Salesforce likes to talk about “Customers for Life”, and while that’s sort of catchy, it’s a little hard to grok what it really means.
It finally sunk in for me a bit the other day. At Adobe Sign, there’s a large group of well-known customers that I closed, Back in The Day … that now have been customers for 10 years. Some even now for almost 15 years! Whoa.
We launched on January 1, 2006 on TechCrunch, and while we closed some good names that first year (Dell, BT, Qualcomm, GE, Comcast, etc.), it wasn’t until later on in 2007 that we had enough revenue to create a large enough group of customers to go on a 10 Year Journey with. And the law of Power Laws and Large Numbers means that, obviously, Adobe has closed far more customers under its watch than I ever did. The business has grown 15x since then.
I’ve learned a lot seeing case studies go up over the years of customers I closed … that 10 years on … are still customers.
Take a look at this chart from Braze, which just IPO’d. You can see their 2016 customers, as a cohort, not only have stayed through 2022 … but are now worth 3.2x what they were when they initially signed up!
Some take-aways on how to have 10+ Year Customers, and Customers For Life:
- If You Truly Have Net Negative Churn and High NPS — Then Almost Any Reasonable CAC Makes Sense. If It Lets You Acquire 10+ Year Customers. I know some VCs will take shots at this statement, and I mean it more as a construct than a reality. But if your customers last 10 years, and buy more from you each year … I.e. if a $100k ACV deal you close today, over 10 years, ends up being $2m in total revenue … what can you spend to acquire that customer? A lot. Really, quite a lot. A lot more than say, 20%, of first year ACV. But you have to have insane NPS/CSAT + truly high net negative churn (120%-140%) for this math to really work. If your customers don’t love you and buy more, your CAC has to be very low. Be cautious if your customers don’t yet truly love you. But if you’ve got this winning formula with bigger customers especially — be confident. Run the tables here.
- Rip-and-Replace Deals Are Worth It. As you scale, your competitors will try to do Rip-and-Replace deals. As frustrating as it can be to deal with those, and maybe even unsavory to do them yourself … it’s worth it. If the customer lasts 10 years. You can even give away the first 18 months of a Rip-and-Replace if the customer will last 10 years. These deals make no sense if you aren’t going long. But if you are … they are worth it.
- You Can Get Them Back. Not Always. But Often Enough. Nothing is more painful than losing a big customer. Most you may not get back, and even if you do, it may take years. But if you are thinking in terms of Decade Long Relationships … put sales, and even customer success, back on lost customers. They may boomerang back. It happened to me. Just not often enough in the first 5 years for me to fully understand it.
- Put Lots of Coverage on Lost Deals, Too. Similar to the prior point, but different. Lost a deal to a competitor? Well, over the next 10 years, your competitor may stumble. You may have a chance again. Don’t view them as Gone Forever. View them as a Special Prospect in Salesforce, instead. Never stop trying to win them back. Invite them to your customer conference. Don’t send them spammy SDR emails. But keep them close. Keep them part of the extended family.
- Get on a Jet. I never lost a customer I visited. More on that here. I know you’re tired. I know you have no time. But if you are going long, there’s no better use of your time than visiting customers. Not prospects. But customers. I ask almost every public and unicorn CEO at the SaaStr Annual how much time they spend with customers. It’s almost always more than you’d expect. It’s often more than 50% of their time.
- Slow Down and Get It Right. Get your VPs of Sales, Customer Success, Product, and Engineering right. They’re key to this 10 Year Journey. Even if it takes an extra month or two to get a great one.
- Overdeliver. Your customers will basically all stay if you overdeliver. It doesn’t even matter that much if your competitor has caught up, or even in many cases, passed you in some areas. Customers invest in not just products, but relationships. They know they are on a 5-10 year journey too. Overdeliver vs. their expectations. Focus on that more than the competitive noise per se. Force your team to launch at least one “Surprise and Delight” feature each quarter that every customer can at least appreciate, even if they don’t use it immediately.
- Enterprise deals are nothing like SMB deals, most especially over the long term. We all know this, but over time the difference becomes even more stark. Small companies churn at a much higher rate, and it’s much harder to get true net negative churn. If you compare them over 10 year lifetimes, you’ll see you should probably invest much more in the bigger customers. And make sure your VP DNA matches your core long-term customers.
- Truly happy customers are magical. Challenge yourself. Measure NPS. Do a customer conference. Get the feedback. Whatever you do — don’t assume your customers are happy because they don’t churn. That’s rookie error #1.
- Invest — at least in your bigger customers — as if they are worth 10x what they are worth today. And make sure you measure your customers by potential value over the next ten years. If you have Google for $99/month, that’s not a real enterprise deal. But if you have Google for $250k a year — how much can they be worth over 10 years? Maybe $5,000,000. Invest like that.
- Going Long is Incredibly Empowering. I’d like to say I was always committed for 10+ years, but that’s not exactly the case. If it had been, I would have approached all our customer relationships differently. I loved our customers. I just didn’t really think of them as ten-year relationships. My mistake.
- Forever Customers build Forever Companies. You know this. But it takes time to see it and feel it. This is the one thing you can really bank on in SaaS and with recurring revenue.
- Get it Right, Really Right — And You’ll Be Unstoppable. At least for Decades. SAP, Oracle, Concur, Ariba, Successfactors … you can take some shots at these oldie products, but these brands endure for decades. Even post-acquisition. Salesforce is coming up on its second decade, and still growing 30% at $10 billion in ARR. I’ve been a Decade+ Customer of Salesforce myself now. Invest in your team, your product, your customers for life. For decades. It will be hard to do until you come up on $10m ARR or so. There won’t be enough people, team, or resources. But after that, at least. Invest for decades to come. It won’t seem so crazy then.
10 Year Customers. It was always an abstract concept to me. It shouldn’t have been.
(note: an update of a classic SaaStr post)