Free trials in SaaS has always been a contentious topic. Is the free trial too long? Too short? What should the ideal length be? Should you offer a free trial with or without a credit card? Is freemium better than free trial? Is offering trial extensions a good practice? Designing the perfect trial strategy is always a trying activity if you know what I mean.
It’s contentious, perhaps, because free trials have been effective for most companies — users considering a product love to sample the capabilities to see if it’s a good fit for their needs.
And the point of contention is, free trials, no matter how well optimized, cause more harm than good in some cases. It could simply cut into the revenue with users not necessarily converting and activating — a sign of a complex product with difficult onboarding.
But it’s worth asking, what do you use your free trials for? Is it merely used as an acquisition channel? Or do you use it as a channel to push your user in the next stage of the buyer journey?
We spoke with Dailius Wilson, VP of Sales & Growth Marketing at GetAccept.
Back in 2017, during SaaStr, we met our customer and the Y-Combinator backed Nordic+Silicon Valley startup, GetAccept. And boy, did they teach how to hustle. Anybody who met the founding team would have a story to tell.
(The GetAccept team during SaaStr 2017)
Having started out as a self-service product that allowed easy onboarding of customers, GetAccept’s pricing, product, and acquisition strategies have evolved to support a hybrid model to support both self-service as well as sales-assisted approach.
What stands out in their growth journey is how they used their free trials as a sales enablement mechanism rather than an acquisition channel, that they used to nurture their prospects through the purchase journey.
Some key takeaways:
- How they evolved from a self-service to a sales-driven model as they moved upmarket
- How free trials serve better as a sales enablement mechanism than for acquisition
- How they designed the customer journey from sign-up to trial to activation to offer personalized solutions at scale
- How they define the success metrics for their free trials
- How capital expenditure on 24×7 global support has helped in managing large volumes of startup customers
- How GetAccept automated parts of the product including the billing infrastructure to boost revenue from the self-service customers
Q: After its launch in 2015, GetAccept was largely self-service. Anyone could sign up and start using the product at that time. Today it has evolved into a hybrid model with a heavy sales influence. How did this evolution take place?
[DW]: If you quote David Skok, who is the godfather of SaaS in many ways, he talks about the free trial being the greatest weapon right now in the arsenal of a modern SaaS business. We recognized the value of a free trial and the importance of giving people the ability to explore the product and to use it in order to derive short term benefits.
The approach can also a double-edged sword, in that, you give a large volume of people access to your product, and that leads to increased support cost. You also may not derive anything consequential from a revenue perspective. Additionally, your ideal product-market fit can be clouded with such an abundant presence of data. So that is something you need to be cognizant of.
As far as GetAccept is concerned, the free trial for the self-service customer segment has been largely helpful; it helped us identify the product-market fit, and has helped us move upmarket.
Even with those individuals, it didn’t make sense to have a complete self-service model. Because the nature of the business justified spending more time to help them align their priorities, we would try to spend time in understanding their goals and what they want to achieve to add further value than merely offering the platform.
And that’s been reflected in pricing and also our billing strategy because if our business was naturally evolving that way, we should create the architecture and the infrastructure to support that evolution.
Moving further upmarket, we see the role of the free trial changing somewhat to being less about direct consumption of the product, and more as a sales enablement mechanism where we can give certain access or certain elements or features throughout the sales journey.
People use a free trial and with our support, understand the complete product. We are providing a direct pathway for them to become a long term customer. This provides us with a different type of touchpoint than just a discount, sending case studies or other sales nurturing materials. In essence, our free trials have become a sales enablement asset.
Q: It’s interesting how you talk about free trials as a sales enablement mechanism. How did you arrive at that conclusion? And how has GetAcccept’s acquisition evolved over time?
[DW]: GetAccept is founded to give companies the ability to have more unique touchpoints after they’ve had the first qualified meeting. The issue today is that we foster a commercial relationship and we all get stuck in a bottleneck — what we call the sales ‘valley of death’.
And so you’re seeing the evolution… the rise of many techniques to help sales teams and companies in this area. So you’re seeing the use of video, chat, sending of other materials instead of just contracts, experimentation with sending physical gifts. You are seeing all sorts of strategies evolving with time, as signs of these strategies evolving through time.
