How to Choose the Best Subscription Billing Software

A step-by-step guide

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices available for subscription billing and management software. It's important to vet the features and benefits of each platform so you can make the best decision to support your subscription billing needs today, and in the future.

You may be wondering:

What is really important when it comes to subscription billing platforms? What’s the appropriate way to compare my options? And how do I find the best one for the company?

This article will give you the framework to make that decision. It will tell you what questions you need to ask and what capabilities to look for—with a focus on what really matters. 

So, let’s get started by looking at, well, how easy it is to get started:

Is the Subscription Billing Software Easy to Get Up-And-Running?

You don’t want to go through the entire selection process—looking at the ins-and-outs of the software, ROI, support for your vertical, and more—only to find out that it will take months to implement the subscription billing software for your organization. 

How much time is acceptable for implementation? That can vary based on your needs, but you shouldn’t settle for six months to a year. Recurly helps clients reach operational status in weeks, not months—even for the largest integrations.

Does the Subscription Billing Software Integrate Seamlessly with Your Existing Tech Stack?

Developer Tools - no speech bubble

The best subscription billing software doesn’t work in isolation; it integrates seamlessly with your existing tech stack. Let’s look at a few of the most important parts of the integration process.

Sales

Do you want your sales team to spend time manually creating new accounts in your subscription billing platform, or do you want them to spend that time building and maintaining relationships with your customers? Probably the latter. Check to see if the solution automates the creation of accounts immediately after your salesperson closes a deal and records it in your CRM.

Accounting

Ask subscription billing vendors how their online payment system will sync with your accounting system. Will it transmit properly formatted data? Will plans, coupons, pauses, etc. map correctly? A first-rate subscription billing software makes record-keeping a breeze, but a poorly designed one forces you to institute manual workarounds to compensate for its shortcomings.

Payments

Subscribers are accustomed to paying in a variety of ways, so your subscription billing platform needs to accommodate subscribers’ preferred payment methods. A payment gateway essentially acts as a digital version of a physical point-of-sale (POS) terminal, ensuring that transactions are completed smoothly. Common gateways include PayPal, Adyen and Stripe. It’s important that the subscription billing software you choose integrates with your current gateways, but on top of that, ask about the other possibilities—you may need them in the future if, say, you expand to different geographies.

And then there’s the matter of setting up a subscriber-facing payment page. Yes, you could do this on your own. But some subscription billing platforms, like Recurly, offer hosted payment pages to get you going fast. You just add your company logo, do some quick configuration, and you’re good to go.

Is the Subscription Billing Software Quick and Easy to Get Started and Extract Value?

Learning Paths - no title

Of course, you want a subscription billing platform that has amazing capabilities. But what good are those capabilities if you don’t know how to use them?

One solution that comes to mind is a single product training module that you can distribute to all of your employees.

Better than nothing, but not ideal.

Instead, you want different product training modules for each of your teams. Think about it: your IT staff isn’t going to interact with the platform in the same way that your accounting team will. What is relevant to your decision makers won’t be relevant to your support agents. And vice versa.

A top vendor understands this and does something about it. Recurly, for example, created Learning Paths, an onboarding series for new Recurly merchants to make it quick and easy to get started. Our experts created four learning paths for Recurly’s end users, with content fit to each of their roles.

Will the Subscription Billing Software Fit Your Unique Needs?

The best subscription billing software feels like it was tailor-made for your company. That’s because top vendors have the foresight to consider the capabilities that companies like yours could require.

Are There Several Subscription Billing Models?

Quantity-based pricing vs. usage-based billing blog image

The ideal subscription billing model depends on your product and strategy. When shopping for a platform, you should ask vendors what type of subscription billing models they offer. Here are a few possibilities:

  • A fixed recurring model may be best for companies that provide a product for a single price and charge on a recurring basis.

  • A quantity-based model could make sense for companies that want to alter their prices based on the quantity purchased. 

  • A usage-based model might be the answer if you want customers to only pay for what they use.

Larger companies may need to implement combinations of multiple pricing models. If you fall into that category, ask potential vendors how they can accommodate you.

Can You Run Promotions? Pause and Postpone?

