How to Manage Entitlements in SaaS Product Dev Cycles

How to Manage Entitlements in SaaS Product Dev Cycle

Entitlements are vital to the SaaS development process; without the correct permissions and rights granted to the users or entities that should have access to them, problems arise. If well-meaning customer success (CS) team members grant access to specific features, services, or resources within a software application to users that they shouldn’t have, different problems arise (along with general chaos). Getting entitlements right is critical to development workflows from managing user access to defining the level of functionality available to each user – as well as ensuring compliance with licensing agreements.

The most efficient teams automate as much of this process as possible, so they aren’t bogged down with manual, repetitive work that slows down their entire SaaS product development cycle. We’ll walk through the importance of addressing entitlements earlier in your dev cycle, the specific pain points product teams face, plus how you can bridge the gap between product and customer success. This will set your entire organization up for success with your entitlement management system.

Here’s how to manage entitlements in your SaaS product.

Addressing Entitlements Earlier in Your Development Cycle

Comprehensive, effective entitlement management is crucial for SaaS companies to streamline development cycles – contributing to overall streamlined workflows – in addition to maintaining security and customer satisfaction with their user experience.

Satisfied customers who trust that the product they're using is secure are more likely to remain customers, recommend your brand to others, and be more receptive to cross-selling and upselling. That all in turn sets your organization up for increasing revenue, particularly annual recurring revenue common with SaaS subscriptions. 

Here’s how to set your entitlement management system up for success.

Understanding the Importance of Entitlement Management 

Waiting too long to address entitlement management can result in a cascade of issues for your product team and developers, ultimately resulting in a mountain of technical debt. Like all debt, technical debt has to be paid off eventually, and decisions made for short-term gain can ultimately cost more in long-term interest rates.

With entitlement management specifically, your organization risks everything from increased security vulnerabilities to potentially lost revenue by waiting too long to implement a centralized entitlement management system. 

  • Security vulnerabilities: If customers gain access to features they haven’t paid for, they’re also gaining access to data they shouldn’t have. This puts your organization at risk for security violations, data breaches, potential lawsuits, and more. 
  • Compliance issues: Waiting to address entitlement management can result in unintentional violations of software licensing agreements, bogging down regulatory audits and becoming a legal headache. 
  • Inefficient workflows: Having your product development team have to address entitlements manually means slow, inefficient workflows which impacts cross-team collaboration and makes it almost impossible to scale quickly. 
  • Integration issues: Integrating your tech stack takes even more work if you wait too long to address entitlements, giving your product development team even more tedious manual work to do that takes away from their ability to collaborate efficiently and do important deep work. 
  • Bad user experience: Users with incorrect permissions might love a feature they then lose access to when the issue is corrected, leading to customer dissatisfaction in addition to questions about security and compliance. That can lead to reduced customer retention and a reputational hit for your brand. 

All of these issues can lead to the one that’s the most troubling for your brand in the long term: a loss of revenue. Subscription-based SaaS models often thrive on providing a personalized user experience for each customer segment, which is impossible with incorrectly implemented entitlements. 

If some customers have access to features they shouldn’t at their current subscription level, you risk dissatisfaction and churn by correcting the problem, or a continued loss of revenue if you let them stay “grandfathered in” to access because of the mistake your team made. 

There’s also the enormous technical debt your team will have to eventually address, leading to expensive, time-consuming remediation. That makes your product development team less efficient, slowing down your development cycle, with ramifications for product launches. That leads to a competitive disadvantage – something no brand can afford in an increasingly challenging industry. 

Proactive entitlement management, on the other hand, means increased security, compliance, and a smooth, customized user experience that leads to increased customer satisfaction. It’s also easier to scale, leading to happy customers that are easier to retain, upsell, and generally increase revenue for your organization. 

Abused Feature Flag Systems

Feature access control is different from user access, which can be role-based access control like admins, users, or viewers, all with different privileges. Admins might have access to all features available at their current subscription level, for example, while users can access all but a few, and viewers can only see what the others have done without being able to contribute or make changes.