Initially, free trials were available to all users in their first 14 days. All features were unlimited and sales reps didn’t have much leverage to add value in deals. And yet, we saw that many people in the sales process would also ask for an extension of the free trial. It was as if we had something as an organization which they wanted and it was in our control to give them. That led us to the epiphany that the free trial is not always just about the provision of service, but maybe features or experiences within a free trial can be used to help the sales cycle move in various directions that you want it to go.
By aligning our product features with specific plans + Chargebee we were able to empower sales reps to use trial-related mechanics to serve as levers within deals. Now sales reps can extend trials, add premium features or have the context to provide in-depth test drives where before there wasn’t such an environment.
So that’s where the notion of the free trial as a sales enablement mechanism came up is just through that observation that people would want extensions of free trials.
With respect to the acquisition, we have been constantly iterating our outbound and inbound techniques targeting industries that have been evolving as our ideal customer profile over the years. And that’s where you get your product-market fit starting to develop.
Some examples of the inbound and outbound techniques that led us to understand the product-market fit are all pretty commonplace. You have your cold calling, LinkedIn and email techniques. And then on the inbound side, it’s about developing content and assets that target those particular verticals.
Another method which is commonly missed by marketers and sellers is partnering with other technologies or software that target your demographic. So even if you don’t have a direct integration, perhaps you can talk about how both products complement each other and then if you’re lucky enough to partner up with them and get some traction, that can be very helpful. We have great partnerships with Hubspot, Pipedrive, Freshsales, Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics — they’re all selling products to sales teams just like us. So it’s been very easy to get traction when we partner with them early.
Q: In its most fundamental form, GetAccept lets sales teams create proposals. What makes you stand out is the level of customization and personalization. How did you go about understanding your user base to have built a product to allow this level of customization?
[DW]: We’re still moving through the process of using user activity to influence sales outcomes. What worked better for us was connecting with people as and when they come into the product due to the fact that we use our own product to create that human connection to make those business decisions. Because of that early connection, we’re able to determine customer-fit and how they can best leverage the product.
As we scale, having close to 50 people in sales and we’re tracking over 10,000 companies using us, we need more granularity in user profiling. As the volume increases and it becomes increasingly hard to touch everyone on a human level, we’re investing in tools to determine the best fit with respect to our customers.
As a natural progression from that, we are using lead scoring and a ranking system to make sure that we’re reaching out to the right people as part of our outbound schema. This is where we score from zero to a hundred and weigh those scores based on different levels of user engagement. For instance, the size of their company, how many times they’ve logged in recently and for how long — aggregating all these numbers and creating a dynamic score from zero to hundred.
That way if we have more user volume than we can handle, we try to make sure that the people who are reaching out to the product are appropriately triaged, versus anyone else who just would approach in chronological linear order.
We use software like Appcues and Pendo to assist us with delivering customized experiences based on persona and stage in the buyers’ journey. We are experimenting more with custom content for each inside our application – with user journeys via email the easiest area for us to customize to date
Q: What are three-four fundamental things you’d tell someone who wants to replicate this, based on lessons from GetAccept?
[DW]: I believe that you should have an extremely user-friendly “first five minutes” in your product that builds excitement and creates initial value for your user base. It should then encourage them to pursue further chats with sales based on more advanced features or education orientated initial sales chats. Something we should have experimented earlier with is the ideal length of the trial for your business – don’t just give 60 days because it sounds right; test and ask your users for feedback
Some of our success metrics to see if our free trials have worked include measuring the time spent on site per visit, the number of visits, conversion (Y/N), size of conversion, time from the first visit to conversion and NPS.
Q: What kinds of control does the salesperson have? Is there a playbook that determines how they push for requests? How has it evolved over time?
[DW]: We run a very tight playbook here and generally we use our own tool to put forward a number of very specific plays throughout the deal cycle. That being said I enjoy seeing reps foster their creativity and encourage this process in two ways. The first is that I prefer to act in retrospect – if a rep struggles we analyze where we could have improved and if they succeeded we look to find where these learnings could help the greater team. Too often leaders are prescriptive and can stifle their own innovation curve fuelled by their team.
The second is that we use approval workflows via GetAccept on key proposals & contracts – that way I can catch any critical errors for deals with a larger ACV
Q: How do you handle the large volume of customers on your startup plan that is fairly self-service?