Acquiring new subscribers is one of the most challenging parts of running a subscription business. Top vendors facilitate this process with incentives like free trials, gift cards, and coupon codes

The best subscription billing platform takes it a bit further, with flexibility in percentage and total dollar discounts, flexible offer length, bulk unique coupons, and the ability to limit total redemptions. On top of that, you should insist on reporting and tracking that can provide insight on the efficacy of your programs and efforts.

Pause and postpone functionality is particularly relevant in our current “new-normal” circumstances, and helps to reduce voluntary churn by letting cash-strapped customers pause or postpone their subscriptions. But it also has its uses in a more stable economy; if a customer wants to take a break—for whatever reason—hitting the pause button, as opposed to cancelling their subscription, increases the chances they will come back later. In fact, our data says that one-third of paused subscriptions are reactivated

Is There Gateway Routing and Gateway Failover?

The optimal gateway varies based on transaction type, so you’ll want a platform that offers flexibility in routing payments. Going with the best gateway can lead to higher acceptance rates, lower processing costs, simplified reconciliation, and mitigated risk. 

Geolocation and product type are a couple of the variables that go into selecting a gateway. 

Let’s say a business has subscribers in both the US and Europe. By routing their US-based business through a US-based gateway, and EU-based business through an EU-based gateway, the business would typically experience higher acceptance rates and lower transaction (cross-border) fees.

And what happens if—perhaps due to an outage—your preferred gateway fails?

You want a vendor that thinks ahead, setting you up with a backup gateway in case your first choice fails. Recurly has Gateway Failover, which automatically routes to your preferred backup gateway during outages.

What is the Projected ROI?

Recurring payment platforms impact your bottom line—there’s nothing dramatic about that statement. But top vendors will quantify the impact on your bottom line. The best subscription billing platform pays for itself many times over—and you know that it will before you implement it.

How Much Revenue Does the Subscription Billing Platform Recover?

RecoveredRevenue-Blog

“Our service is going to save you a lot of money” is not an acceptable sales pitch. But what is?

You want to look for a comparison between revenue recovery vs. merchant billings. Recurly, for example, recovered more than 8 times the amount it billed its merchants in 2019. And that metric improved in each of the previous two years.

You may be wondering:

How does subscription billing software recover revenue?

Largely by reducing involuntary churn. You don’t want to lose any customers, but nothing is worse than losing a customer solely due to recurring payment processing issues. Ask potential vendors what percentage of failed subscription renewals the software historically recovers—the best ones will have answers at the ready.

A top subscription billing platform reduces involuntary churn through three steps:

1. Account Updater & Expiration Date Forwarding Functionality

Your subscribers’ credit and debit card details change—expirations and cancellations are two ways that could happen. If card details are invalid, a hard decline typically occurs, which costs you revenue and potentially a string of recurring payments. Look for a subscription billing platform that a) vaults credit cards in order to proactively push expiration dates forward, and b) integrates with all the major credit card companies (American Express, Visa, Mastercard, and Discover) to automatically update card details as they change.

2. Revenue Optimization Engine

You don’t want to retry transactions over and over again without a strategy, because that gets expensive. Look for a vendor that uses a “smart”, data-driven approach to determine how and when to retry transactions for the best success rate. A dynamic retry algorithm takes all of the data into account, and then identifies the best way to retry a previously failed transaction.

3. Dunning

For transactions that can’t be successfully completed by updating card details or smart retries, you have to take a more personalized approach by reaching out to subscribers individually, a process known as dunning. Ask vendors if they have built-in dunning support and/or integrate with your email platform, so that this doesn’t turn into a manual and time-consuming process.

FabFitFun and WineDirect, for example, are two merchants that use Recurly to manage their dunning processes.

How Much Time Will the Subscription Billing Software Save You?

Look for a vendor that understands time is money; the best subscription billing platform will minimize the need for human intervention. You don’t want to be stuck fiddling with the software to derive the full suite of benefits. What good are those benefits if they pull you away from other value-producing activities?

How much time you’ll save is harder to quantify than involuntary churn reduction. You won’t get a precise measurement, but insist on a vendor that strives to give you an estimate through the use of case studies and testimonials.

