How to Build a SaaS Subscription Customer Lifecycle Playbook

Natalie Roy

Consumers today have access to more information than ever before, and they’re using it to shop.

Comparing your software as a service (SaaS) business’s subscription pricing and features to those of the competition has never been easier. And rest assured, both your potential and current customers are doing that as well. New customers want to make the smartest choice, and current ones want to confirm that continuing their subscription with your business is the best deal out there.

Current technology has also simplified the process of switching subscription providers, putting the power of choice into the hands of customers. As a result, the potential impacts on recurring revenue for a business operating with a subscription business model are significant. But there are certainly ways to discourage your customers from churning

An increasingly informed customer base and the rising importance of recurring revenue are driving the need for greater customer-centricity. And one way to re-center your business around its customers is to build a customer lifecycle playbook.

A customer lifecycle playbook for all departments

Many businesses have acquisition playbooks—resources that guide their marketing and/or sales teams in conversing with prospective customers. Some businesses even have flowcharts guiding questions and responses.

While these playbooks focus on acquisition, customer lifecycle playbooks go a little further by aiming for retention.

Why focus on retention?

Multiple studies have found while acquisition is important to business growth, retention is more cost efficient and generates more revenue per dollar spent. Current customers are already using your product, so the time and effort it takes to retain them is much less than to acquire new ones.

A SaaS subscription customer lifecycle playbook guides your various departments in handling situations at each stage of the customer lifecycle to increase retention and perhaps even more.

Retention—as well as timely cross-selling and upselling—are essential to subscription revenue and business growth. In order for marketing, sales, customer support, and other departments to know when to take action, it’s necessary to map the customer journey and build a playbook based on the understanding gained from that map.

Are you surprised to see marketing and sales connected to retention? You shouldn’t be.

Retention is an all-hands effort when it comes to recurring revenue. Marketing and sales should be dedicating some effort to retention, cross-selling, and upselling to ensure business growth. They, too, will need access to a well-written customer lifecycle playbook to make this happen.

Where does a well-written subscription customer lifecycle playbook come from?

One of the biggest challenges SaaS businesses face is establishing a single source of truth (SSOT) for information.

Customer relationship management (CRM), marketing analysis position (MAP), subscription management, and other back-office systems have a plethora of customer data that isn’t always synthesized. A well-written customer lifecycle playbook comes from the consolidation of this information.

Why? An SSOT for customer data takes the guesswork out of churn. Will a customer renew when their subscription is up, or not? Without historical customer data, the answer is anyone’s guess. With this data and an understanding of the customer lifecycle, predicting and preventing churn becomes much easier.

A customer lifecycle playbook works toward this goal: predicting and preventing churn. It does this by mapping out responses based on data. 

And data helps a business understand a customer’s experience, informing the writing of a lifecycle playbook based on actual scenarios unique to your business.

That’s the thing with a customer lifecycle playbook; every business’s will be different. We’ll go over some common SaaS business models to help get you on the path to writing your own customized playbook.

Writing a playbook based on data

So, let’s talk data. When do your customers churn out?

Let’s say a business finds its customers commonly churn out after two years. Customers in this scenario could be renewing for year two as a reflexive move, since they’ve spent the first year getting to know the product and haven’t checked out the competition. If that’s the case, that business’s playbook may focus on getting customers to renew for year three.

Your business’s situation may be different, but you get the idea. Use data to identify churn points and approach your playbook accordingly.

Here are some other considerations as you brainstorm your own customized playbook.

  • What information does playbook-users need to make informed decisions?
  • How can playbook-users easily access that necessary information?
  • In what situations should certain team members hand a customer off to another team member or department?
  • What have been the best practices for your business so far? Or, if your business is new, what does research suggest is the best course of action?

While every operation is unique, SaaS subscription businesses tend to have a customer lifecycle that fits into the stages below. Inspect each stage in your business cycle for customer touch points, and you’ll start to find the framework for your playbook.

1. Onboarding: the first stage of the SaaS subscription customer lifecycle

The customer lifecycle begins once the sale is made. As you build your playbook, take a good look at your customer onboarding process. This process, when done well, is a great way to prevent of churn.

Several questions you may ask to guide your playbook include:

  • are your best features highlighted for new customers as soon as they activate their subscription?
  • are communications and welcome emails automated and operating smoothly?
  • how should a team member handle any onboarding hiccups?
  • how does your business celebrate your customers’ early success? and
  • are there plenty of resources for customers with questions, and multiple ways to access them?

