In SaaS years, I’m an old, old dog. Freckle turns 10 years old this year. Charm, well, we built it and ran it for a while then shut it down. Sweep — our third SaaS — has just launched to the public.

I’ve done a lot of front-line support. And I’ve managed several minor crises (and the shuttering of a much-loved service). I’ve handled price changes and interface overhauls. And… I’ve used a lot of SaaSes that dealt with even bigger problems, most of them badly.

Customer loyalty — which always requires customer forgiveness — is a paradox:

On the one hand, customers will forgive a lot more than you think they will…

BUT! Only if you handle it right. Otherwise, they’ll tolerate a lot less than you think they will.

So, drawing from my decade-plus of experience, keen observation, and study of the human animal, here are…

The top 9 ways to make your SaaS customers hate your guts:

  1. Data loss
  2. Data leak
  3. “Sociopathic” communication
  4. Changing prices without notice or grandfathering
  5. Overcharging / incorrectly charging
  6. Unhelpful support
  7. Major bugs
  8. Downtime
  9. Major UI changes

Data loss and data leak are the top two reasons for customers to hate you.

You may think your app is the product, but no… customer data is the product, and I’m not talking about selling demographic data. Customer data is the product in the customer’s eyes. Your SaaS is a cracker in a world of tasty dips: just a delivery mechanism.

Your customer doesn’t use your app because it’s so amazing, they use your app to produce or do something.

So when you lose that something… you’ve lost everything, from their perspective.

There’s no nice way to say “We lost your data.”

You can be as genuinely contrite and empathetic and helpful as you please and it won’t make it better. It won’t restore their trust. The only thing that can lessen the impact of data loss or data leak is if the data wasn’t very important or private, or if it wasn’t very much data.

If you lost an hour of customer data to a database error, you will probably be able to seek forgiveness from most customers, as long as you communicate well, and it doesn’t happen again.

Which brings us to……

Sociopathic communication and unhelpful support make everything worse

As it turns out, business isn’t made out of Perfect Products plus The Economy™. Business is made out of people. And people? People are made out of relationships. And relationships are made out of communication.

There’s a reason that the two big forms of shitty communication rest at #3 and #6 on this list of deadly no-no’s. Your SaaS is just one bad rom-com plot twist away from customers hating you.

Here’s the good news:

  • Good up-front communication can head off problems before they start.
  • Good communication during a problem can turn upset into forgiveness. And,
  • A backstop of excellent support can not only help the customer overcome various complaints and objections and roadblocks, but build trust even higher than it was before. (Plus, of course, it’s an invaluable source of customer research data.)

But, if you’ve ever used any other SaaS ever, you’ve experienced the opposite. You’ve written support with a bug that totally messed up your day, and got a canned response in return. Or you’ve rolled into work one day, checked your email, and received a single damned day of notice that prices were going up, like, tomorrow.

Congrats! You’ve experienced how sociopathic communication can destroy good will over an event that is otherwise quite forgivable.

I call this extremely common communication style sociopathic because it fails to respect customers as human beings, by…

  • dismissing their concerns, actively
  • dismissing their concerns via templates and canned responses
  • refusing to acknowledge actual pain and disruption caused by choices or errors
  • defensively arguing with the customer about their problem
  • blaming “rules” or “that’s how it works” rather than attempting to work out a solution
  • forcing them to jump through hoops to contact support
  • failing to communicate changes in advance, or in detail
  • failing to communicate at all

Here’s the problem:

Sociopathic communication is our default.

It’s dangerously easy to fall into communicating like a sociopath even when you have a full complement of human feeling, because that’s the sort of communication you experience every day. You know, like “We do apologize for any inconvenience.” Gross!!

So don’t forget to put the Service in Software as a Service.

Customers have a lot of feelings about money

Here are the three things in life that people have the most ~fEeLiNgS~ about: romance, religion, and revenue, by which I mean “money” but that doesn’t start with an ‘r.’

Ah, I hear you saying, but my SaaS is B2B. We all know B2B buyers aren’t very price sensitive at all! Sure, they buy on value and it’s not even their money, usually, so they’ll happily pay far more than a consumer ever will. It’s all true… but only up to a point.

If your customer feels tricked, no amount of distance from the purse will shield you.

And tricked is just how they’ll feel if you surprise!! raise prices. It has happened to us more than once, where a SaaS we’d been using for ages sent just one, single email about a 100% to 200% increase with just a few days’ warning and no recourse.

Imagine the frustration and anger of B2B buyers who then had to explain that increase to their bosses. Doubling or tripling is a lot. Especially out of nowhere.

Rule: Never make your buyer look bad to their boss.