Feature flags – or the features you can toggle on and off for customers, often without updating any code – make it easier for teams other than product and development to help onboard customers and later update their settings. This access along with careful automation can help unlock efficiency for engineering teams because the product dev team does not have to manually do these updates themselves. 

The downside is that CS teams might accidentally turn on a feature or set of features that a customer shouldn’t be granted access to at their current subscription level, leading to abuse of their access. This can be anything from beta testing being extended to incorrect customer segments or not turning premium features off for customers who have downgraded their subscriptions. 

Your team is then faced with customer frustration and dissatisfaction if you correct the issue and turn off their access to the features they shouldn’t have, or a loss of revenue if you leave their access turned on. The former can decrease customer retention and the latter leads to leaky revenue that can compound earnings issues over time.

In order to avoid this situation, teams need to implement comprehensive entitlement management systems from the beginning. That includes: 

  • Regular auditing: Entitlements should be monitored and regularly audited (at least quarterly) to ensure all permissions and access control levels are authorized.
  • Authentication: Teams should also audit their current authentication processes to see if they could be strengthened in order to prevent unauthorized access. 
  • Automation: Are there regular checks that could be automated so your team doesn’t have to do the work manually? With entitlement management, consider embracing automation for provisioning and de-provisioning (that means customers or employees who leave or cancel their subscriptions have their permissions automatically removed).
  • Security: Automating provisioning and de-provisioning increases security since busy teams don't have to take the time out of their day to do these processes manually. If another emergency crops up, the task could be forgotten and someone could retain their access control long after they should have lost it, compromising security.
  • Training and education: Be sure every member of every team that has access to entitlements is thoroughly trained on what they are, how access is determined, and what’s at stake if unauthorized access is given. 

The last point is particularly important because customer-facing teams may not even know they’re violating software licensing and derailing organization compliance by turning on what they think of as “customer access to features”. After understanding is implemented through shared training, teams need to have clear policies across the organization on the entitlement management system.

Collaborating with Customer Support (CS)

In order to make collaboration between product teams and customer support as streamlined as possible, both teams need to understand the challenges and pain points of the other. CS teams are trying to keep their customers happy so they remain satisfied users and don’t leave for the competition. Customer retention is key to maintaining and increasing annual recurring revenue!

Meanwhile, product teams need CS teams in order to more deeply understand how their users engage with their products and whether or not they’re actually solving the intended customer pain points. 

With the heavy workload of the modern product team, it’s a relief to be able to offload some things to CS teams, like customer onboarding and training, daily relationship management, and expectations around product upgrades or downgrades. CS teams can also relay customer feedback about features and user experience directly to product teams, so they can prioritize upgrades and launches, and adjust corresponding roadmaps appropriately. 

For smooth collaboration, product teams need to ensure CS teams have a clear understanding of entitlement structures and what’s at stake if they’re implemented improperly. That means including CS teams in comprehensive training and education around entitlement management, keeping communication channels open for ongoing questions, and having a single source of truth in place for all teams to reference policies, documentation, and customer feedback. 

Key CS team members should be pulled into planning for future releases since they have direct relationships with customers and their insights into the daily use of your SaaS product. Both teams should establish a feedback loop where customer feedback and usage data are regularly shared and analyzed – including around entitlements – so the most pressing issues can be addressed and everyone is up to date when it comes time to collaborate on upcoming launches. 

For example, customers will always come to CS first with their problems, including billing system issues. The billing system is likely automated and based on the subscription level the customer has chosen, which should in turn dictate their access. If they suddenly don't have access to key features they rely on because of billing issues, CS will know almost immediately. Without effective cross-team collaboration, those issues will go unresolved longer, potentially affecting customer churn rates.

