However, I was recently shocked at just how difficult I found it to cancel a 1-month free subscription to an online DVD distributor before I was charged for a service I was never going to use.  And how this would negatively influence my perceptions of the company.

The hard truth of forced continuity

What I encountered is known as ‘forced continuity’, a dark sales or marketing technique often associated with paid services providing free trial periods.

The user signs up for a free trial, in order to do so credit card details must be entered, and when the trial ends the credit card supplied is automatically billed for the service. The user generally isn’t given an adequate reminder, nor is there a quick and easy way to cancel this subscription.

While this practice might indeed keep more customers, it’s a forced relationship not a loyal one.

Oh, leaving so soon?

Following my experience, I was curious to see how other online paid subscription services handled the cancellation process following a free trial.

I discovered that while signing up is often a very simple and user-friendly two or three step online process, cancellation can be a difficult and hard-to-find process that may not even be able to be completed through the website.

The following table provides a snapshot of the cancellation process for the services I investigated:

Site Navigation to Unsubscribe Cancellation Method Attempt to keep me subscribed
Quickflix Embedded 5 levels deep in the My Account section Link on website Yes. Numerous marketing and subscription options before the cancel link
Uber
(before April 2014)
Embedded 3 levels deep in the Support and FAQ section, amongst light text Email Uber Yes. “Jeff” from Uber asking me by email why I don’t want to use the service. Several emails of me saying “Cancel!” did the trick
Uber
(post April 2014)
N/A N/A There was no longer a way to cancel my subscription. But if I had emailed them to cancel, I’m sure I would have the same experience as above.
LinkedIn Easy to find link in account drop down from main navigation Link on website Yes, within the online cancellation process.
Yatango Embedded 2 levels deep in the Terms & Conditions, amongst heavy content Email Yatango Yes. “Jay” from Yatango asking why I want to cancel and to explicitly state that I want to cancel in an email.
Spotify Embedded 8 levels deep in the Subscription section of my account and required me to re-enter my password before confirming cancellation Link on website No instant cancellation, however I still had access to my playlist.
Audible Embedded 4 levels deep in Account Details and quite tricky to find the link Link on website Yes. Cancellation displayed after membership change options. Lots of email spam afterwards – which required additional unsubscription.
Stamps.com Embedded 3 levels deep in Customer Support Toll free number Still subscribed. Was always on hold, no one answered
Norton AntiVirus Embedded 5 levels deep in Automatic Renewal & Subscriptions section. Could not do it via the downloaded and installed application, had to go to Norton management online website. Switch on website No Instant cancellation but lots of email spam afterwards – which required additional unsubscription.

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I can’t unsubscribe with my mobile

It’s a common practice for most mobile sites to contain a subset of the functionality of the full featured website. However, I was surprised that almost all the mobile sites I investigated didn’t allow the user to view account or subscription settings. Only the primary end-to-end functionality was provided, which meant I couldn’t cancel using my mobile. If I was able to cancel my subscription, it was only through the full featured website.

Further, if I cannot find a feature I need on the mobile site, I usually move on to the full featured main site.  However, most of the sites I investigated diverted the main site to the mobile site if I was on a mobile device. Another frustration!

Too many obstacles to overcome

It was annoying enough to not be able to find the Cancel link, but it was more frustrating to find out that in some cases, I needed to email the business to cancel my subscription or make a phone call.

Both Uber and Yatango required me to email them in order to cancel. Not only was the email link hidden amongst text and hard to find, but the email address wasn’t even a link – I had to copy and paste it into my email client.

Both companies took a couple of days to respond initially and then a couple more emails and days to finalise the cancellation. Overall, it took over a week for me to cancel; yet it took me 5 minutes to sign up.

Since most people don’t realize they need to cancel a paid subscription till it’s too late, this process would not be helpful and I most probably would have been charged for the next month’s subscription before cancellation took effect.

Can I tempt you to stay?

It’s understandable companies want your business, and money. A customer leaving makes a big difference to the survival of a business. Offering a customer some incentive, whether it is discount, freebies or an improved deal, is a great attempt at keeping the engagement.

Quickflix was a great example of this. Despite my upcoming monthly subscription being $39.99, during my attempt to cancel, Quickflix quickly lowered the price to $19.99. What a great sell! At one stage I was a little tempted when I saw the lowered price, but then remembered that I never used the service and continued with the cancellation.

Others went about this in a very different manner.

Uber and Yatango emailed me directly inquiring why I wanted to leave and rather than offering any incentives simply asked me “are you sure you don’t want this service?” in a second email and in a third asked me to explicitly state that I wanted to cancel the subscription.

While Norton and Audible had instant cancellations – a great relief – within days of cancelling both companies spammed me with lots of marketing emails, some with great deals. It’s a shame the offers weren’t available before I completed cancellation and may have swayed me towards staying.

So, did anyone do it well?

I think LinkedIn has done a pretty decent job.

Not only do they list all their account types in the one page from Basic (free) to Pro, but they make finding the unsubscribe or “Downgrade” link, in this situation, quite easy to find and worded in a way you would understand “Downgrade your premium account”. It is not hidden amongst heavy text in the FAQs, it is not an email link, nor is it a phone number, but a simple three step process online.

They also did a very good job at trying to keep my business by displaying a downgrade to cheaper account type before displaying the proper cancel premium subscription link in step 1. In step 2 they tried further to sell the upgraded features to me – which mind you did sound pretty appealing and for a discounted rate, why not? Step 3 they asked for my reasons for cancellation and voila! account was downgraded back to Basic (free); however, they were kind enough to allow me to continue using the upgraded features until the end of the billing cycle.

Some best practice cancellation tips

So, the next time you are working on a paid subscription web app and are designing the cancel feature, consider the following:

  1. Mobile friendliness: if I can swiftly subscribe to your service, with my credit card details, via the mobile website, then I should, at a minimum be able to cancel via the mobile website. Cater for important secondary features, such as account settings, on mobile sites or allow the user to be redirected to the full-featured main site with ease.
  2. Don’t make me think: it was a no brainer for me to find the sign up page, so maybe group the cancellation in an obvious place like in the user’s account settings, rather than embedded in the help or FAQ section.
  3. Don’t spam me: I’ve made a conscious decision to discontinue the service, so maybe let me know that you will continue to send me communications and/or offer me the option to opt in/out of further communications.
  4. Keep the process of cancellation simple and accessible: it was very easy for me to sign up, on average 2-3 steps, so consider making the cancellation process as simple and available online, rather than via email or phone.
  5. Offer me some incentive to continue with the service: rather than not informing me that my trial is up and the paid service is about to start , how about offering me a great incentive to stay on? Who knows, I may just take you up on the offer.

Some tips for the user

  1. Read the fine print: ensure you read the terms and conditions of the trial period and most importantly note down the trial end date!
  2. Find the exit first: before you endeavor to sign up for free trials where your credit card details are required, investigate how you can cancel the subscription before you are charged.
  3. Hang in there: some sites make it very difficult for you to cancel in hopes you will give up and continue the forced relationship. But hang in there, you had valid reasons to cancel so keep strong and push through the challenges and you will emerge victorious.

And stay tuned, I’m feeling inspired to write another blog post on  how to design an improved service that helps companies hold on to their customers without the need for dark patterns.