Poorly thought-out price increases are actually much worse than accidental overcharging because it’s a willful act and violates the trust in the relationship. Raising your price isn’t bad. Doing it badly is bad. I wrote an entire series on how to raise prices the right way.

As for billing errors: Mistakes happen. As long as you’re upfront, honest, apologetic, and most importantly, quick to fix the problem, it will be forgiven and forgotten by most. The ideal scenario is no error; the second-most ideal scenario is where you discover the billing error and proatively email the customer before they ever notice, saying “Hey, we found this, and it’s already fixed, refund is already on its way, so sorry!”

Note: If you ever undercharge a customer due to a billing error, kiss that money goodbye. Unless you are ready to kiss that customer goodbye. That’s the cost of doing business.

Bugs and downtime aren’t as bad as you think they are

If I were making a list of the most-feared-by-their-creators SaaS problems, bugs and downtime would be pretty close to the top.

Customers understand that bugs — and downtime! — happen.

As long as it’s not too frequent. And the bugs aren’t too bad. And you don’t lose data.

Research has shown that product owners who experience an issue but have that issue resolved quickly & well actually trust the company more than those who have never have a problem.

So, communicate often and listen well. And (duh!) fix the problems and do your very best to undo any damage done.

And if you can collect bugs from system errors and ditch generic errors for a message that says “We’ve received this automatic bug report and we’re looking into it”? So much the better!

Customers will quickly “get over” UI changes, if you give them a chance

You know that joke in Airplane! where the pilot admits he has a “drinking problem”? We’re dealing with the same principle down here at the bottom of our most-hated list.

“Users hate design changes!” tosses completely new interface over the shoulder


The popular (and incredibly wrong) conclusion goes something like this:

  1. users will hate design changes no matter what you do,
  2. so you might as well do whatever the hell you want, and
  3. eventually they’ll quit their bitching and move on.

This is so, so wrong. Ethically, professionally, and factually wrong. If you act on it, you’re a jerk; if it scares you off from ever redesigning anything, you’re also a victim.

You can dramatically improve your app’s UI without revolt.

The key here is that you must actually improve it. And you can’t improve a UI without factoring in what your customer needs and wants. And they don’t just need pixels and forms and calls to action. Customers are humans, and humans need — wait for it — communication.

Here’s the recipe for success:

  • Change design elements only to improve your customer’s ability to do their job
  • Change only the elements which need to be changed to serve the above goals
  • Communicate with them how it will make their life better… just like any other sales proposition
  • And do this communication before ever rolling it out. Give them lots of advance warning, with screenshots, and a human-centric explanation… how you came up with it, why it’ll help them.
  • Then, and only then, roll out the change, on a date that you announce in advance.

And never take months and months to implement a “whole app redesign” — and especially NEVER drop one on your customer’s head all at once.

It’s a simple rulebook, and it’s one I’ve followed to great success: There came a time when we needed to dramatically redesign Freckle’s navigation. It had been on the right (bad design), and there was no way to expand it to add quicker access to the features our customers used most (ineffective design). And new customers were struggling with the “floating” interface elements that I had once thought were so innovative. (Yikes.)

So, after much deliberation, I flipped the navigation from right to left, added more navigation elements to surface powerful features and reduce click-depth, embedded formerly floating elements into the new “frame,” streamlined a few extremely overly fancy and hard-to-read buttons, and added a neutral color for the new sidebar.

We did not change the core forms and interactions that make up the Freckle experience.

Guess what: It worked! From thousands of active users, we received only a handful of slightly cranky emails, mostly about the addition of grey to the cheerful color palette.

So remember: If you can’t explain how your interface change is an improvement, it probably isn’t.

Further reading: Users don’t hate change, they hate you by Christina Wodtke.

This list is a trojan horse for communication

I have no doubt that you’ve spotted my semi-secretive agenda by now:

Poor communication is the silent killer of SaaS happiness.

And it’s true, too. And the flip side? Also true:

Learn to communicate well and humanely, and you will have deliriously happy customers.

Or, perhaps, customers who find their experience with your product so seamless that they take you for granted as an integral part of their working life (and treat paying you as a codified ritual they will always perform) and who never, ever show up in your inbox with pitchforks.

Which could be the best outcome of all.

Note: Throughout this essay, I liberally say “hate YOU.” But of course, it’s wildly unlikely that customers will come to hate you personally… unless you do something personally that is so offensive and sociopathic and uncaring to warrant it. (Hey, Zuck!) Don’t lose sleep about losing customers while you grow and improve. Churn is a fact of life. As long as you are both considerate and striving to improve and fix what is broken, your former customers will move on and find something that better suits them now, and you will attract new customers in the future. Buyer-seller relationships are just business, after all.

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