How to Build a Retention Department Without Hiring Any New Employees

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Last updated
May 12, 2020

We don’t need to tell you that retention is the bedrock of your SaaS business. We also don’t need to tell you that optimizing your team to reduce churn can be difficult and frustrating. One of the biggest roadblocks for SaaS companies working to improve their retention can be the diffuse nature of churn- i.e. it’s an issue with ripple effects through your entire company, but no single source. While putting together a retention department is a natural way to combat churn, it’s not always necessary.

Because churn involves every aspect of your business, it’s worth aligning your existing teams around retention, together. This week we’re breaking down how each department generally contributes to customer retention, then exploring the ways you can connect them all to create a higher-level retention department.

Marketing and Retention:

Retention begins at the top of your marketing funnel. Starting by marketing only to the best-fit leads, marketing departments then smooth the process of onboarding them properly, and are central to creating content and helpful resources to keep them with the company longer term.

Everything you publish, from ads to homepage copy, should speak to your ideal user. What does this mean for your marketing team?

In a nutshell, the main focus points should be:

Sales and Retention:

Sales teams may not generally think of themselves as a key piece of a retention department, but they play a vital role. As one of the main points of contact for users coming into the product, their decisions and focuses will determine the nature of much of your user base.

If the majority of new users aren’t a good fit for the product, your company will see huge churn rates, and will struggle to build or maintain steady revenue. No amount of content, feature releases, or hand-holding will fix that. Only better sales will.

Your team needs to focus on making the kinds of sales that will have a longer lifetime value from the very beginning.

The short-term injection of cash is rarely worth the time commitment involved in dealing with customers ill-suited to your product.

A word to the wise: Your sales teams will have a sense of the kinds of leads they talk to the most, which leads end up dropping off before a sale is completed, and (more generally) the pain points of your audience.

Focus point:

  • Quality of sales

Customer Support and Retention:

Of all your teams, customer support is the most consistently, actively involved in the retention department. While they don’t necessarily have a large presence in the process of creating and enacting retention strategies (i.e. they don’t rewrite the onboarding or manually change the product), CS is your finger on the pulse of user experience.

retention department

They will have the best insight on retention issues. They are also the key team involved in building relationships with users. The insights and ideas of your CS team are invaluable to shaping and informing the initiatives of every other part of the company.

Customer retention is significantly more difficult when users don’t feel listened to or valued by a company. At the same time, customers that feel like their input has a meaningful impact on the product are far more likely to stay with you long-term and spread a positive image of your company to others.

Focus points:

  • Better understanding current users
  • Documenting complaints and points of confusion with product
  • Quick communication/engagement with users

Development and Retention:

Because your development team is the least likely to communicate with the user base, they may not view themselves as being part of a retention department. It won’t shock you to hear that they are.

Every update to the product, every new feature, and every bug fix has a direct impact on your churn rate and customer experience. By thoroughly understanding buyer personas and the customer journey, a development team can prioritize their product roadmap to the actual, specific wants and needs of the customer.

Your development team should prioritize the needs of your current customers over the imagined needs of future users.

In a nutshell, this means using resources to improve the user’s experience of the existing product first (i.e. fixing bugs and clunky UI, and adding new features based on customer requests) before expanding the feature set.

Focus points:

  • Customer-first roadmap
  • Responding to bugs
  • Seamless feature releases

How to Bridge Responsibilities to Create an Internal Retention Department:

So we’ve established the main roles that different parts of the company play in the broader scheme of retention. For many companies, though, the struggle doesn’t end there.

Protocols on how each individual team works with the other as a retention department is key to creating a seamless loop of retention that brings in better users, then keeps them happy and invested more deeply in the long term.

Here are some methods for building a retention department across your company:

1. Create buyer personas as a team

From the very top of your funnel, it’s possible to establish a retention-centric approach to your business. Thinking about the kinds of leads optimally suited to your product from the beginning is a great way to set a focus that will impact every level of your business.

retention department

Spend some time getting a sense of the kinds of customers you will best be able to serve. While bad-fit leads can bolster your numbers in the short-term, in the long run, they are significantly more likely to churn, and sooner.

So ask your team: what do we want to look for in a customer? Equally important: what do we want to avoid?

