In SaaS years, I’m an old, old dog; I co-founded my first product, Freckle, over 10 years ago. During my time in SaaS, I’ve done a lot of front-line support. I’ve managed several minor crises (and the shuttering of a much-loved service). I’ve handled price changes and interface overhauls. And I’ve used a lot of SaaS products that dealt with even bigger problems than mine did, most of them badly.

Customer loyalty—which always requires customer forgiveness—is a paradox. On the one hand, customers will forgive a lot more than you think they will, but only if you handle their issue the right way_._ Otherwise, they’ll tolerate a lot _less _than you think they will.

Drawing from my decade-plus of experience, keen observation, and study of the human animal, here are…

The top 9 ways to make your SaaS customers hate your guts

  1. Data loss
  2. Data leak
  3. “Sociopathic” communication
  4. Changing prices without notice or grandfathering
  5. Overcharging or charging incorrectly
  6. Unhelpful support
  7. Major bugs
  8. Downtime
  9. Major UI changes

Now let's take a look at how each of these issues can turn your customers against you.

Data loss and data leak are the top reasons for customers to hate you

Your customer doesn’t use your app because it’s so amazing. They use your app to produce or do something.

You may think your app is the product, but you’re wrong. In your customers' eyes, their data is the product. Your SaaS is a cracker in a world of tasty dips: just a delivery mechanism.

So when you lose that data, you’ve lost everything from your customer's perspective.

Plus, there’s no nice way to say “We lost your data.” You can be as genuinely contrite, empathetic, and helpful as you please, but it won’t make anything better. It won’t restore their trust. The only thing that can lessen the impact of data loss or data leak is if the data wasn’t very important or private, or if it wasn’t very much data.

How you can avoid making your customers hate you

These things can happen. It's regrettable but true. If you lost an hour of customer data because of a database error, you'll probably be able to seek forgiveness from most customers, as long as you communicate well and it doesn’t happen again.

Sociopathic communication and unhelpful support make everything worse

Business doesn't function because of Perfect Products and The Economy™. Business functions because of people. And people function through relationships. And relationships function through good communication.

There’s a reason that the two big forms of terrible communication are on this list of deadly no-no’s. Your SaaS product is just one bad rom-com plot twist away from customers hating you.

Here’s the good news:

  • Good up-front communication can head off problems before they start.
  • Good communication during a problem can turn anger into forgiveness.
  • Excellent support can both help customers overcome complaints, objections, and roadblocks and build trust.

But, if you’ve used a SaaS product, you likely haven't experienced any of these things. You’ve written support with a bug that totally messed up your day and received a canned response in return. Or you’ve rolled into work one day and checked your email just to see a notice that prices were going up, like, tomorrow.

Congrats! You’ve experienced how sociopathic communication can destroy any chance of a positive response to an event that is otherwise quite forgivable. I call this extremely common communication style sociopathic because it fails to respect customers as human beings, by:

  • Actively dismissing their concerns, typically via impersonal templates and canned responses
  • Refusing to acknowledge actual pain and disruption caused by choices or errors
  • Defensively arguing with them about their problem
  • Blaming “rules” or “the way it works” to justify decisions, rather than attempting to work out a solution
  • Forcing them to jump through hoops to contact support
  • Failing to communicate changes in advance, or in detail—or, at worst, failing to communicate at all

Here’s the problem: sociopathic communication is our default.

It’s dangerously easy to fall into communicating like a sociopath even when you're capable of of feeling the vast range of human emotions. Why? Because that’s the sort of communication you experience every day when you receive seemingly polite messages like, “We do apologize for any inconvenience.”


How you can avoid making your customers hate you

Don’t forget to put the service in Software as a Service. Focus on the relationship between you as a person and your customer as a person. Do you best to personalize communication with your customers, and respond to questions and concerns with genuine empathy and understanding.

Customers have a lot of feelings about money

Here are the three things in life that people have the most ~fEeLiNgS~ about: romance, religion, and revenue—by which I mean “money,” but that doesn’t start with an ‘r.’

Ah, I hear you saying, but my SaaS product is B2B. We all know B2B buyers aren’t very price-sensitive at all!

SaaS buyers do buy on value, and (usually) they're not even spending their_ _own money, so they’ll happily pay far more than an individual consumer ever will.

That's all true… but only up to a point. If your customer feels tricked, no amount of distance from the purse will shield you.

And tricked is just how they’ll feel if you—surprise!!—raise prices. You might think I'm joking, but this has happened to me more than once. A SaaS product we’d been using for ages sent a single email_ _about a 100–200% price increase with just a few days’ warning and no recourse.

Imagine the frustration and anger of B2B buyers who then had to explain that increase to their bosses. Doubling or tripling prices is a lot, especially out of nowhere.

How you can avoid making your customers hate you

Follow this simple rule: never make your buyer look bad in front of their boss.

