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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why SaaS Needs Lean Six Sigma

The cloud computing industry loses about $10B every year due to customer churn, and in response, many executives launch improvement initiatives. They assign Customer Success teams to engage new customers, increase product usage and probe for sales opportunities. Other times, executives hold developers accountable for monitoring online customer behaviors and designing stickier user interfaces. Marketers sometimes get into the act, countering revenue losses through new customer engagement programs or by introducing renewal incentives. 

These isolated activities can incrementally reduce churn, but customer defection is a complex, enterprise-wide problem that requires joint effort. Customers leave when a number of deficiencies in sales, development, marketing, operations, and even accounting combine to frustrate them. Instead of assigning a single function or diluting efforts among multiple groups, SaaS companies should address customer attrition holistically with a disciplined and coordinated Lean Six Sigma approach.

Proven and unified

For decades, manufacturing and service organizations have used quality improvement techniques to satisfy customers, save money and increase revenue. Companies have shown repeatedly that relying on personal perceptions and making snap decisions leads to treating symptoms, not underlying causes. Using formal techniques, practitioners first explore difficulties from the customer’s perspective and then analyze data to uncover and resolve “root causes” of problems. As a result, improvements people make are dramatically better and more sustainable. Studies show that companies proficient in quality improvement practices consistently outperform rivals in growth and profitability by a factor of 2:1.1

Quality methods have evolved over the years to help teams be even more successful. Modern Lean Six Sigma techniques include rigorous financial analyses to target improvements and demonstrate monetary gains. Lean principles remove wasted time and effort, speeding cycle times in engineering, production, and service operations. But best of all, Lean Six Sigma espouses cross-functional teamwork instead of working independently. Ineffective, inefficient workflows and fumbled handoffs between departments are often the most significant obstacles. When greater customer focus and scientific methods combine with better coordination and cooperation, solutions transcend internal boundaries and deliver maximum impact.

Lean Six Sigma in action

A young firm introduces an app that allows people to capture and annotate photos taken on mobile devices. The software then automatically uploads images and links them with documents the user stores in the cloud. During early trials, the founders discover that the software has widespread appeal, so they introduce the product at a low price point, expecting it to sell in high volume. 

But after several months, the executives discover a problem. Monthly customer churn numbers run far above expectations. Rather than settling for myriad, piecemeal solutions, the executives form a cross-functional Lean Six Sigma team to address the issue from a broader and deeper perspective. The project follows DMAIC, the phased improvement process at the heart of Lean Six Sigma:

Define. The problem is straightforward: 2.2% of users cancel their subscriptions each month, costing the firm $5M annually. The team establishes a goal to significantly reduce this number.

Measure: Despite having extensive data on mobile and website usage patterns, the team realizes that little is actually known about their customer churn. Marketing had originally decided to capture only basic contact information in order to reduce sales “friction” during the sign-up process. As a result, there’s no data classifying behaviors by market segment. In addition, the team finds few customers complete the online exit survey upon cancellation, so the reasons why customers leave are unknown. The team hires a third party to collect the missing information. The vendor uses billing records to e-mail and call a sample of departed customers to ask questions about their experience.  

Analyze: The vendor finds that the company indeed attracts a wide range of customers, but after using Lean Six Sigma’s Pareto analysis, the analyst shows that just a handful of segments account for the majority of churn. Surprisingly, estimators at small auto body shops are the largest defecting group. Challenged with extensive visual inspections and impatient customers during peak times, auto estimators purchase the mobile app hoping to speed their quoting process by quickly capturing images and making shorthand notes for later documentation. But the estimators learn that the time they spend copying photos into their company quoting systems negates the time they save with customers. Getting assistance from the software firm to solve the problem isn’t easy. The company’s limited self-help resources and e-mail-only, 2-day customer response time prompts most estimators to abandon the idea after just a few months. 

The team then examines internal factors. Investigating the technical issues, they learn that the company’s online database can’t exchange data in the formats commonly used by repair quoting systems. Customers buy software online and the firm provides no special attention or information to help estimators in the beginning. The company’s heavily burdened customer support team handles all tickets on a first-come, first-served basis, forcing customers to wait equally long periods for help. When estimators get into trouble, their options are few. It’s no wonder they’re leaving in droves.  

Improve: The team enhances the product and redesigns the process to make estimators more successful. Engineers research the most common exchange formats and discover they can develop an API that automatically imports images into quoting systems without the need for manual intervention. The plan calls for Marketing to add a single question during the sign-up procedure to assign each user to their respective market segment, allowing the company to better track behaviors. The team then proposes hiring a Customer Success Manager to reach out each estimator within a day of their subscription to help integrate the API, ensure the estimator gets the results he or she desires, and create a stronger working relationship. The team advocates “triage” (a Lean Six Sigma technique) in Customer Support to separate the estimators’ trouble tickets and deal with them first. Thanks to the use of simple statistical tools, the team calculates that the improvements will recover about $1.5M in lost revenue. Adding up the cost of implementation, the team finds the expense makes up a small fraction of the segment’s expected customer lifetime value. Management gives the go-ahead and the team coordinates and implements the changes. 

Control: Estimators are delighted with their new experience. Churn drops 82% in the segment and more auto shop estimators join based on strong recommendations from their associates. Overall, the company’s monthly churn drops by 38%, boosting topline annual revenue by $1.9M. What’s more, estimators who left come back, generating another $220K in revenue. Product managers notice new product and service opportunities in the market segment, promising to grow it even further. The Lean Six Sigma team then standardizes the approach and turns its attention to next group of departing customers. They repeat the DMAIC cycle and lower churn even further. 

It’s a better way

Had each SaaS company function done what they naturally do and worked within their own silos, the results would not have been the same. They would have proceeded without an in-depth understanding of their customers’ challenges. Functional leaders would have prioritized their activities around their favorite projects or according to whatever was most pressing at the time. As a result, improvements would have been typically myopic and disjointed, failing to benefit specific customers or deliver clear economic gains. 

Perhaps it’s time for a different strategy. The Lean Six Sigma method encourages SaaS functions to join forces, focus intently on customers, develop comprehensive solutions, and achieve more impressive results. A holistic improvement strategy may be just what the industry needs to retain more customers. 

Excel-lens is a publication of Service Excellence Partners. We increase customer loyalty and business performance in the cloud computing industry. Contact us today.

1. Hendricks, K. and Singhal, V. March, 2000. The impact of Total Quality Management (TQM) on financial performance: evidence from quality award winners. DuPree College of Management, Georgia Institute of Technology

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