Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
June 08, 2020 · 11 min read

Customer Offboarding: 5 Powerful Ways to Turn Customer Churn into Opportunities to Learn

Customer Offboarding

When you’re trying to grow your business it’s easy to get CATV—customer acquisition tunnel vision. Acquiring new customers is sexy. It’s exciting. And it makes you feel good because more people want what you’ve made.

But what happens when those users decide they want to leave?

The majority of advice on offboarding focused on employee offboarding—the process you go through when a teammate leaves. The goal of employee offboarding is to help you understand what went wrong, why they chose to leave, and how you can improve your culture and workflows to keep future employees happy.

It’s a powerful opportunity to learn from experience and get valuable feedback. So why limit offboarding to just your employees?

User offboarding—how you treat, talk to, and learn from customer churn—is just as important. While we all love to hear why people want to use our products, it’s almost more important to know where we’re dropping the ball.

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If you want to get the most value from your users, even when they leave your product, you need a plan for customer offboarding. In this guide, we’ll show you exactly what you need to do along with some powerful offboarding examples other companies are already using.

What is customer churn? And how can you use it as an opportunity to learn?

If you’re running any sort of SaaS or subscription-based business, customer churn is one of the most important metrics you should be tracking.

Customer churn is the percentage of customers that stopped using your company’s product or service during a certain time frame. In other words, people who decided they don’t need your product anymore and have moved on.

In its most basic form, you can calculate customer churn rate by dividing the number of customers you lost during a timeframe (for example, one month) by the number of customers you had at the beginning of it.

It’s probably pretty obvious why this is an important number. If you lose more customers than you gain each month then your company is dying. However, while there’s tons of advice out there on how to reduce customer churn, it’s pretty much impossible to keep every customer you ever acquire.

People will move on. But every lost customer is a lesson.

It’s inevitable that you’ll make mistakes as you build your product, prioritize features that old users don’t want, or change your business model in a way that alienates certain users. People will move on. But every lost customer is a lesson.

When people move on (i.e. churn) it’s an opportunity to find out where you went wrong and work that into your future sprints, features, or even how you approach marketing and sales.

It never feels good to lose users, but instead of writing them off as “just not getting it,” use this as an opportunity to reach out, listen to their issues, and learn from it. Even better, this is an opportunity to turn churned customers into advocates and salespeople.

The Peak-End Rule: Why you should work hard to give your churned customers a good experience

Customers churn for all sorts of reasons. And not all of them are because you did something wrong. They might leave because you prioritized features they didn’t want or you didn’t fix bugs that were impacting their business.

Peak End Rule

However, they just as likely might have left because of something to do with their business. Maybe they switched directions or moved into a different market or even just ran into their own customer churn issues and had to lower costs.

You can think of these scenarios as two specific types of churn:

Creating a customer offboarding process helps you with both of these scenarios.

For customers with non-regrettable churn, it helps you understand how they used your product and where they saw benefits (that you can work into your marketing plan).

While for those with regrettable churn, it helps you understand what your customers want from you or even change their mind by highlighting features or workflows they might have missed.

By properly offboarding both types of churned customers you’re not just letting them slip away. You’re actively reaching out and trying to understand their wants and needs. And this is a powerful thing. As competition increases in every market, word-of-mouth marketing has become even more important. In fact, people are 90% more likely to trust and buy from a brand recommended by a friend.

By properly offboarding both types of churned customers you’re not just letting them slip away. You’re actively reaching out and trying to understand their wants and needs.

So how do you get them to recommend you even when they’re leaving you behind?

There’s a cognitive bias we have called the Peak-End Rule that says most people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. the most intense moment) and at the end.

In other words, by creating an enjoyable and memorable offboarding process, you can rewrite or even erase any negative feelings your customers have about your product.

5 ways to design a powerful user offboarding process for your churned customers

Before we dive into the tactical strategies around user offboarding, let’s do a quick recap:

We now know that customer churn is just as, if not more important than acquisition. We also understand that people leave your product for different reasons and it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. And, we know that by creating an offboarding process we can not only learn from those churned users but even turn them into word-of-mouth advocates for our company.

So how do you go about getting all this value from a simple offboarding campaign? Let’s dive into the basics:

1. Send them an offboarding survey after they downgrade or leave

First off, let’s get something out of the way. You’re probably not going to hear from too many people after they leave you as a customer. There’s really not a lot of incentive for someone to invest in giving you feedback after they’ve already decided to leave, especially if they’re leaving because they’re upset with the service.

Whatever offboarding strategy you choose, remember that your conversion rates are going to be pretty small. That’s why it’s good to go after a mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback.

First, let’s look at a qualitative option. Groove, a customer support software company, uses a simple email customer exit survey that asks one question: “What could we have done better to keep you as a customer?”

What can we do better?

This is about as low-friction as you can get. It’s a personal email from the CEO. It’s only asking you to answer one question. And all you have to do is hit reply like you would to any other email. According to Alex, this email performs better than any other they’ve tested and consistently gets a nearly 14% response rate.

While the one-question email will get you personalized responses, sometimes you want to guide your customer’s responses. This quantitative feedback will help you understand where your product is lacking and what users are looking for in it.

Take an example from Headspace. Right before downgrading your account, they ask you to select what they would need to do to make you stay on.

If you don’t have specific questions to ask your users, try something such as: What’s the single biggest reason for you canceling your service?

This will point you in the right direction and tell you where your users are getting frustrated.

2. Ask them to do a quick offboarding call

While a simple survey will get you some decent insights, the real offboarding gold is found in phone interviews. When people speak they’re much more natural. You can listen to how they explain things and dig deeper into their thoughts and how they think you can improve.

But if you thought it was hard to get someone to answer a one-question email, just try to get them on a phone call.

Start by looking for people who are already interested in giving you feedback. This could be people who gave in-depth answers to your qualitative feedback questions or even people you identify through other support channels like NPS scores.

You’ll most likely want to incentivize this or at least make it worth their time (Amazon or other gift cards are great ways to get someone on a 5 or 10-minute call).

Once you get them on a call, follow a simple script to get the most out of your conversation. Here are a few ideas you can try:

Questions to ask What their answer tells you
  • Why did you initially sign up for our product?
  • Did you try out other tools?
  • What made you choose our tool over others?
This will tell you what your customers were looking for initially and how you convinced them you were the right option at the time. It’s good to get a clear understanding of the expectations new users have and whether these were the right customers to begin with.
  • How did our product work into your business needs or workflows?
  • What was the first indicator that our product wasn’t going to work for you?
Here, you’re trying to understand your user’s need (or, the “job” they were hiring it to do) and what caused them to realize it wasn’t meeting that need.
  • What happened the last time you used our product for your specific need?
  • What are you using now? How do you feel it compares to our product?
Now that you know the customer need that you missed the mark on, it’s time to understand the bad experience that pushed them over the edge, the replacement they found, and why it’s doing what they need.
  • What’s the biggest benefit you saw when using our product?
  • What would it take for you to reconsider using our product?
Lastly, end on a positive note by asking what you did do right and if they would ever consider coming back if you made the changes they need.

Lastly, remember that this isn’t an opportunity to pitch. As hard as it is to hear someone talk poorly about your product (especially if they’re leaving because they didn’t know about features or workflows) respect their decision and, if it feels right, follow up later.

3. Make it easy to leave

Some companies think it’s better to keep their customers at any cost. But if a user decides they want to stop using your service, they’ll find a way to. And the harder you make it for them, the worse experience they’re going to have (and share with other potential future users).

For starters, don’t try to hide where people can downgrade their accounts or force them into a phone call to cancel a basic service. Treat offboarding the same as you would your onboarding flow.

The easiest way to do this is to map out the experience of canceling from your customer’s perspective.

Map out the experience of canceling from your customer’s perspective. Get together a small group of people from your product, support, and marketing/sales teams and talk through:

Mapping out your user offboarding flow helps for a number of reasons.

First, it helps you identify gaps in your flow. Are you sending too many emails? Not enough? Is the process painfully awkward or do you try to leave them with a good feeling? Next, this will also help you identify churn indicators. These are the things your users are doing before they leave where you might be able to pre-emptively help them or change their mind.

Lastly, mapping out your user offboarding flow will help you empathize with your users. You’ll see what you’re putting them through when all they want is to move on.

