In defence of ‘poor’ SaaS sign-up processes

Everybody knows that free trials are better than forcing users to book a demo. It’s also widely accepted that you should be transparent about cost, and display pricing publicly on your website. Giving users only a cold “contact” option rather than letting them onboard immediately is plain absurd. Right?

In most instances, these rules of thumb for UX would be perfectly rational. In the more complex world of SaaS purchases, however, sign-up best practices don’t always apply. Lengthy purchase paths that we would label poor elsewhere are often the best and most user-friendly option when it comes to buying B2B software.

In fact, when it comes to signing up to software solutions, any seemingly ‘poor’ processes are often deliberate, calculated, and carefully designed.

The savvy SaaS buyer

Nowadays, we’re all becoming increasingly technical. When we see a software product we like, we want to get stuck in straight away. After all, we’ve done our research. We’ve usually taken the time to read reviews, explore features and evaluate the SaaS product before even thinking of trying it out.

Plus, we seldom get stuck using software anymore. Most modern products offer instant usability within a clear, easily navigable user interface. So, it’s not unreasonable for savvy SaaS buyers to expect an accessible free trial right away.

With this kind of quick self-service approach, it’s also only logical to expect to see a clear pricing table. The user wants to form their own judgement of the software actively and independently, and they can’t do that without upfront information.

Savvier shoppers and heightened demand for accessibility has perhaps led to the rise of the free SaaS trial. In 2012, only 44% of SaaS companies offered a free online trial. By 2015, this rose to 60%. Allowing users to sign-up to a service instantly and easily has become a best practice, and vendors not offering this path risk alienating their prospective users.

The myth of “best practice”

Unfortunately, a “best practice” is a myth in the SaaS sign-up scene. In the words of Mark Rosenthal, “Best practices usually means copying the mechanics of what successful companies do, and trying to shoehorn them into your processes and culture.”

For simple products offering only a handful of core features, a speedy self-service route no doubt works perfectly. Larger products with extensive feature-sets and lengthy set-up requirements aren’t quite so compatible with a quick-fire download and deploy approach.

What works for one software vendor may not (and perhaps probably will not) work for another. As UX practitioners would advise any brand, software providers need to understand their product and market position, apply the sign-up practices that best suit, evaluate the results and keep tweaking. You can’t do that by copying and pasting popular practices into your user journey and hoping they work.

For SaaS vendors, following a “best” practice might indeed induce short-term UX satisfaction. But if the product itself isn’t suited to popular instant onboarding options, it will only result in deeper frustration later down the line.

You need only look at free trial success rates to see this evidenced. 60% of users taking out a free trial of a SaaS application use it once and never return, and 66% of vendors report trial-to-paid conversion rates of less than 25%. Another 2016 study found that the new business acquired from free software trials was on a steady 5-year decline. Clearly, best practices aren’t the best option for everyone.

Faster horses

Instant SaaS sign-ups only work if the user knows exactly what they want, and exactly how to use the software. That rarely happens. To quote Joanna Wiebe: “If Henry Ford had said, ‘Here are the keys to this Model T — you’ve got 30 days to use it to replace your horse,’ how many cars would’ve made it off the lot?”

Giving users the keys to your complex product right away could cause a crash. In our frustration at being unable to get our hands on the goods, this fundamental reason for longer sign-up processes requiring close vendor contact is often forgotten.

So, what are the blockades brands use to introduce users to software more slowly, and why are they worthy of defending?

The dreaded demo

You might sigh when you see that delaying “Book a Demo” button, but it’s (usually) there for good reason.  Naturally, a demo isn’t necessary if the software in question is simple to set up and use, and offers a clear “quick win” from the very first session.

However, many software solutions aren’t so simple, and require detailed configuration as well as additional learning to extract the most value possible. In these instances, a demo offers the user a better pathway into the product. It allows the vendor to address the user’s primary needs and show them the key aspects of the product that align with their problems.

With a free trial of a complex solution, users could quickly end up floundering. The demo option prevents this initial confusion and eases the user into the product – keeping a keen focus on their issues and how the solution could resolve them. This warm approach shows the user how the software could improve their life, explicitly and exclusively.

Yes, it might be annoying to have to schedule a demo before seeing a product and yes, it’s less convenient initially. With regards to the bigger picture, though, a demo helps the user understand the product’s features and get maximum ROI from them. Engaged users who grasp how a product uniquely adds value are more likely to convert. For larger SaaS products, demos help achieve this where free trials often fail.

Hidden pricing

Another ‘poor’ sign-up process is hiding SaaS payment options. Typically, it’s advisable to be transparent with users and display the cost of a product. After all, an upfront price manages the customer’s expectations and helps them assess whether to move forwards with a sign-up.

Despite that, not all SaaS vendors show the cost of their solutions. In fact, the number of providers publishing their pricing has gone down from 55% to 47% — meaning over half of companies hide their pricing structure from prospective buyers.

In most cases and for most products, this lack of transparency would be shady and impolitic. Obfuscation, generally, is bad UX. Unfortunately, it’s not always so black and white with enterprise or custom SaaS products.

For example, it’s not necessarily best to display prices if your sales cycles take over 3 months. These longer cycles usually mean a more complex sale with tailored options. They often involve a higher price point calculated to fit each individual deal, rather than a fixed price. So, if the customer initially approaches the vendor based on a set price online, they will inevitably feel cheated or dissatisfied when that price evolves over the course of a lengthy implementation.

Similarly, customer base should be considered before displaying prices. It might only cause confusion and backtracking to list fixed pricing when your sales model is focused on selling to existing customers. For example, if a SaaS vendor only deals with a handful of customers in a regulated industry, their prices are likely to be negotiable.

It’s not so simple as to say you should always, categorically show SaaS product pricing. Context is key. Once the deals get bigger and the SaaS products more complex, displaying a fixed price might become silly, and create hurdles later down the line.

One size doesn’t fit all

In such a complex market, blending options together might be the best bet for UX. You could, for example, enable a free trial period after a demo. That way, you’re allowing the user to understand the product and assess whether it is a good fit before handing the keys over.

Alternately, you could try providing a self-service demo. This would replicate the product experience in a new environment pre-filled with dummy data, supported by prompts and contextual help. This option removes the reliance on a sales agent, which both speeds up the onboarding process and reduces any pressure to proceed. The user still gets the demo they (might) need to grasp the software, but they get it without delay.

For more intricate pricing packages, you could consider showing prices for smaller businesses, and the classic “Contact” option for enterprise deals.

Ultimately, there is no universal rule. Every product is different, and every sign-up process should be tailored to reflect its complexity and customer base. This should be based on data and real user observation: not on sweeping tech assumptions and shoehorned “best” practices.

Short-term loss, long-term gain

As online buyers, we’ve become so used to getting what we want within a few clicks that anything slower or more multi-tiered seems tiresome. But rest assured: the hurdles preventing you from accessing a SaaS solution straight away are there for a reason.

When it comes to purchasing SaaS, short-term UX irritations often lead to a better experience overall. Exceptions apply, and some vendors may just suck at UX.

However, it’s worth being more forgiving if you can’t access a product straight away. For the most part, those initial stoppers are designed to create a smoother user experience across the rest of your journey.

Please note: we originally published this article here.