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Dunning Emails: Recover failed payments with a better customer experience

When a subscription payment fails, it's time to send a dunning email.

Dunning emails can be a frustrating experience, both for your team and for your customers. Phishing scams are all too common online, and consumers are increasingly careful when sharing their personal information.

Customer experience and maximizing recovery go hand in hand. So you have to establish trust with your customers and craft the least-invasive dunning experience possible. How?

Let’s break down the ways your subscription business can recover failed payments without damaging customer relationships.

1. Start from the Customer Experience

While standing in line at a store, have you watched someone's card get declined at checkout? The confusion in that moment is uncomfortable for everyone.

Receiving a dunning email can be uncomfortable for a customer.

Look at it from their perspective: they’ve opted into a subscription, received their products on a schedule, then out of nowhere they need to take action to avoid having service canceled.

When dunning is done poorly, it shatters the simplicity of the subscription eCommerce model, and that experience can make or break your customer’s feelings about your brand and their decision to continue subscribing.

After all, the driving motivation to sign up for subscription boxes is for a streamlined, curated experience. When that process starts to become a hassle, your customers can look for simpler ways to fill the same need.

So don’t give them any reason to walk away.

Conceptualize your dunning emails as a single piece of a broader campaign. In a sense, you can look at it like a lead nurturing sequence.

See how Dropps uses catchy subject lines and content to create a more natural, positive experience for the customer:

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The key difference is that you’re working in your retention funnel rather than your acquisition funnel, so the goal is to highlight the existing relationship between the customer and your brand and the value that you’re already providing.

And to get that payment information. (obviously)

2. Use Appropriate Sender Information

Because dunning is such a tricky moment in the customer experience,  you’ll want to approach your dunning message with both a high level of professionalism and an added personal touch.

Consider using a recognizable member of your team as the primary sender to foreground the personal element.

Alternately, if sending from a specific team member feels wrong for your brand, use an email address from your domain that clearly showcases the financial aspect of the email- i.e. help@yourdomain.com.

The ability to reply to these emails directly can really streamline the customer experience, so consider directing the “reply-to” to your support team email.

The most important thing here is that your customers recognize and trust the email they’re receiving. Avoid third party mentions in the send address, as these can muddy the water for customers- i.e. companyviadunningprovider@blahblah.com.

In addition, when using a third-party dunning provider, like ReCharge or Stripe, the emails are mailed and signed by their domain, not yours, increasing the risk of weary customers ignoring those emails.

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3. Use More than One Sender Address

Let’s say your initial dunning email comes from a member of your customer service team. Follow ups can up the ante and help these messages to stand out in your company inbox.

It’s a simple change, but sending the next email from your CEO, founder, or CFO can add a level of name recognition that’s really helpful in prompting a response.

For smaller teams, you can also create a persona to use as an email sender.

By letting your customer know that multiple people are waiting on their response, you’ll increase their sense of urgency without becoming too pushy in the emails themselves.

The other benefit to switching up senders is that the emails don't get threaded as a single conversation in the inbox. Switching up the sender and subject line means a fresh chance to be seen each time.

4. Separate Marketing and Transactional Emails

Don’t use the same sender for your dunning and marketing emails.

For one thing, customers don’t generally feel the same sense of urgency when they receive marketing emails, and generally know they can always come back to it later if the information interests them.

It’s important that your transactional emails stand out as a different kind of message, one that requires a prompt response.

Speaking generally, it’s important to use different tools for your marketing and transactional emails. The two types of messaging serve totally different needs, and require a different feature set to be successful.

We use (and recommend) Postmark for transactional emails and Klaviyo for marketing emails.

Transactional emails also have a much higher deliverability rate and lower spam rate than marketing automation services, yet another reason to separate the two. You don’t want to face delivery issues when it comes to important transactional emails (like dunning emails).

Through Postmark, Churn Buster maintains an all-time bounce rate of 1.4% (very low) and a spam rate of 0.01%.

5. Keep it Simple

Dunning emails (and transactional emails more generally) can be great tools to build up meaningful brand experiences for your customers, but your messaging still needs to be simple and get right to the point.

Don’t overwhelm them with more information than they need. Keep the text short and the message clear and uncluttered.

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6. Make Your Branding Clear and Concise

You don’t want to overwhelm your customers with too much information- so how do you create a strong branding experience in a limited space?

First- there’s no need to use an image-heavy layout. Going overboard on these emails could hurt your engagement rate, so instead focus on subtle branding elements that help customers recognize your business and feel confident re-entering their information.

A small logo (with letterhead if you generally use that) plus links in your branding colors establishes that the email really is from you without creating longer load times or adding distracting information.

Check out this wonderful dunning email from LOLA:

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Make sure your messaging and tone is on-brand. If your communications generally feature some humor and levity, feel free to include a line or two in this style.

Simple, branded HTML templates can massively streamline the process, particularly if they’re built to require no coding or testing. After all, a dunning email with broken code (which can happen in different email clients) is a huge red flag.

With Churn Buster, you can add simple, branded HTML templates with no code or testing.      

7. Change Up the Content

Chances are, you’ll send more than one dunning email to customers in the recovery process, and keeping your messaging varied is important to getting the best response rate.

We tend to treat automated messages as less urgent than emails from an actual person, so changing up your approach is important to avoid coming across as robotic.

Reusing the same subject line will often result in your new email being added to an existing thread, which makes them easier to miss- after all, many customers glancing at their email will simply think they’re getting a repeat message.

If your initial messages are getting caught in spam filters, repeating the same subject means that your following messages will probably have the same problem.

The body of your message should change between messages, as well. You’ll want to build a sense of growing urgency, particularly if a customer is at risk of having their account canceled.

Make it clear when they will stop getting their deliveries and what the consequences of that will be (from a deeper, emotional standpoint), as well as reinforcing the benefits that they get from sticking with you and your products.

One last note- send at least one email as plain text. Most people don’t use HTML-blocking email clients, but it’s worth covering your bases here so you can connect to customers under the broadest range of circumstances possible.

It's also an opportunity to mix in a personal message from someone on your team, rather than a more transactional style. Different methods work for different people, so it's a best practice to cover your bases.

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With Churn Buster you can see the performance of each email in your campaign, and get a better understanding of which style works better for your customer base.

8. Bring on the Hype

FOMO (or fear of missing out) is a huge part of our modern lives, and building hype for the broader delivery experience is one of the key ways that subscription box companies can drive engagement.

Let customers know when you have an exciting box ready to ship, and foreground the cool stuff they could be missing if they let their subscription lapse.

Four Sigmatic does this really well in this dunning email:

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9. Link to Your Domain (and Keep the Update Process Simple)

Linking to a domain besides your own is one of the cardinal sins your business can commit in a dunning email.

After all, you’ve worked so hard to craft messaging that is recognizably yours- you don’t want to throw that away by confusing your customers with a domain they’ve never seen before.

Ideally, you’ll want to include a unique, secure identifier in the URL that your customers click from their email so they can instantly update their information without logging in.

This speeds up the process and keeps it simple for customers trying to solve the issue from their phones (which is most of them).


After all, the time spent digging around for a password can be all it takes to drag the whole process to a halt.

Think about it like this: customers that decide to come back and “take care of it later” are much less likely to update at all.

Keep your dunning message simple and drive toward a single call-to-action where your customers can take care of the issue and move on with their day.

10. Don’t Send Dunning Emails (When you don’t have to)

It might seem counterintuitive to recommend avoiding dunning emails after exploring them in so much detail.

Here’s the thing: you can often take care of failed payments without ever sending a single dunning email.

Many companies get too trigger happy and jump to a dunning email before they’ve exhausted their other options.

It’s not just irritating for your customers- it’s also a less effective way to recapture revenue that takes significantly more work from your team.

Card retries are a powerful tool that can seamlessly fix payment issues without your team ever needing to bother the customer.

There are a lot of tools out there that can retry a customer’s card, but these are generally tied to email. In other words, you can’t retry the card without also sending an email.

Thing is, 21% of payment issues can be solved with card retries, and at that point you shouldn’t have to reach out to the customer at all. Why?

There are two types of card declines: Soft (Temporary) and Hard (Permanent).

A Temporary failure can be due to something like a spending limit. Given enough time and retries scheduled at key points, instances like this can be resolved without requiring your customer to do anything.

Hard failures on the other hand (things like fraud or an entirely new card) do require action. Treating different failure reasons differently is key in improving the customer experience of resolving failed payments.

On average, Churn Buster is able to recover over 63% of failures by clearing the existing card on file... without ever sending a dunning email.

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That means your customer doesn't need to input a new card. Which means you don't need to send them a dozen emails asking them to do so.

Save that communication for those that truly need it.

Dunning Email 101

Foregrounding the customer experience is key to standing out online and maximizing your recurring revenues. Every interaction your business has with a customer is a chance to go above-and-beyond and create the most pleasant, seamless experience possible.

Dunning is important because it’s an area where the relationship between the company and the customer can really be on the line. When we forget to put the customer first, we jeopardize our recurring revenues, and we chip away at the retention work we’re doing elsewhere.

So if you can avoid sending a dunning email, start there. Do the work behind the scenes that will simplify their experience.

And if you really do need to send dunning emails, streamline the process as much as possible. Make it easy for your customers to choose you again and again.

If you're interested in sending fewer dunning emails, tailoring email messaging, length, and flow to your customers, and reducing overall passive churn, see how Churn Buster can help