4. Show your value and benefits along the way (without making it a guilt trip)

Just because your offboarding flow is easy doesn’t mean you’re just letting them walk away. In many situations, users leave without seeing the full value of your product. And offboarding is another opportunity to educate them about your features and values when it matters most.

The easiest way to show value and benefits during the offboarding process is to connect users with resources and guides.

Do you have a knowledge base you can send them to with best practices?

Can you get them on a quick chat with your customer success team before they leave?

Are there case studies or testimonials you can show them that might change their mind?

Next, you can show them what they’ll lose when they leave. Studies show that most people are swayed more by losing something they already have than gaining something new. Psychologists call this loss aversion.

Loss Aversion

So what can losses can you highlight for your customers?

Again, this should be more of a “by the way…” moment than a harsh guilt trip. Show your value and explain what a user is actually going to miss. Loss aversion only works when people believe there’s something to lose.

For example, here’s how LinkedIn uses loss aversion right after you try to close your account:

Linkd In Goodbye

Right away they show the faces and names of people you know who you’ll no longer be connected with, as well as your recommendations and endorsements.

5. Suggest alternatives for them

Not every customer is ready to leave when they enter your offboarding flow. Maybe they just had a bad experience or they’re frustrated that your product doesn’t work how they want it to.

Pls Dont Go

These are the users with regrettable churn—those who are leaving due to something you can change. And they’re ripe for persuasion. So what can you show at the 11th hour that might change their mind and stop them from leaving you completely?

We’ve already covered options like sending them content or connecting them with support. But another option is to simply give them time to think. Present options to pause, downgrade, or cancel their membership (but keep their account data in case they want to come back).

When a customer is completely done and wants to leave, make sure they know what that means. Here’s an example from MailChimp asking you to type the word DELETE before closing your account:

MailChimp type DELETE

Finally, always try to end on a positive note. Even if a user has churned completely, you want them to feel like it was a good experience while it lasted and that if the circumstances were different, they’d still be working with you.

For example, Spotify sends you off with a Goodbye Playlist after you downgrade to their free plan:

Spotify Alternative

Learning from churn: How to make a feedback loop from your offboarding process

An offboarding process like this is a great start. But it’s pretty much useless if you don’t actively learn from it and change your product. This is customer insight gold and it’s critical that you find a way to capture, organize, and prioritize the repeated feedback you get from your churned customers.

Using Planio, you can set up a special tracker—a category of issues—for churned user feedback. This way, each time you go through your user feedback or interview a churned user, you can create an issue for it that can then be categorized, organized, assigned to a teammate (if it’s a bug or clear task), or worked into your product backlog for a future sprint.

Next, organize and categorize each issue so you can start to see patterns in your feedback. Ask questions like:

A little bit of segmentation will help you start to understand why customers churn and how you can change your business to support them.

Lastly, make sure that you regularly go through these issues and either rewrite them as user stories—short, simple feature descriptions told from the perspective of your users and customers. When it comes to how to write user stories.

As we wrote in our Guide to User Story Mapping, the easiest method is to use a simple formula made popular by Mike Cohn, co-founder of the Scrum Alliance:

“As a [type of user] I want [some particular feature] so that [some benefit] is received.”

This format works for a number of reasons. For one, it puts a product requirement into the first person—meaning you’re thinking about the actual person using it, not just what needs to be done. Second, a repeatable template is easier for feature prioritization as you’re not comparing apples to oranges.

Finally, it combines both the quantitative (specific features) and qualitative (benefits) data you receive during your offboarding process.

Customer insight is gold. That's why it’s critical you find a way to capture, organize, and prioritize repeated feedback you get from your churned customers.

If you want to go a step further, you can even reach out to churned users when you update your product with the features they were after. This is a personal, non-spammy way to engage with your past users and show them that you’re just trying to be as valuable as possible to them.

Customer churn is inevitable. So why not make the most of it?

No business is perfect and there will always be people that aren’t the right fit. But instead of just throwing your hands up and letting them walk away, why not try to get the most out of your churned users?

A solid user offboarding plan like this will help you understand where your features, business plan, or marketing and support are failing your customers so you can improve, change, and grow.