Identify common questions and issues during the onboarding process, and create a script for how team members should respond. Chances are you’ve already thought of a few common issues that require at least a little team intervention.

2. The critical event, or ‘wow’ moment

A critical event is defined differently for every business. Archana Madhavan at Amplitude describes a critical event as “an action that users take within your app that aligns closely with your core value proposition.”

She goes on to give examples: Airbnb’s critical event is making a booking; a mobile game’s is playing the game; and, a meditation app’s is completing a meditation session.

Completion of a critical event is a sign of successful onboarding; your customer has just used your product as intended for the first time!

Critical events inform retention efforts. The sooner customers use your product successfully, the more likely they are to do it again, becoming retained customers.

Some good questions to ask at this stage are:

  • at what point should team members step in if a critical event hasn’t yet been reached?
  • is there any tracked customer activity to inform the approach? and
  • what kind of assistance is best to offer at this stage for each customer segment?

Every team member needs to be equally informed about this process. This ensures customers aren’t bombarded by multiple efforts to push them to the critical event.

For some businesses, the critical event takes time for a customer to reach.

Apps which tie-in to a bank account, for example, sometimes require a waiting period for approval. In this case, creating smaller customer successes—such as setting up other parts of their account, completing a tour of features, etc.—can keep customers engaged. Be sure your playbook includes how to handle customers in this situation as well.

3. Continued SaaS customer success cultivates retention

After the critical event, the customer should enter a period of continued success.

At this stage, regular use by consumers for B2C businesses—or full integration into business operations in the case of B2B—means reaching the long-term adoption goals often sought in retention efforts.

Your playbook at this point is centered on preventing stagnation in the customer’s relationship with the product.

Make customers aware of helpful new features as they are deployed. For instance, a new workflow that reduces clicks to get to the dashboard could increase customer success and retention.

Track customer usage intervals to make sure they’re still active, and write plays for reaching out when they seem to be drifting away.

4. Expansion and renewal restart the SaaS subscription customer lifecycle

Lastly, once a customer has become comfortable with your product, take note of opportunities to cross-sell and upsell. The playbook isn’t just about retention, it’s also about tapping into opportunities to harness expansion MRR that can boost your business’s growth.

Ideally, a customer lifecycle is just that: a cycle, not a line ending at subscription termination. When a customer expands by adding features or upgrading—or simply renews their subscription and accepts any updates that come with it—the cycle continues. A new version of onboarding into new features and practices, new critical events and successes, and new opportunities keeps the relationship fresh.

In the case of B2B, a customer with a growing business may even upgrade as they scale—an exciting opportunity to grow together.

Ultimately, your playbook needs to recognize that the goals of the playbook are a continual endeavor. There’s no set-it-and-forget-it solution to keeping the customer relationship fresh, relevant, and revenue-generating. Be sure to address how customers are made aware of your product’s value every step of the way.

A number of expected things will happen during the customer lifecycle, but so will many that are unexpected. A truly comprehensive playbook will include at least a few plays for responding when the cycle gets a little off-track.

Retention requires a perpetual cycle

For maximum retention, you need new, current, and resurrected customers to all become continually engaged. This is why sharing customer lifecycle information with all departments is so important.

Marketing can alter their approach for existing customers based on a more complete understanding of the user experience. Sales can better understand their prospects’ experience once they become customers, better informing their conversations and efforts. And both sales and marketing can use lifecycle information to avoid pouring resources into bad-fit customers.

Even the development team can reduce customer pain points and bottlenecks in the customer lifecycle with the help of a playbook.

It’s helpful, of course, if all of this information is found in an SSOT available to every departmental team. There’s strength in unified, accessible data. And, as systems update this data, everyone should receive the same updates, ideally in real-time.

A customer lifecycle playbook offers more than a plan for customer retention. It serves as a training tool, a reference, and even a source of performance-measurement. Encourage feedback on the playbook regularly, and allow it to evolve alongside your business to keep it relevant as you grow.


Written by:

Natalie Roy
Natalie Roy
Director of Customer Experience, Stax Bill

The former Director of Customer Experience at Stax Bill, Natalie is a seasoned technology executive with over 13 years of experience with various technology companies. She has a proven track record of helping to improve customer experience, retention, & the bottom line.