This is a guest post from Patrick McKenzie (@patio11). Patrick is the founder of Kalzumeus software. Patrick has several successful SaaS businesses and has recently been making fistfulls of money for his consulting clients by helping them implement lifecycle emails. Take it away Patrick.
No startup has ever died because they spent too much time talking to customers.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t come naturally to the engineer in me. I would much rather retreat to the Bat Cave and bang out features in Rails. This, however, is not the path forward for the business — as the Lean Startup crowd will tell you, you run the substantial risk of building something that doesn’t actually solve problems customers care about. So I needed a way to force myself to continually talk to customers about their needs, to guide my product and marketing roadmaps.
One of the best hacks that I’ve discovered for talking to customers regularly is building systems which make my customers come to me. (This ran exactly against my inclinations — what programmer wants more support email? — but it has been an epic win for my business so far.) I do this by sending people emails triggered by where they are in the free trial of the software, both in terms of how long they’ve been using it and how much value they’re getting out of it.
Here’s four examples:
You know the standard “Thanks for signing up for $FOO_APP” email you typically get right on account creation? This is a missed opportunity for most startups: why tell them things they already know (“You signed up!”) when you could focus on things they don’t which will actually create value for them?
A lot of people worry about being the little guy. I’ve been there and done that myself, especially since I’m frequently in Enterprise Sales shootouts at hospital systems against a two-man team from the $80 million gorilla in the market… participating over the phone from Japan. But heck, if we’re going to be the little guy, we should throw our little guy weight around.
Being the little guy means your tech support questions always get answered by the product lead. Being the little guy means that if you need an integration done the timeline isn’t “Next quarter” it will be “We’ll move heaven and earth to get that done if it closes this sale.” Being the little guy means being passionate when the competition is boring, means being authentic when the alternative is lies, means being nimble when the default is statis. Doing business with the little guy resonates with some of your customers, so sell the benefit of that to the hilt, rather than sending emails signed by The FooApp Marketing Department.
Continuing the theme of being the little guy, I like to follow-up the welcome email (which is templated and automatic — and everyone knows it) with a personalized email a few days later. Let me quote my usual email in its entirety:
Hiya $NAME, I saw that you signed up for a free trial of Appointment Reminder a few days ago. I founded the company and head up development on the product. If you need anything, please feel free to drop me an email.
It is sent completely unstyled, and reads like I just dashed it off in my email client. Customers have a very positive response to this — they’ll often write back “Wait, are you really the founder?” “Yep. How are you liking the software so far.” “Oh wow… I haven’t gotten around to importing my client list yet.” “Can I help you with that?”
Bam, two big wins.
#1: I just learned a thing that was blocking a paying customer from using my application — they didn’t immediately import a client list. I can now start collecting data on whether that is happening to other people, and if it is, I can make product or messaging changes to fix it. (Maybe my first email should have said “Do you have a list of clients you want imported into the system? Reply to this message with it and we’ll take care of that for you.” That’s certainly worth trying given the unit economics of my business, and if I ever get bored of it, I can either code a tool to automate it or I can write up the process and then pay a freelancer to do it.)
#2: Customers get holy-cow-OMG-WTF amazed when they deal directly with the founders. It is one of the best unfair advantages we have in sales as startups. We should work it every time we have the opportunity. I could still possibly lose that account at the end of the month, but both intuition and data strongly suggest I’m not going to.
(Having talked to engineers for years, I know some folks are a little weirded out by having the computer send this email automatically. If you are weirded out by it, I strongly suggest identifying exactly what you’re uncomfortable with because I, candidly, think your distaste is irrational. Be that as it may, I have all sorts of irrational aesthetic preferences myself, so if you absolutely cannot countenance sending this email to the customer automatically, send it to yourself instead. You can then write them a quick note when you next check your email.)
Assuming you have a 30 day free trial, ~20 days in is a natural point to follow up with folks and see if they’re getting value from the software. You don’t even strictly speaking need to ask, though: as SaaS companies, we can often tell — with trivial inspection of the database — whether a given account is happy or not. There’s a heuristic I use for Appointment Reminder which can accurately predict, at day 20, whether someone will purchase the software or not with better than 80% accuracy. ?It is three lines of code. ?The similar heuristic for your business is probably not rocket science.
Dave McClure calls this Activation: achieving happy use of the software. (It is one of the five metrics for pirates: Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral, and Revenue (AARRR, get it)… and one of the easiest to adjust upwards through simple product improvements.)
Given that we can know what customers are having problems, how can we help them through those problems in a scalable manner?
What about customers who have already activated by day 20? They’re already happy users of the software. What can we do to make them even happier?
Personally, I handle all my lifecycle emails with custom Ruby on Rails code, because I’m a programmer and love it. However, I work with a lot of consulting clients whose marketing teams don’t love writing code and tweaking email templates, and whose engineering teams have better things to do than write integration hooks. They used to hire me to build one-off internal applications to design emails and then write GUIs-over-rules-engines to let the marketing team figure out who gets what email when. These days I tell those clients “Customer.io already exists and it will do exactly this for you, without needing to pay me five figures to write an internal app to do it.” Seriously, try it out — the capability is transformatively amazing for the right person at the right business sending the right sort of email.
Customer.io makes the actual sending of lifecycle emails a breeze, but there’s more to email than just the mechanics, or we’d all be using SMTP servers and getting rich. In particular, there’s a lot of art in crafting emails which convince customers to convert, doing product and page design such that users consent to contact in the first place, structuring email campaigns such that there’s an overarching narrative to the experience, and tracking the effectiveness of email in improving your business’ results. I won’t overstate it — you can totally learn to do this all by yourself, and it will only take you a few months of dedicated effort. You can also hire someone to do it for you, though they’re in incredible demand right now, due to the ability of lifecycle emails to make major improvements in the bottom line.
Want to get your emails “to market” faster and skip the few months of failing your way forward? I sell a course on every facet of lifecycle emails for software companies: timing, copywriting, implementation, optimization, etc etc. Jason Cohen, one of my consulting clients, remarked “Patrick’s advice on starting a [particular type of lifecycle email] campaign for WPEngine was an epic win for WPEngine –it permanently moved the needle on signups after just a week of work.” (That was a drip marketing campaign — another option for lifecycle email totally distinct from any of the ones discussed above. I could, literally, talk for two hours about how to implement one — that is, in fact, Chapter 2. There’s a lot more where that came from, too.)