SaaS Free Trial Extension Requests are a Bad Sign

free-trial-expired-extensionI got this question about SaaS Free Trial Extension requests and I thought I’d answer it here, for all to see.

“Lincoln, that was a great guest post by Steli Efti from Close.io on sales mistakes that lead to churn. I was reading Steli’s blog and found a recent post where he says “short trials + liberal extensions” is the way to go. While you haven’t covered this directly (unless I missed it), it struck me as something you’d likely have an opinion on. I’m confused… who’s right?”

I’m right, obviously. [End of Article]

No, actually, I think we’re both right, but my view on this is from a slightly different angle.

I agree that if someone asks for an extension you should probably give it to them.

However, I see the fact that they asked for the extension in the first place as an indicator that there’s a deeper problem, this request is a symptom of that problem, and the request itself as an opportunity to engage and learn what we can do to solve that problem.

Don’t worry; I go into great detail on why I think that, how to treat the symptoms, and how to eliminate the underlying problems.

Just to be clear, Steli said “short trials + liberal extensions” and since I already tackled the “short trials” part here in great detail, I’ll focus on the extensions part of what he said in this article.

Liberal SaaS Free Trial Extensions

It’s true, I’ve never really addressed Free Trial extensions publicly so this is like a bit of therapy.

I’m not a fan of Free Trial extensions, at least automated and/or automatic extensions.

I’m especially not a fan of incentivized extensions… this isn’t Freemium. Don’t confuse the two. Seriously… it’s dangerous for your business.

I prefer to do the extensions on a one-off basis, engaging with the prospect during that conversation around a Free Trial extension to understand WHY they need it (and rolling that learning – where possible – into the trial process itself).

Extensions are Better than Losing Them Forever

Obviously it’s better to offer – or be asked for – an extension than having someone not convert and disappear forever. The problems arise when you extend the trial and nothing else changes. No deeper engagement. No commitment from either party. Just another 7 days and then what? Insert definition of insanity here.

Now, let me be clear. If you do ask for a Credit Card up-front – which I’m generally not a fan of and tend to reserve CC-walls for edge cases – and therefore the prospect has to actively opt-out of your Free Trial (vs. opting-in to become a paying customer without the CC-wall in place), then you could ask them if they just need more time to try it. Of course, that should trigger an immediate follow-up on a human-to-human basis to cover what’s below.

Even if you have an automated, self-service sign-up and engagement process, when an extension request comes in, this is the time to engage with – to actually talk to – the prospect and do two things:

  1. Learn the reason behind the extension request
  2. Get them to engage during the trial extension

SaaS Free Trial Extension Reasons

In my experience, the main reason prospects request an extension to their Free Trial is that they got distracted/busy and didn’t have time to get going… then the trial ran out and now they want to extend it so they can “really try it this time.”

Other reasons a prospect might ask for an extension might include:

  • Need to “run it up the flagpole” and might have to demo it internally
  • Need to get other folks to try it (and perhaps those folks were busy, too)… here’s a solution to that, BTW.
  • They aren’t finished evaluating the other 7 products they need to evaluate to complete their “due diligence”

Honestly… none of these are good reasons for needing an extension, and I’ll address that shortly.

How to Handle a SaaS Free Trial Extension Request

Okay, so SHOULD you offer an extension to those folks who ask for one using one of those – or another – excuse? Yes… BUT… use that opportunity to do these things:

  1. Find out why they need an extension (they may not provide an excuse)
  2. Agree on what a “successful” trial for them looks like
  3. Plan and Orchestrate the process with the prospect to get them to achieve success
    1. Include concierge on-boarding if it makes sense for your situation (LTV)
      1. Roll that into your Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) calc
    2. Know who else needs to be involved and ensure they’re a part of this evaluation
  4. Have clear Success Milestones
    1. Read more about that in How to Successfully Onboard Customers.
    2. Probably map these to Common Conversion Activities (CCAs)
    3. These should be agreed upon between you and the prospect
    4. Allows both of you to ensure they’re on their way toward achieving success
  5. Once success is achieved, ask for the sale!
    1. If that happens on day 3 of a 30-day Free Trial, great!
    2. BTW, this is how you avoid the terrible 31-day average conversion time on a 30-day trial

Now, as I go into why I think Free Trial extensions are a symptom rather than a feature, you’ll see how that extension process can and should likely be a part of the product / trial / onboarding process itself.

5 Reasons Extension Requests are a Symptom… not a Feature

1. The Free Trial isn’t Designed to Convert

This is always the main thing I run into, where the Free Trial is either an afterthought, just a black box on a customer acquisition flow chart. If it was planned, it’s all about “functional” onboarding vs. getting the prospect really invested emotionally into the trial.

The trial process is generally not working to get them engaged, it’s not designed to move them to a point – quickly – where becoming a paying customer is the most logical next step, and it’s just not working overall. Some things to do are:

2. The Prospect isn’t Finding Success

Contrary to the belief of folks who’s Free Trial is failing to convert customers, people don’t sign-up for your Free Trial just to mess with you. Most people – especially in a B2B situation – sign-up for a Free Trial with the expectation that they’ll be able to either Realize Value immediately or see the Value Potential immediately.

