Most entrepreneurs would feel obligated to push back on that title. After all, there are two things all of them would say: A/ They are indeed a customer first business, putting customers’ needs and expectations above their own, and B/ They are absolutely not charging for support. Even to suggest so is ludicrous.
To them, I have one question - How can “support” be a comparison line item in your pricing structure if you are not charging for it?
What exactly is the issue?
This is a trend that has been evolving over the last few years. Many Software as a Service businesses, as a part of their pricing structure, have different tiers of support a customer can avail.
Most of the times, there are three levels of support infrastructure available to the customers:
- Self-serve support for free users
- Customer service representative support for paid customers
- Dedicated support for enterprise customers
But since then, it has evolved to take many shapes and forms. I have seen SaaS businesses mention different turnaround times for support requests based on the plan the customer has subscribed to. There are SaaS products that offer only self-serve and community support to their entry level paid plans. There are instances where the modes of support available gradually open up as you move higher on the subscription value.
For example, for entry level customers, there would be support available only in the form of community and help docs, for eco-premium customers, there would also be email support available with a turnaround time of 3 business days, for premium customers, turnaround time would be 24 hours and you’ll be able to use chat for your support requests, and finally for your super-premium customers, you can chat, email, phone, and your turnaround time would be hours!
When you position your support like that, how is it far fetched to infer that your support is actually not a ‘support’ but a selling point of your pricing tiers?
What is the rationale behind different levels of support?
Support is a resource draining wing of your business. It is as simple as that.
Unlike most aspects of a SaaS business that can be automated using technology, support as a function is always dependent on a support agent. The more support requests you get, the more agents you need to have. Help docs, guides and tutorials can alleviate your pain to some extent, but as far as actual support tickets are concerned, there needs to be a human behind the scene addressing to those as they come up.
And then there is the fact that for any SaaS product that offers a free plan, the number of free users will always outshadow the number of paying customers you have.
I have heard multiple pundits claim that free users, on an average, tend to have more feature requests and support issues as compared to your paid users. I disagree. Just because a user is not paying for your product does not mean he is going to concoct issues out of thin air just to extract the most out of you for free. But, yes, the sheer volume? At scale, it can get overwhelming.
If you have a 100,000 users of your product, 60% of whom are free users, and on an average, each user raises 1.3 support requests every month, that number roughly translates to:
- 130,000 support requests every month
- 78,000 support requests being raised by free users of your product
It is a challenge addressing to 130,000 support requests. That’s more than 4,000 support requests every day. It is easy to get backlogged while you deal with them. And due to the sheer magnitude of numbers, it is natural that there is a possibility of your paying customers feeling let down by your support since you are not able to get to them as fast as you would want to.
So, businesses came up with a solution. Prioritise support requests from paying customers. They are the ones contributing to the revenue, they are the ones helping us pay our bills, so let us show them the respect of being on top of their issues at the earliest possible.
It is a sound rationale, on the face of it. But as Robert Burns rightly said,
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry
What was supposed to be prioritising offering quick turnaround to support requests from paying customers quickly devolved to de-prioritising support for free users. And that is where it all got shot to hell.
It is not exactly a new phenomenon
Businesses have been doing it for years. All businesses - online or offline. Customers who pay more get more attention. After all, no business wants to tick off their valuable customers. You walk into a bank, and the amount of attention and care you get is a direct function of the size of your bank account. You become regular to a restaurant, and they will go out of their way to make your preferred seating spot available to you every time. All businesses do it, it is understandable. Even customers understand it, even appreciate it.
But there is a big difference between giving extra attention to your valuable customers and putting up a neon sign saying your wait time is dependent on the size of your wallet!
When you put up support as a part of your pricing plans, that is essentially what you are doing.
And it is not an issue restricted to unknown, relatively new SaaS products only. Even community favorites and industry darlings like Canva have fallen prey to this practice.
It’s a problem that’s killing your business
So, your free users don’t have the privilege of having your ears. You don’t listen to them, you have pretty much left them to fend for themselves.
But, it is not your customers who are suffering for it, it is your business. Let us look at why:
1. Delighted customers are your biggest competitive advantage
You look at any research anyone has ever done. You’ll come to realise that the one thing customers care about, possibly more than anything else, is sticking by a brand that listens to them and makes them feel important. Yes, even more than your product. Customers tend to be quite forgiving with minor shortcoming in your product if they love you. And to earn that love, you first need to love them.