The Pain Points for Product Teams

Product teams in particular are impacted by a mismanaged entitlement system, from operational challenges that snowball and create other cascading issues, to the resulting financial implications and reputational risks. 

Operational Challenges of an Entitlement Management System

Tracking and managing user entitlements can be incredibly difficult if a team is trying to do so manually. Small teams with only a few product offerings that are easily able to handle a manual workflow find that becomes increasingly impossible with complexities that are introduced as the organization scales. Layered product offerings and customizable features make it a nightmare for product team developers to manually give and revoke access as needed for each customer while also continuously tracking access to ensure no one is using features they shouldn’t be. Adding version control when beta testing new features further complicates things for product teams and increases the stress involved with overseeing other teams' access so mistakes with customer access can be avoided as much as possible.

That’s hours of tedious, manual work that could better be spent building new products and features, fixing bugs, or paying down other important technical debt. Failing to address and automate certain aspects of entitlement systems as early as possible leads to teams that are bogged down with manual work, slowing down product development and stretching out release cycles. 

That makes your team vulnerable to being out-competed in the challenging SaaS market. 

Financial Implications of Failed Entitlement Management

We’ve already touched on the serious potential for revenue loss if customers have unauthorized access to premium features they’re not paying for and the potential fallout your organization risks in order to correct the issue. 

There are additional costs to rectifying entitlement mistakes, too. 

  • Customer satisfaction: People don’t like to lose something once they have it. If you take away a customer’s access to premium features because your customer success team accidentally granted access they shouldn’t have, you risk ruining your relationship with that customer. They could potentially even turn to a competitor, increasing customer churn and impacting revenue. 
  • Reputation: If a customer or customers are upset enough about their access being revoked because of an internal mistake from your organization, they might start to air their grievances publicly. That’s a big reputational hint from your brand that could stay in circulation from word of mouth, on social media and company review sites, or even get picked up by industry news on a slow enough day. In any form, it’s another potential hit to your revenue, to say nothing of the work it takes to build back trust with customers and prospects.
  • Cost to repair: There’s also the actual cost of fixing access and permissions internally, whether that means in man hours from your product development team or budget that has to go to outside professionals to come in and clean up the mess. There's also the cost of investing in automation to help prevent future unauthorized access, specifically with provision and de-provisioning. 
  • Legal fees: A bad enough breach in access could mean that a customer gets access to data they shouldn’t, which could result in expensive legal fees from a lawsuit or lawsuits. Regulatory law might also come into play if you’re badly out of compliance as a result of unauthorized access by users, which also ends in fines.

While the cost in revenue is clear, the additional costs add up to enough that your organization should do everything it can to avoid the fallout from an entitlement management nightmare situation.  

Reputational Risks of Failed Entitlement Management

Once trust in a brand is broken, it’s incredibly difficult to repair. One bad review is something almost any business can survive, but an angry customer can start a word-of-mouth campaign against your brand from a bad experience across earned media, resulting in a nightmare for your PR team. 

If you don’t have an internal PR team – or they’re outmatched by the issue – you’ll have the additional expense of bringing in a crisis PR team to help handle the situation. Any other customers you still have will find their trust in you eroding, no matter how much you assure them that your systems are safe, secure, and compliant. Prospects are likely to drop out of your sales cycle and turn to a competitor that will be all too happy to highlight how secure and compliant, their entitlement management is.

You may be able to bounce back from one event with a strong enough crisis PR response, but if you’re unfortunate enough to experience multiple events, the blowback might be big enough to put you out of business. That’s more than a little hit in revenue to consider. 

Security breaches are a big deal and can even cross over into mainstream media coverage. Don’t put your brand reputation on the line because you haven’t invested in an effective entitlement management system early in your SaaS product dev cycle. 

Cross-Collaboration: Bridging the Gap Between Product and CS Teams

No successful product team ever works alone! Never overlook the importance of alignment with other teams across your organization, especially customer success, which is crucial to understanding the breadth of the customer experience so pain points and unique use cases can be addressed in product roadmaps and feature prioritization. 

