order to have a successful interview with a churned customer, we need to let go of the idea that it is a chance to save them and make them a customer again. Our goal in a churned customer interview is not to make them a customer again.
You read that right.
Our goal in a churned customer interview is not to make them a customer again.
It’s to figure out what their use case was and how they came to us so we can try not to attract people with similar use cases. We want to attract more of the would-be happy people (which is why we also interview happy customers – more on that in a future issue), and attract fewer of the would-be unhappy customers.
You’ve probably raised an eyebrow at that, so let’s detour to a simple example.
Let’s imagine a pizza shop.
They advertise in gyms and high school parent email newsletters. They talk to their customers, and learn that the people who are the least likely to be satisfied customers and order again are people that want salads. They are willing to pay up to $15 for a salad, but they want a lot of options – more than the pizza shop offers. They find that their highest-paying, highest-likely-to-return customers are people who order pizza once a month for their kid’s soccer team.
What should the pizza shop do with this information? Should they diversify their salad menu and add more options, or should they double down on the soccer team parents and try to find more of them?
That’s a question of strategy and direction, and your answer might be different than mine.
I know what I would do: given no changes in capital, I would stop advertising in the gyms, amp up the newsletter sponsorships, add menu items that are pre-selected bundles of items for groups. I’d stop trying to convert the roughage enthusiasts, and double down on finding more of the people who match the use cases of my already-happy customers.
I’ve heard Jason Fried quoted as saying that “There are only two types of customers who you should ever listen to: someone who just bought your product, and someone who just canceled it” because the emotion is on the surface.
I’d agree that the emotion is on the surface in those two scenarios. (And disagree that those are the only customers you should talk to.) What works in your advantage for a new customer – enthusiasm, excitement, hope about getting their problems solved better, faster, or cheaper – is directly at your disadvantage with someone who has canceled. Handling someone who is mad or even low-key disappointed is much harder than hope and enthusiasm, and it requires a delicate touch.
I often say that churned customer interviews are interviews on hard mode. They are possible, but they are delicate. They’re hard for two reasons:
- The customer hoped your product would solve their problem and it didn’t. Or maybe it created problems where there weren’t before. Or functionality failed. All of those have disappointment running beneath them.
- You hoped the customer would stay a customer and continue paying you for many years. They didn’t. That has rejection running beneath it.
I’m laboring over this because in order to receive the customer’s disappointment without getting defensive, we first need to make space for our own feelings of rejection. We need to close our eyes, allow the feeling to exist rather than running from it, and then carefully put it in a box somewhere safe. Then we can absorb their disappointment without getting defensive and breaking the fragile balance in this already low-trust situation.
A reason it’s important to make space for those feelings of rejection and respectfully put them in a box is because most of the time in B2B contexts, I find that there really isn’t some major flaw with our own product that caused someone to cancel. A project ended, the company shut down, the team lead who decided to use the product got a new job. Those events really have nothing to do with our own product, and nine times out of ten, those are the reasons people tend to cite.
Now if we have a demonstrated churn problem, or we’re in B2C, this is a different story, and it may get more into flaws of the product. But no matter what, remember: our goal is not to save this particular person. Maybe we will find some obvious things on the surface to fix. But the big goal is to figure out how we can attract fewer people with use cases like this so we can spend more time serving people with use cases that are a better fit for our product.
We’ll spend time later on talking to people who are happy, but I think for now I should just hand you the script for talking to people who’ve canceled.
Churned Customer Interview Script Template
You’ll notice this script has a lot of similarities with the other interview scripts (switch
). This one is sort of like Switch but in reverse: rather than trying to figure out the inertia that led them to switch to our product, we’re trying to find the reverse so we prevent that from happening to someone else again.
Validating statements are more important than ever in this interview. It’s critical that you just listen and do not get defensive or interrupt them in any way, or go into any explanations of what you intended when you build something. Their perspective is the focus here, and you need to try to avoid the urge to defend your product. (As hard as it is!)
- Hi, is this [person]? I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I understand you recently canceled [product].
- I appreciate your generosity in helping us understand what went wrong so we can prevent other people from having the disappointing experience you’ve had. Before we get started, I just want to say explicitly that this isn’t a sales call, and nothing you say here will be used for sales purposes. It’s just to listen and understand your experience.
- [Optional: if you promised them an incentive, which you usually would in this scenario] I also just want to check if it’s okay I send you a [$25 Amazon gift card] after we get off the phone here? [More on incentives/thank-you gifts specifically in a churn situation below)
- [Optional: if you’re recording] Oh, just before we get started, is it okay if I record this interview? It’s just so I can listen to what you’re saying and don’t have to be scribbling notes the whole time. It won’t be shared outside our team.
Deal with the disappointment first
- I understand you canceled. Can you just walk me through what happened most recently to make you make that decision? [Be ready to listen a lot here.]
- Were there other events that contributed to you thinking maybe this wasn’t the right fit?
- Was there anyone else involved in the decision to cancel?
- How was the process to cancel?
Why they came to you in the first place
- I’m interested to learn more about how you [problem you’re looking to solve.] Can you walk me through what that process looked like before you used [product]?
- Can you just tell me a little bit about why your company does [this process] in the first place?
- Who was it that made the decision to use [your product]?
What they’ll use next
- Do you know what you will replace [our product] with?
- Can I ask how you came across [that product]?
- Is there anyone outside of your team who was involved with selecting those tools/determining which tools you used?
- Is there any chance you would tell me how much you’re paying for [the new tool]?
The reaching for the door question – after you’ve covered the above and feel like you have a good grasp of the timeline (~ halfway through the time you’ve told them this interview will take)
- Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I’ve learned so much from you today. Is there anything else you think I should know?
When you’re actually ready to get off the phone
Thanks again for taking the time to talk to me today. I appreciate you generously taking the time to walk me through why [product] didn’t work for you.
Is it okay if I go ahead and send you that Amazon gift card now? Can you confirm that [email address] is the right place to send it to?
If they say they can’t accept the gift card: I totally understand. I’d still love to send you a thank you note, where could I mail that to?
I appreciate your time today. Thanks again.
Incentives are key with churned customers. In this scenario, I would go with the Amazon gift card an intentionally not offer swag, as it may be taken as a way to subtly sell them the product in the future.
When you ask people to do this call, I would aim for 20-25 minutes. (Schedule it for half an hour, and purposefully give them 5 minutes back.) Remember: your product didn’t work for them and they just want to get on with their work, so let’s not ask too much of them. Don’t worry if you don’t hit all of the questions. Ask the reaching for the door question around the 15-20 minute mark.