If you are offering a great customer experience, that is going to be your biggest moat and strongest competitive advantage. Tech can be replicated, even improved. It is much easier than many of us would care to admit. Customer focus, however, takes time to get right. Not to mention, the right focus, the right mindset, the right attitude.
Pricing can’t be your moat. There will always be someone willing to go toe-to-toe with you on making the product more affordable to your customers. Tech, as we all know, definitely can’t be your moat. Your moat are your customers, and their desire (not willingness, desire) to stick by your side. For that, they need to love your product, sure, but more importantly, they need to love how well they are taken care of.
2. A world class support is the surest way to improve retention
If I were to count on my fingers, the number of brands I have stopped being a customer of because of poor customer support experience, I would run out of hands and toes.
It is ironic that while improving retention and reducing churn remains to be one of the biggest pains for SaaS businesses everywhere, we are not collectively focusing on improving customer support. A happy customer is less likely to churn out, after all.
And it is not just paying customers I talk of. Free users as well.
After all, what is the point of you offering a Free plan in the first place? To have a percentage of them eventually upgrade to a paid plan, isn’t it? Do you see that happening if their product usage experience has been less than stellar? And make no mistake, your support is a part of the product usage experience. If a user has been feeling neglected and underwhelmed by your level of support, why would he even consider putting his credit card on a monthly charge? You don’t put your money where your mouth is, why should he?
3. How can you even have a self-serving support infrastructure if you have no idea what that infrastructure should be built of?
I can understand a Google product having a self-serving support infrastructure. I can even understand Canva having one. After all, today they have more than 50 million users, so they have a fair idea of the most prominent support requests they would be getting. And in time, they have probably created ready-to-serve documents to address such requests from future users.
But if you are a new SaaS product, how can you consider turning off the biggest source of user feedback?
Your support helps you understand how users are using your product, what issues they encounter, what are the shortcomings in your product. Without listening to your users, how will you even know what are the different points you should be addressing in your help docs?
Look at Canva again, for example. As per the company, more than 55% of their users are from a non-English speaking demography. Which means, they need to be diligent in creating a support infrastructure that caters to all.
By turning off the feedback mechanism in your early stages itself, you are doing your SaaS product a disservice.
4. You are stunting your growth
We all listen to podcasts. How many times have we heard SaaS founders tell a story where they were catering to a different market segment initially, but later realised the product was being used much more by an altogether different market. Something that they had never even thought about. So, they changed course, and that seeded their initial growth trajectory.
We all start with some hypotheses in mind. We have an idea on who would be using our product, how will they be using it, what they would be using it for, and what is the value they would be getting out of it. But, just because we put in quite some thought and rational thinking in coming up with said hypotheses doesn’t necessarily make them true.
Our product usage tells us what our right market is, who is our right audience, and how do they use the product. The roadblocks they face helps us identify what aspects of our product need to be improved to help more users get maximum value out of the product.
In short, from our marketing strategy to our business vision, to our product roadmap, there isn’t a single area we don’t improve upon thanks to customer feedback.
So, when you turn off this invaluable source of customer research and product usage feedback, essentially, you are preventing yourself from achieving product market fit.
Wrappin’ up: What should you do about it?
Treat customer support as something you do by default! Stop trying to pimp out your premium plans by attaching support as something you offer in them.
Receiving support from a product a customer is using should be the very least the SaaS business can ensure, it should not have to be a privilege. That’s just being a douche!
Want to route most of the support requests from free or entry plan users to a self-serve system? I get that, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s understandable and pragmatic. So, when you start feeling confident that even 20% of the support requests you are receiving from these users can be catered to by the repository you have been making, start routing them over. But even then, leave the option open of them reaching out to you in case they are unable to get it addressed via the docs.
Some of you may already be doing that, but if you are, then why would you even want to give the impression that support is only self-served, and if the support docs can’t answer it for them, then they are fuck out of luck!
Want to give some extra TLC to your paying customers? It is understandable; they both deserve and would expect your attention.
Newsflash! No one is stopping you. Give them all the attention you want. But for god’s sake, stop using it in your pricing plans like you are doing them a favor by doing so.
Thought of the day
Thoughts? Drop by for a chat.
That’s it for today, see you tomorrow.
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