Is your SaaS Chief Cook and Bottle Washer?

  • August 2011
  • Posted By hsgdev

Janet MutoBy Janet Muto

I recently attended a seminar on SaaS best practices. As an executive in the early days of SaaS, I wasn’t surprised by any of the lessons.

However, one speaker, Skip Besthoff, from Castile Ventures noted that “service is in the SaaS title” and that customer experience is everything.

I immediately had two distinct thoughts:

  • First, that yes, in my case, customer support and the personal attention that we provided our trial customers was our “secret sauce”
  • Second, that a great SaaS app has to be able to stand on its own (even if personal touch points make it better)

Nearly all self-serve SaaS apps offer a free trial experience – meaning that site visitors can turn into trial users and even customers without having any other exposure to your company. Conversely, visitors can bounce in and out (and never back again) within hours or minutes of their first exposure to your service. During their brief or longer “stay” they will experience the many roles  that your service must play.

You may be all thinking to yourselves that it doesn’t matter –  “our sales or service team can cover for our app’s experience.”

Sure, it’s true that the addition of in-trial coaching (via telesales) and toll-free numbers for live support can have a dramatic effect on conversion rates. However, the usability of your app is an important factor and metric – consider it the base from which all other improvements are built (starting at 10 is better than starting at two)!

Your app has to do a lot of jobs you might not have even thought of. That’s what being Chief Cook and Bottle Washer is all about.

Your app is your best (or worst) sales person


In a self-serve model, a visitor will come to your website (a website’s ability to drive conversion to trial or call is a topic for another post) and presumably do what you want them to do – sign up for free trial, use a freemium version of your solution, or watch a demo and call you. The latter option, one employed by companies with more sophisticated (read: difficult to on-board) services is not part of this blog post – but probably should be!

For those who do offer free trial or a freemium product, your app is your salesforce. Is your salesperson friendly and approachable or difficult and off-putting? Is your salesperson knowledgeable or a know-it-all? Does your salesperson understand the sales process (i.e., the best way for your customers to progress along the sales cycle) or does she just blurt out everything at once? Or never at all? And perhaps most importantly, does your salesperson listen to his customers’ needs and respond accordingly?


Your app is your most (or least) responsive customer service rep


How many times have you judged a business by its customer service reps? I’m certain you don’t have to think too long to answer this question! Key factors that come to mind are responsiveness and availability but that is just the start. Customer support has to be effective too. I had a recent, unforgettable (in a bad way) experience with Bank of America’s support line. While the reps were available 24×7, and wait times were not long, I spent hours (in fact, $36K if I were billing them) trying to get to someone who could actually solve my problem. While each and every rep was “nice” and they were clearly coached in customer communications, not one of them was empowered to fix my problem.


Is your in-product support contextual and available? Do your users have to leave their screen to go search through pages of FAQs to try to match their problem?  When they find the answer do you offer them clear and concise help? Do you include videos or tutorials?  Can someone immediately reach a support rep if they don’t get the help that they need?  When someone gets “stuck,” it is a prime moment for permanent abandonment.

Finally, and easy to forget – if your product or the user makes an error (yes, it will happen), make sure that the error messages your users see are friendly and inviting. Tell them what to expect (i.e., a message like “our system is down but we will email you when it’s available,”  a status report, or a guide the user on how to avoid this error in the future).


Your app is a personal trainer


On-boarding may be the most critical experience of a free trial. The number of users who abandon their trial after their first login is a critical metric to capture. Although some users may not need what your service offers, many more probably don’t know how to get started.

Your service should feel like a “personal trainer” for the new user. Your trial experience should include a roadmap and directions for the new user. But make sure it isn’t  just what to do and in what order. Rather, tell the new user what to expect. Set expectations with the user on how much time and effort the trial will be required. For example: You might have a section with a headline that reads, “Sign up 5 new users in 5 minutes.” You could follow that with a few lines on how to sign up new users (depending, of course, on whether you service runs that way!). The upshot here is that you want to show the new user what they’re getting into.

Your app is your business information analyst and usability tester

What I’ve written about so far has focused on the trial users’ actual experience. But I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the other roles that your SaaS app plays. Your app should collect every possible bit of data it can – so architect it accordingly.

I’ve had many an argument with database architects about my voracious appetite for data. I’ll admit it. I can’t get enough. But in the end, having the data is ALWAYS better than not having it, and the few dollars of storage required pale in comparison to not having what you need when you need it.

  • Treat your online product like a website: know where every user clicked, where they abandoned, how long they spent on pages, what mistakes they make.
  • Collect data on times and numbers of activities: how many logins, how many times did this or that and last login.
  • Match collected data with actual conversion rates and cancel rates. You’ll find roadblocks, best paths to success and more.


So back to Skip’s comment: “service is in the name SaaS.” He’s absolutely right. But it doesn’t end there. Just as Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” your users’ experience is your app!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *