The self-serve fallacy of B2B SaaS

Customer services are critical at all stages of B2B SaaS growth. This post explores the balancing act businesses face in providing the right level of customer service and support as they scale.

 

The best sales strategy is to make your customer as successful as possible. Yet many B2B subscription SaaS businesses, especially early on, offer just reactive DIY "self service" to support product adoption. The presumption that self service is the best starting point for supporting customers, and that customers can just get started with your product without human intervention is the "self serve fallacy."


Being a fallacy, there's a flaw in the reasoning. Self service requires that your customers:

  • understand the value of your product,

  • how to buy it and how to use it,

  • and are willing and able to service themselves.

It's a tall order, especially for an early stage company. As a subscription business, retention also matters. Self serve requires a customer to actively seek answers as they learn your product.

The complexity of your product increases the need for a broader service approach. The price of your product increases customer expectations for seamless experiences. The risk to recurring revenue to your business amplifies whether proactive or reactive support is sufficient. The maturity of your product and your services offering impacts your ability to offer true self serve.

So why do so many software companies start with self service? How do you determine the right mix of service offerings as you scale?




SaaS is far more than a product. It’s way more than a turn-it-on-and-plug-it-in service. Considered holistically, SaaS is a service that involves interaction between people doing business.”

Neil Patel


 

Why B2B SaaS falls into the “self-serve” trap

The vast majority of B2B software needs some level of services to ensure success. Companies like Slack, Asana and Zoom may not offer or require Professional Services, but they do offer best-in-class tools and extensive customer marketing to ensure customers are successful. Many early stage SaaS companies start their relationships with customers with a “self-serve model” because they don’t have staff to support anything else. Bringing in new customers is job #1.


This is the time when the brand is relatively unknown, the product and value proposition is still evolving, best practices and self-serve content is its weakest, and hands-on service (and customer relationships) are most critical. Exactly the wrong time to self serve. But when is the right time? And when do Professional Services become part of your offering?


The four stages of services maturity


Find Fit

From 0-10 customers. Customers don’t yet understand your product, you don’t understand your customers. You have a website, but your brand is unknown.

  • Business goal: prove the product can be sold.

  • CX goal: learn what customers value, fine-tune offering.

  • Product pricing: best guess.

  • Service: Product-led, hands on, whatever it takes. Services are often free. No documentation. Email support.

  • Friction points: change is constant, resources are scarce. Professional Services and self-serve don't really exist yet. Sales may be to "friends and family," which may not accurately reflect who your ideal customer really is.

Validate

From ~10-50 customers. You’re honing your ideal customer profile, validating product-market fit. Marketing efforts are focused on acquisition.

  • Business goal: confirm ICP, accelerate growth.

  • CX goal: learn what customers value, how they use your product, validate pricing, packaging. Getting started is not frictionless at this point. Best practices and process are usually in someone's head vs. online.

  • Product pricing: freemium or free trial, tiered monthly or annual subscription pricing model.

  • Service: Product + Customer Success / Support-led services. Support function addresses break / fix. Team may start using a basic ticketing system, developing early documentation, identifying potential Services offerings.

  • Friction points: not enough time in the day to develop services offerings. Customer acquisition costs start becoming a focus.

Grow

From 50+ customers. New products, features (and pricing) may have been added.

You’re gaining traction, and hired Customer Success and Sales people. Marketing is still about lead generation; blog and webinar content is targeted towards top of the funnel.

  • Business goal: growth remains critical, but revenue expansion and retention start to be considered.

  • CX goal: increase product & feature use, expansion and renewal.

  • Product pricing: freemium or free trial, tiered monthly or annual subscription pricing model, plus bespoke pricing for sales-rep led deals. This is where you may start to experience friction around pricing and services revenue.

  • Service: CS-led Services + Support. Generally, having a customer success function becomes more critical when 20% of your customers are responsible for 80% of your total revenue. At this stage, SLAs, self-serve tools, and paid Services SKUs begin to be created, along with repeatable implementation process, documentation.

  • Friction points: Things are finally taking off! Creating process, documentation and self-serve tools and paid professional services will help you scale, but it needs an owner to gain traction. Product may be less hands-on with customers, so building a feedback loop becomes important.

Evolve

Your brand is known within your category. Expectations around services change with bigger customers, more complex offerings, higher price points. Product marketers are hired and may have accountability for sales enablement and developing customer product education.

Growth may come from multiple products and a mix of SMB, Mid-Market, and Enterprise customers. But not all customers are equal. Self serve increases in importance as CS and Sales start to segment the customer base, and focus on growing high value accounts.

  • Business goal: increase net revenue retention (NRR), customer satisfaction (NPS), reduce cost to acquire (CAC) and serve customers.

  • CX goal: Customer satisfaction, referral customers. Identify and fix churn issues. Reduce complexity, scale.

  • Product pricing: Pricing may become more tiered and complex as the business grows and has more data related to the cost of goods and services. Value becomes a big driver.

  • Service: CS-led Services + Support. Self-serve and paid Services, Training and Enablement offerings, CSM software. Online community, knowledge base, end-use training is being built out. Self-serve requires a proactive vs. passive customer. As retention becomes critical to success, another layer of Service may be added; customer success managers for enterprise accounts. For smaller accounts, automated and context-driven solutions such as in-app education, email marketing and online training may be created.

  • Friction points: Third party partners, such as ISVs, agencies, and integrators may become part of your go-to-market strategy. Self serve assets and documentation becomes critical to success. Marketing may still focus only on lead-gen. Customer retention marketing, particularly for companies relying only on self service, helps mitigate churn.


The service-success connection

As your business grows, your Product team’s direct customer contact may decline, reducing their ability to continually ensure product-market fit. It’s important to design and ensure a regular feedback loop between Product, CS, and actual customers. There’s a bi-directional benefit when the Product team engages with customers around the challenges they face, and how they actually use and value the product.


As the revenue mix skews towards Services, the Product team should assess work being done by Services to support customers. These areas show customer need, and may be potential feature enhancements that also may improve overall gross margin. Over time, this allows your business to work towards a target licensing/services revenue mix of 10-12% of gross margin.


It takes time and observation to understand what customers need to be successful with a product- especially as the product and customer mix evolves. Your product is the framework for solving your customer’s problem. Value is only created when a customer puts your product into use. That conscious focus around filling in the gaps in how customers use and value your product is part of the growing pains of developing product and service offerings.


Fixing the fallacy

Self-serve tools should be part of every B2B SaaS company's customer success toolkit. Knowing when self-serve will best serve your customers and your business, and ensuring service touch-points across the customer journey, is critical to succeeding with low-touch customer service.

  • Are you at a stage in your growth where your brand and the value of your product is understood by potential customers?

  • Is your pricing and packaging clear? Can you easily purchase and upgrade online?

  • Is your product easy to use "out of the box?" If not, do you have a variety of resources to support first-time and more advanced users?

  • Are customers willing and able to service themselves? Does your product price, sales cycle duration, or product complexity change customer expectations?

  • How are you ensuring ongoing product adoption, use and renewal?

Building outcomes

Long term B2B SaaS success relies on customer renewals and expansion. How does your company ensure that your product is being used effectively? Teams across your organization contribute to a customer’s success with your product. Here are some ideas on how each may help.


Leadership Team

  • Self-serve tools can improve customer experience across the board, but need dedicated investment. How are you supporting the full "low-touch" customer journey from discovery and purchase, through onboarding, adoption, usage, value realization, and advocacy?

  • Leadership teams may downplay the need for Professional Services thinking that the product is easy to use. Can everyone on your leadership team demonstrate how to complete basic end user tasks in your product? If not, your customers may need help as well.

  • For more complex products, build your pricing and packaging to ensure successful clients outcomes. This could include bundling product + services, or requiring an implementation fee.

  • Sales teams may not be compensated nor trained in selling Services. If you do offer Services, ensure that Sales effectively conveys their value.

Marketing

  • Who values your product and why? Effectively targeting your product's "ideal customer profile," makes serving the customer easier throughout the funnel.

Sales

  • Take a “success first” approach to signing new business. Is the customer a good fit for your product? Winning the RFP is a loss if the customer churns within the first year.

  • Include paid services, especially for marquee brands. Self-serve clients are rarely reference clients. There’s no relationship there.

Customer Success

  • Document how to use and get value from your product from day one. Every shortcut and best practice increases your value to customers and helps you scale.

  • Don’t constantly recreate the wheel- improve upon it.

  • Look for friction points in the new user to confident customer experience. Where can proactive or automated messaging help move things along? What are the behaviors of your best customers? How can this be replicated with other customers?

Product

  • The product is the framework for solving your customer’s problem. What can you do to make it even easier for them?

  • Set aside sprints to review and fix customer friction points.


Emphasizing services in any form as your company grows helps your customer and your business. Service in SaaS is not just "set it and forget it." Services are about empowering your customers with the information you know they need to be successful. When you ensure effortless satisfaction and success, customer relationships last.


Check out our B2B SaaS Self-Serve Checklist