If they don’t get to that point, what we might refer to as them having a successful Free Trial, then they’ll do one of two things: ask for an extension or fail to convert and leave forever. Those that ask for an extension are likely the minority, which means they’re representing the tip of the iceberg of lost sales. Some things to do are:

3. Involving / Engaging the Wrong Personas

It’s their buying cycle not your sales cycle and you don’t get to dictate how people buy. If 3 different personas have always been involved in the buying processes for competitive or adjacent products in your category, just because you have a self-service (or lower-touch) model, doesn’t mean those personas go away.

It does mean that if you fail to involve, engage, or appease those personas during your Free Trial – and rely on one prospect persona to do the heavy lifting for you – the process will either be slowed down, causing them to ask for an extension… or it will fail and they’ll leave forever. If part of  a successful Free Trial (see #2 above) is getting the different personas onboard and on the same page, the SaaS vendor that facilitates that process will win. Some things you can do are:

  • Understand who all is involved and create a process that takes them into account
  • Know who’s likely finding the solution to “evaluate” and then who they involve internally
  • Understand their buying process and their internal procurement process (two different things)
    • Do they need to provide an ROI calculation and a comparison chart (showing proper due diligence was performed) to the CFO? Give them that
    • Do they need to show the CMO how this will help them achieve their MQLs in Q3? Provide that report.
    • Oh, and give them the ability to share that directly from the product
  • And make that the CTA once they reach the level of success within the product to make this the most logical next step
  • If the only persona is likely just them, ask for the sale and get their CC
    • But that might not be the case, so build that into the flow
  • Some of this can be done by getting them to self-identify the type/size of company they are

4. Attracting the Wrong Prospects

If those other three things are fixed (which should solve 99% of your problems), and you still have some folks who ask for extension you may need to take a look at the types of prospects you’re attracting. Some things to consider…

  • Are they your Ideal Customer?
    • Really think about the “Successful” input when developing your Ideal Customer Profile
    • Consider “successful” at all stages of their lifecycle with you
    • If they could be successful at 6-months as a customer, but are unlikely to find any level of success during your Free Trial, then you need to rethink your  Free Trial strategy
  • Everything else being great, it is likely not your Ideal Customer that’s asking for an extension as they missing a real sense of urgency
  • Where are they in their buying cycle? Where are they on the Awareness Ladder? Etc.

5. The Trial is Actually Too Short

Remember, SaaS Free Trial Length is a Marketing Gimmick. It’s just something you put out there to give your prospect a way to try your product with some time-scarcity bookends attached to avoid negative “freemium” psychology issues.

But this “marketing gimmick” shouldn’t be taken lightly… it has very, very real repercussions, with the biggest being people simple will not engage with you because it appears that your Free Trial is too short to really evaluate your product. Some things to consider are…

  • Some folks will ask you for an extension, which is great because you can learn from it
    • But it means they didn’t get to accomplish what they wanted in the allotted time
    • They didn’t find success during the trial which may plant a churn seed that will sprout later and cost you a customer
    • It is very likely that those that ask for an extension are the minority; the majority didn’t ask for an extension and just bailed
    • The controversial aspect of this is “were those that didn’t ask for an extension actually real, potential customers?”
  • Some will ask you for an extension right away because they know the trial length isn’t going to work
    • If this happens a lot, you know the perception is that the trial is too short
    • Be very concerned about how many people DIDN’T take that step and ask for the extension!
  • Most folks simply won’t ask you for an extension and just won’t even sign-up, and that’s a problem
    • And it’s not because they’re not “serious” or “qualified” … it’s because you put up barriers and obstacles and made it too hard for them
      • Luckily, when things are your fault that means you can fix them!

Assuming all of those things are fixed, the symptom should go away, and when you do get a flare up, you can address it directly by giving an extension and of course… learning from it in the process.

So yeah, if someone asks for an extension to their SaaS Free Trial, probably give it to them… but learn from the process and understand that it’s not a good thing; it’s a symptom of something deeper going on.

I hope this clarifies things a bit.

About Lincoln Murphy

I am a Customer Success-driven Growth Consultant. I wrote the Customer Success book which you can buy at Amazon. If you need help growing your SaaS, request at least a 15-minute call with me via Clarity. Be sure to join my mailing list - I send awesome stuff to the list every week or so. Also, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Sandeep Kashyap says:

    I agree that human-to-human interaction when clients send in a request to extend the trial makes a lot of sense. Infact it can be considered as an automatic filter that only the serious people get it and you know they are the ones you should put the extra effort in for conversion. You can also use this as a trigger to offer a walkthrough/demo because it could be that the person was trying out other options and wasn’t impressed with them. Means another conversion opportunity 🙂

  2. I agree with you Lincoln. If users are not converting during the free trial, you have few things that you need to look into. Are the “ah ha” moments truly “ah ha”? Is the user onboarding process more complicated than it needs to be? Are there barriers to setting up the product for success? Is the trail too long or too short? Etc, Etc…

    However, I don’t think that giving extended trials are the worst thing you could do. In fact, I assert that it is a great way to test one of the previously mentioned processes and work on optimizing it. Extending free trials should include 2 things, a submission of more qualifying details and a call with a sales or support specialist. Once you get them on the phone you can interview and learn a bit more about why they are having trouble with getting started or deciding to pay.

    • Like I said in the post, extension requests are a sign that something isn’t working and – like you said, too – use those extension requests to figure out how to convert that prospect AND how to further optimize the process overall.

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  1. […] course I’ve also covered how asking for a Credit Card up front is less-than-ideal, how extension requests aren’t a good sign, and how doing nefarious things like forced continuity isn’t […]

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