From the beginning, this will be vital to your marketing and sales teams. In the long-run, it will also prevent your CS from being overrun with questions from users poorly suited to the product.

Better-fit customers will also have significantly more useful observations about your service, which can help your development team to avoid unhelpful feature-requests.

2. Dial in your marketing

This is an important time to double back. With retention in mind and strong buyer personas set, you can drill down into your marketing in a more targeted way. Essentially, your goal here is to find areas where you aren’t speaking directly to the right customers.

Take a look at the audiences you choose for Facebook and Google ads; the tone of your advertisements, social media presence, and content marketing; and the broader campaigns you run. Within these elements, consider developing content aimed specifically at the different personas you’ve chosen.

3. Create reports from sales to marketing on quality of the leads

Open up lines of communication on the nature of the leads you have coming in.

  • Are an overwhelming percentage of new users asking about a feature you don’t currently offer?
  • Are you consistently seeing leads that have no grounding need for your service?
  • Has a recent batch of leads churned at a higher rate than usual?

Qualitative data from your sales team is vital to properly targeting your marketing and should impact the high-level decisions made by that team.

The same is true in reverse- quantitative data from your marketing team on activation and retention needs to have an impact on decision making on the sales side as well.

4. Incentivize sales teams with retention metrics

Essentially, what you’re doing here is focusing on the lifetime value of a customer rather than initial numbers of a sale. By encouraging your sales team to focus on the long-term value of the customer, you’re investing in the kinds of customers that will bring in the most revenue with the least hassle over time.

Read: The Fear that Haunts Teams and Hurts Customers

How does this look in practice? For one thing, it means that hard-selling the most expensive, work-intensive tier of your platform might not be worth it if the end result is a user churning sooner than they may have otherwise. It also means that every lead may not be worth pursuing.

Think long-term, and reward your team as such.

5. Create CS reporting standards for marketing and development teams

Your customer service team is the frontline of your churn efforts, and without clear, consistent, open communication on their end, none of the other teams will have a good sense of what’s happening on the ground.

Create a Trello board, start a Slack channel, schedule monthly catch ups- whatever it takes, make sure your CS team can vocalize what they’re seeing to the rest of the company.

Bug reporting and feature requests need to make it to the dev team. Confusion on the nature and workings of the product, on the other hand, are a great starting point for marketing to educate potential/new users via content and other resources.

6. Triple check that there’s a standard for development teams passing along new release info to marketing and sales teams

Releasing a new feature without clear communication is a simple oversight that’s so easy to make, but instantly sends your team into damage control. Weak communication creates confusion internally, which trickles down to confusion on the part of the customer. Luckily, this is incredibly simple to fix.

Marketing needs to have a presence in the release process, from pre-release comm’s to helpful content and messaging once the feature is live.

Start by making sure your marketing team has a thorough understanding of the nature of the feature- the pain points that brought it into development, what has changed in the user experience, and the key ways that it can streamline and simplify customer workflow.

By building a procedure to keep everyone on the same page, you can create smoother releases that invest users more deeply in the product rather than pushing them away.

7. Go external where it makes sense

You may not be able to cover every single base internally when you’re building your retention department, and that’s okay. Third party tools are a great way to outsource work that would have an outsize cost or labor investment for your team.

A good rule of thumb here: ask yourself if the issue you’re trying to solve ties directly to user engagement. If it doesn’t, it can be worth looking to an outside tool to supplement your efforts.

For referrals, consider using Rewardful; for exit surveys, look into Delighted. For passive churn, use a tool like Churn Buster that simplifies retention with minimal effort from your team.

More Reading: 10 Best-of-Breed Tools for Growing a Subscription Based Business

The key here is not to overburden your team. There are aspects of your business that can be handled more naturally by an external tool- find them, and streamline your operations.

Bringing it All Together

Your retention department may not look like a regular team, but once you’ve worked through the process of putting it together, it will feel like one. Keep in mind that (like any other team) retention departments sink or swim based on communication. Schedule regular meetings between retention “leads” from different departments. Report on metrics like any other department.

You may be surprised at the broader ripple effect you see within your company. The consistent communication and unified focus are a great way to build a customer-first mindset throughout your entire organization, while the tighter ties between departments is a great step toward a closer overall company culture.

What are you waiting for?