Establishing Clear Communication Across Teams

Implement systems for collaboration and communication across teams in your organization that are as proactive and seamless as possible. Product teams can’t wait to be interrupted by members of other teams - like CS - asking where to find the latest roadmap so they can update customers on upcoming features. That approach slows down productivity for everyone, leading to frustration and increasingly siloed teams. 

The smarter move is to invest in tools and systems that proactively push information out to key stakeholders (CS and otherwise) around the latest product team updates and store them in a place that acts as a single source of truth. This way, other teams know exactly where to go to find what they need, saving precious time across the organization.

Likewise, systems and tools need to be established that allow for a continuous loop of customer feedback around their experiences with products and features, including entitlement management. This will help your product team discover bugs faster, leading to quicker fixes and less downtime since problems can be caught before they snowball. A consistently reliable product leads to happier customers – and happier customers are more likely to recommend your brand, and be receptive to upselling and cross-selling. 

Find the communication system that works best for teams across your organization. That might mean an agile approach with regular stand-up meetings, done synchronously or asynchronously as needed. Be sure that entitlement management updates and concerns are always on the agenda, so they never slip below the radar! 

Shared Training Sessions Around Entitlement Management  

Teams often collaborate poorly when they feel like other teams don’t understand their work on a deep level. It can feel difficult to dedicate time to understanding every other job in a company when you are already too strapped for time and resources to even do your own job, but putting in the effort upfront builds team rapport. 

Hold joint training sessions between the product team and CS team so both can understand product features and entitlement structures, including the specific challenges and pain points each individual team faces. Address access management, feature limits, data security, and how every seemingly small part of your entitlement system affects overall business success.

During these sessions, have each team go through role-playing scenarios from the other team’s point of view in order to deal with common entitlement challenges. When real issues crop up, that will help the product or CS team empathize with the other, in addition to informing the actions that team takes next in order to resolve the issue. 

Having this understanding and rapport will make it easier for teams to communicate and collaborate as the organization scales and products and features become more layered and complex. That sets your entire SaaS organization up for success, leading to revenue growth. 

Feedback Loop Creation Around Entitlements 

Once you’ve established a loop for consistent customer feedback from the CS team – and you can build a customer portal for customers to directly share information with the product team as well – ensure there’s a component focused on entitlement challenges faced by customers specifically. 

Since you’ve thoroughly trained the CS team alongside the product team to understand entitlement structures, challenges, and how to navigate the system of management your organization has put in place, they should be clear on the kind of feedback that’s the most valuable to provide. 

You can then establish clear actions for the product team to take based on this feedback in order to improve the system. Product team developers should be tasked with ownership of this system and analyzing and refining it over time. Include regular feedback from the CS team about the systems as well, to ensure continued smooth collaboration. If you identify any hiccups early, you can adjust the communication system. Waiting too long lets resentment build, which damages communication and team rapport. That leads to teams working in silos, decreased productivity, and a cascading effect that can lead to lower morale and eventually a negative impact on revenue. 

Instead, be sure to celebrate cross-team successes. Highlight areas of growth that would have been impossible without real collaboration, from discovering a particular customer issue to working together in tandem to solve it.

What Your Team is Entitled To 

If you tackle entitlement management early, you’ll be setting your entire SaaS product development cycle up for success. That means increased security, better compliance, happier customers, and avoiding the fallout from the unwelcome case of a customer getting unauthorized access to premium features – or worse, data that they shouldn’t have. 

Product and customer success teams have to effectively collaborate in order for an effective entitlement management system to be in place; no one knows the product better than the product team and no one knows customers better than the CS team. 

Working together seamlessly will not only shorten your SaaS product dev cycle, but set the entire organization up for success in streamlining overall launch processes for faster market entry. That sets you above the competition and gives you the opportunity to capture more of the industry, holding those customers with you as you grow. 

That's building the runway for business success.

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