Dun, Dun, Dun … Dunning with Empathy

Dunning emails are the messages a business sends to its customers to collect past-due payments. At best, they are a nuisance; at worst, they inspire dread. Email marketers often overlook these messages as a distasteful, if necessary, part of doing business. When I redesigned our dunning campaign, I wanted to create as painless an experience as possible for our customers. Here are five ways I designed our campaign with empathy that you can use in your dunning emails, too.

#1 Wait to send your first email until you’ve confirmed there is a billing problem

Dunning emails are triggered most often by card failures at the time of billing, and our campaign is no different. Many dunning campaigns would then email the customer instantly to inform them that their card failed. However, most charge failures are due to temporary issues, which retrying the card solves. That is why Stripe (our payment processor) will retry the card up to five times over five days.


With this knowledge, I start the campaign with a five-day Time Delay. In that time, our payment processor automatically retries the card, and frequently the charge goes through successfully. When it does, the campaign automatically exits the customer. With this Time Delay alone, 50% of card failures are resolved – without ever messaging the customer.

#2 Send additional messages only after enough time has elapsed

Solving payment issues has many moving parts – bureaucratic finance departments, bank approval times, regional holidays, and time zone differences – which all increase the time to resolution. It might feel right to follow up quickly about a critical billing issue, but I found that allowing adequate time between reminder messages are kinder and more productive. I use a Time Delay between each dunning email of at least three days. I also include Time Windows before each email to ensure the campaign only sends emails during weekday working hours (in the customer’s timezone).

#3 Be sure you’re only sending messages if the problem hasn’t been fixed

Dunning emails are stressful by nature, but mistakenly emailing your customers after they fix the issue is even more stressful. In conjunction with the Time Delays, we use Exit Conditions to ensure that the campaign only messages customers with active billing issues. When a billing failure is corrected, our payment processor sends an event into our workspace. This event defines the campaign’s exit condition segment.

We solve some billing issues outside of the payment processor. In these cases, I manually remove the customer from the campaign.

#4 Message your billing contact first, then add additional contacts

Contacting the right person with billing issues is another way you can exhibit empathy. Emailing everyone in an account for a billing issue only one person in their company can fix is a quick way to lose your customer’s trust. In our product, we encourage accounts to list a dedicated contact for billing purposes. The first two emails in our dunning campaign go only to this contact. The campaign sends to the account owner in the following emails if the issue remains.

#5 Above all, be human

All billing issue conversations are awkward. Throughout our campaign, I try to be as human as possible to alleviate that awkwardness: we start the emails with Hi instead of the more formal Dear; I signs the emails with my name instead of the them coming from a more generic billing team. 

Beyond these human touches, if a billing issue remains after sending these automated emails, the campaign notifies me to reach out to the customer individually to see how I can help. If the business is going through a challenging period, I work with them to figure out a payment solution.

With these five tips, I transformed our dunning campaign from an afterthought to a successful email campaign. Not only does it bring in revenue that the company would otherwise lose, each message in the campaign proudly exhibits our brand value of empathy. We encourage any subscription-based-revenue company to do the same. 

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