[DW]: We provide them with the chat support and then within reason we try to jump on the phone where we can still learn about their business needs. This has been an area of key learning that I wish we had planned earlier — the importance of creating well-documented support materials. And at the same time as your material library grows, keeping that material library updated and fresh is another problem that develops.
We have invested well in resources and having a key employee create, maintain, and update these resources. We also underestimated the importance of video and having visuals because people in this day and age prefer to see things rather than to read about them. We find success in showing them how to execute or solve a problem through a walkthrough video. Giving prospects some evaluative control can help them feel at ease, with the decision making process back into their own hands.
And we have made a big capital expenditure on 24×7 human support all around the world. This has been a great investment.
We also categorize problems into tiers. If someone’s a tier-three problem, in that it can easily be fixed through demonstrating or sharing materials, and ultimately that doesn’t warrant a call. We then tier up based on that and prioritize. I think that our business came to be what it is because of our level of support, whether you are one user or a hundred users, everyone feels to some degree that they have that same level of service and attention. As our business grows, we’ve used support workflows to continue to bring that quality service to the smaller customers.
What is also important is trustworthiness and transparency; we try not to oversell the service. While ensuring we do not compromise on the quality of support, we set clear communications in terms of what’s the minimum that they benefit from the product and support depending on the plan they signed up for. You can have churn problems related to support when you oversell and underdeliver on the post-sale side.
Q: As you moved upmarket, how did your billing strategy and your architecture change? What parts of your product is automated, so users have 100% autonomy on what they can do with the product?
We have two different types of business. We have a self-service business and we have a considered purchase model. In that sense, if you think about my job, it’s basically increasing revenue with the least amount of capital input. Because the self-service revenue is revenue I can affect with digital tactics and techniques, something we call no-touch sales, Chargebee is very important because that’s the final step in that process of conversion. It’s the payment.
As you move upmarket and you start dealing with bigger cohorts, your billing experience can become more difficult. I need a system flexible enough to support some of these use cases, which more simple systems couldn’t. For instance, you may have to set up special billing terms with monthly, semi-annual or annual plans, applying coupons that expire at certain time periods, ability to add recurring and non-recurring addons.
As of late, we are also exploring moving from monthly to annual subscriptions because the annual customers have been a lot more successful, numerically speaking. As we’ve oriented around that, we need to show dynamic billing options so that, for instance, when you’re a self-service customer, or you qualify as such, you’re only seeing the billing options that are relevant to you.
Similarly, I will need to make specific discounts and pricing plan structures and have that all sync with our software. Chargebee does that seamlessly. As the teams evolved and there are almost 100 people in the team, it’s become about supporting international payments and then having a view of the total receivables that I can compare to the CRM data and figure out who’s not paid and who was quoted something but has actually paid less.
The same is true on the enterprise level. You don’t want them checking out on monthly plans or startup plans when their organizations don’t qualify for those services. So the billing story has been extremely important. We’ve been really pleased with how Chargebee supported our growth as well.
Q: How has the team and the org structure evolved over time considering all these changes? I mean, if there’s a business that is perhaps the next GetAccept that’s launching today, how should they be thinking about investing in tools over time?
[DW]: I think one of our biggest questions is, how do we support our global model? We now have many offices all over the world. So I think that although we’ve gone global really quickly, you have to consider if you are going global, “do I want to have a united sales and marketing go-to-market functions ?”
With our global footprint, each country office becoming more and more uniform in its demands. So I think that having a more centralized sales and marketing plan could be more efficacious than when, at times, we’ve let each business unit have autonomy. And, at times, that has also been a strength.
The second thing to consider as we look to scale is realignment.
It’s really important to have a revenue-focussed customer success organization. I think an early mistake we made is that we weren’t keeping track of the actual yield in terms of monthly recurring revenue and didn’t increase the customer success activities around that. Even though that shouldn’t be the sole focus, embrace this early on.
The third one is that you need to have good ops and a mathematically-driven mindset. As much as sales and marketing were more archaic functions in the past, now they’re very much set disciplines, with investors looking for predictable returns. You need to align your customer success, customer support and sales operations to maximize capital efficiency.
And as a younger business, you might not be able to do that straight away, but you want to start thinking about some very key questions like, “What is the cost of this human being on the chair and what they deliver? How does that compare to where you were months ago?”
If these efficiency curves are not improving, it can be difficult to get traction in the organization.
So I think those three together are things I’d recommend to people going through this journey.