Poorly thought-out price increases are actually much worse than accidental overcharging because it’s a willful act and violates the trust in the relationship. Raising your prices isn’t bad in and of itself. Communicating that increase badly is bad. If you'd like more information, I wrote an entire series on how to raise prices the right way.

As for billing errors: mistakes happen. As long as you’re upfront, honest, apologetic, and (most importantly) quick to fix the problem, you'll be forgiven and forgotten by most.

The ideal scenario is one where no errors occur; the second-most ideal scenario is one where _you _discover the billing error and proactively email the customer before they ever notice, saying, “Hey, we found this, and it’s already fixed. Refund is already on its way, so sorry!”

And as a sidenot, if you ever undercharge a customer due to a billing error, kiss that money goodbye… unless you're ready to kiss that customer goodbye. That’s the cost of doing business.

Bugs and downtime aren’t as bad as you think

If I were making a list of the most-feared-by-their-creators SaaS problems, bugs and downtime would be pretty close to the top.

But customers understand that bugs — and downtime! — happen. Your customers will be understanding about these issues as long as:

  • They're not too frequent
  • The bugs aren’t too bad
  • You don’t lose data

Research has shown that product owners who experience an issue but have that issue resolved quickly and well actually trust the company more than those who have never have a problem.

How you can avoid making your customers hate you

Communicate often, and listen well. Fix the problems (duh!) and do your very best to undo any damage.

And if you can collect bugs from system errors and ditch generic errors for a message that says something like, “We’ve received this automatic bug report and we’re looking into it,” so much the better!

Customers will quickly get over UI changes if you give them a chance

You know that joke in Airplane! where the pilot admits he has a “drinking problem?" We’re dealing with the same principle down here at the bottom of our most-hated list.

Picture it: your entire product development team screams, “Users hate design changes!” before tossing a completely new interface in the trash.

The thought process behind this popular (and incredibly wrong_)_ conclusion goes something like this:

  1. Users will hate design changes no matter what you do.
  2. You might as well do whatever the hell you want
  3. Eventually they’ll quit complaining and move on.

This is so, so wrong—ethically, professionally, and factually wrong. But if you act on this conclusion, you’re a jerk. And if it scares you off from ever redesigning anything, you’re also a victim.

But you can dramatically improve your app’s UI without revolt.

How you can avoid making your customers hate you

The key here is that you must actually improve your UI. And you can’t improve a UI without factoring in what your customer needs and wants. And new flash, they don’t just need pixels and forms and calls to action. Customers are humans, and humans need—wait for it—communication.

Here’s the recipe for success:

  • Change design elements only to improve your customer’s ability to do their job.
  • Change only the elements which need to be changed to serve the above goal.
  • Communicate with your customer about how these changes will make their life better.
  • Communicate before ever rolling your changes out. Give customers plenty of advance warning, preferably with screenshots and human-centric explanations of how you came up with these changes and why they’ll help them.
  • Roll out the changes after you've completed every step this list, on a date that you announce in advance.
  • Never take months and months to implement a "whole app redesign"—and never drop one on your customers' heads all at once.

It’s a simple rulebook, and it’s one I’ve followed to great success. There came a time when we needed to dramatically redesign Freckle’s navigation. It had been on the right (bad design), and there was no way to expand it to add quicker access to the features our customers used most (ineffective design). Plus, new customers were struggling with the “floating” interface elements that I'd once thought were so innovative (yikes).

After much deliberation, I flipped the navigation from right to left, added more navigation elements to surface powerful features and reduce click-depth, embedded formerly floating elements into the new “frame,” streamlined a few overly fancy and hard-to-read buttons, and added a neutral color for the new sidebar.

We did not change the core forms and interactions that make up the Freckle experience.

And guess what: it worked! From thousands of active users, we received only a handful of slightly cranky emails, mostly about the addition of gray to the cheerful color palette.

So remember: if you can’t explain how your interface change is an improvement, it probably isn’t one.

Further reading: Users don’t hate change, they hate you by Christina Wodtke.

This whole list is a Trojan horse for communication

I have no doubt that you’ve spotted my semi-secretive agenda by now: poor communication is the silent killer of SaaS happiness.

Good news: if you learn to communicate well and humanely, you'll have deliriously happy customers.

Or, perhaps, customers will find their experience with your product so seamless that they take you for granted as an integral part of their working life, treat paying you as a codified ritual they always perform, and never, ever show up in your inbox with pitchforks.

That could be the best outcome of all.

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Note: Throughout this essay, I liberally say “hate YOU.” But of course, it’s wildly unlikely that customers will come to hate you personally… unless you personally do something offensive, sociopathic, or uncaring to warrant it. Don’t lose sleep about losing customers while you grow and improve. Churn is a fact of life. As long as you're considerate and striving to improve and fix what is broken, you will attract new customers in the future. And your former customers will move on and find something that better suits them now. Buyer-seller relationships are just business, after all.