Churn is the opposite of retention — it’s the measure of how many customers (or how much money, in the case of revenue churn) do not renew their business with a particularly company.

What is customer churn?

Customer churn is a vital metric for any subscription business, especially SaaS companies. It’s a measure of how many customers, sometimes referred to in sales shorthand as “logos,” do not renew at the end of their subscription. Occasionally, churn occurs prior to the expiration of the subscription term, but this type of turnover is less frequent because it typically requires breaking terms of a contract. Customer churn can also be thought of as the inverse of customer retention.

Are there different types of churn?

Churn is generally measured in two broad categories — revenue churn, which measures the dollar value of contracts not renewed, and customer churn, which is commonly expressed as the percentage of companies up for renewal that do not extend their contract. Within each of these categories are several more specific views, from the predictable (net vs. gross; churn within company size or industry cohorts) to the nuanced [preventable churn (unhappy customers, inactive users) vs. structural churn (customer went out of business or was acquired)].

How do I calculate revenue churn?

There’s a variety of ways to measure revenue churn. Probably the most commonly used is Net Revenue Retention, which looks at a set period and takes into account changes in account value (i.e. upsells and downsells) during that period. If revenue gained from upsells can offset or exceed revenue lost from downsells and churned customers, the Net Revenue Retention Rate can be greater than 100%, commonly referred to as negative churn. In subscription businesses, especially in SaaS, a Net Revenue Retention Rate of 110% or higher is considered world-class.

How do I calculate customer churn?

Calculating customer churn rate is more complicated than meets the eye: Should it include free trial users? Month-to-month contracts? Should it isolate only customers up for renewal? As a result, SaaS companies vary greatly in the way they answer a question as seemingly direct as, “How many of your customers didn’t renew in a given period of time?”

Because there are dozens of competing formulas for calculating churn, what matters more than the formula(s) a company chooses is that it benchmarks itself consistently. Churn is a moving-target KPI. It can be affected by seasonality, product changes, competitive factors, pricing expectations, customer support, and even PR events. Changing one’s churn calculation regularly will impede the ability to understand what’s causing a company to lose customers and make changes to its business, which, in the end, is why one tracks the metric in the first place.

Should I measure revenue churn or customer churn?

Both are important. By comparing revenue churn and customer churn, a business can see if retention is consistent throughout the customer base, or if there’s more churn with small customers (higher customer churn, lower revenue churn) or if large customers tend to be more at-risk (lower customer churn, higher revenue churn). By having multiple ways to measure overall customer health, an organization can prevent over-reliance on one metric, and be more likely to detect issues in the data before they become problematic.

Why does churn matter?

Churn in all its forms is such a critical health metric for SaaS businesses because customer acquisition costs are typically high for subscription software companies. So high, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for a vendor to not recoup its acquisition costs until several years into the contract. As a result, early churn means the company lost money on that customer. Similarly, understanding churn is a prerequisite to understanding customer lifetime value, which is another foundational metric for SaaS businesses.

What drives customer churn?

Not all customer churn is preventable. If a company goes out of business or gets acquired, there’s little chance of saving that customer. This is often referred to as “structural churn.” The opposite of structural churn is preventable churn, and in these cases, companies and decision-makers tend to look at a few consistent criteria when deciding whether or not to renew a product or service. Questions they’re likely to ask themselves include:

Value

What benefits do I get when I use this product? Do I get what I expected when I initially bought?

Usage

How often do I use this product? Is this a mission-critical, daily use application, or is this an infrequent, nice to have?

Relationships

How attached am I to the people behind the product? Is there a strong bond between a customer success team and an internal champion? Do I feel invested in this specific company’s product?

Alternatives

Are there other ways to solve my problem? Would I use them more frequently, or do I have a stronger relationship with an alternative provider?

Recommended reading

Product Retention: How Your Go-to-Market Approach Impacts Churn” by Sam Richard

The team at OpenView Ventures recently completed a large-scale survey to identify drivers of top-line metrics such as retention. Here’s how a product’s go-to-market approach relates to customer and revenue churn.

“Activating Customers Depends on Unlocking the Right Steps” by Ruairí Galavan

How do you build long-term loyalty among your customers? You can start by setting the foundations early. As a starting point, identify high-value actions successful users take in their first 90 days that set them up for continued success and reduce the possibility of churn.

“What Product Can Learn From Growth Teams” by Hiten Shah

Without strong user retention, your product will fail. Yet product managers consistently ignore it or think it’s just the customer success team’s problem. This is where PMs can take a lesson from growth teams.

Why Product Should Care About Customer Churn” by Gordon Cone

Customer churn isn’t the happiest topic to talk about, but it’s definitely something all product teams should care about and track.

A Data Scientist’s Guide to Fighting Product Churn” by Suja Thomas

As a lagging indicator, the churn rate only lets you look at what has already transpired in your product. However, there are ways to analyze customer lifecycle data and build a churn prediction model so you can get ahead of the churn curve.