If a vendor can point to several customers that claim the software saved them countless hours, you may be onto a winner. We have put together several case studies, giving you a strong sense of what Recurly could do for your company.

Does the Vendor Have Experience in Your Industry?

Sure, it’s great if a subscription billing platform can point to several satisfied clients. But what you really want to see is several satisfied clients in your industry.

The challenges faced by a healthcare company are different than those faced by an education company which are different than those faced by a business services company… you get the idea.

We mentioned case studies in the last section for a reason: you should ask a potential vendor if they can provide any case studies of companies in your vertical. 

But that’s not all: make sure your vendor has an intimate understanding of the challenges that companies like yours specifically face. Recurly, for example, conducts studies and puts together detailed reports that can help you understand how you compare to your peers when it comes to subscription performance.

Can The Vendor Support a Global Expansion?

Recurly-Going-Global

Maybe you only do business in the US—or a few countries—today. But that may not always be the case. If your company already has plans for an international expansion, or those plans come later, you don’t want to wonder if your subscription billing platform can expand with you. Switching platforms is time-consuming and costly, after all.

You can start by asking a vendor how many currencies and languages they support. Recurly supports 140 currencies and 18 languages, so it’s easy to communicate with more subscribers. 

From there, you’ll want to dig a little deeper and see if a potential vendor is prepared to handle all of the payment and tax scenarios that come with running an international company. And, as mentioned earlier, it’s important that your subscription billing software supports multiple gateways popular in different parts of the world.

Payment Scenarios

International subscribers may want to pay in different ways than you are accustomed to. One popular international payment method is direct debit, which pulls payments directly from your subscribers’ bank accounts. 

In some countries, such as Brazil, most cards aren’t authorized for international transactions. If your company does business in Brazil without an on-the-ground Brazilian presence, you’re going to face high decline rates.

So, how do you make sure your company’s international expansion won’t be accompanied by high involuntary churn?

Ask potential vendors how they handle different payment scenarios. The best will have partnerships and infrastructure that can process recurring payments in whatever form they take.

Tax Scenarios

Taxes are complicated enough when you’ve got subscribers in only one country. When you’ve got a global customer base, it can turn into a nightmare. That’s why a subscription billing platform that takes this burden off of you as much as possible is a necessity.

For basic calculations and configurations, many platforms will have native solutions.

But again, taxes are complicated, so you’ll want to ask potential vendors if their platform makes it easy to manage tough scenarios, possibly through integration with tax software. 

Streaming companies in particular often face extremely confusing tax scenarios. But Recurly integrates with Avalara AvaTax to make tax calculations as easy as possible for them. We work on creating these efficiencies not just for streaming companies, but across all industries: Recurly integrates with Avalara and Vertex, two leaders in the tax calculation and remittance space.

Does It Meet Your Internal Stakeholders’ Requirements?

Throughout this piece, a common theme has been that your choice will hinge on your company’s unique needs and future plans. It’s quite possible (even likely) that there’s a lot you don’t know.

Look to fill in the gaps in your knowledge by talking with different departments within your company. They can tell you what your company needs in a platform now and in the future. For example, approach your product and engineering team for insights on the competitive landscape, operational metrics, and packaging & pricing plans.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What kinds of plans do we offer today, and what's on the roadmap?

  • How do our subscribers manage their subscriptions today? In which ways can we improve this?

  • What kinds of payment options do we currently offer subscribers? Do we plan to offer more in the future?

  • How should we communicate with subscribers whose payments have failed? How do we do so today?

  • Are we planning to expand our product/service offerings to regions where other currencies/payment methods are used or where the regulatory environment differs?

That should give you an idea about the types of questions you should be asking, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. This worksheet contains a more exhaustive list of questions, including for your customer success, IT and security, and finance & accounting teams.

Is the Vendor on Top of Privacy, Security, and Compliance?

They aren’t the most exciting subjects, but you certainly don’t want to neglect privacy, security, and compliance. The consequences of overlooking any of these can be catastrophic.

Again, finding a vendor with a global presence comes into play. For example, the European Union implemented GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) a few years ago, which brought sweeping reforms to data protection and privacy in the region. If you have a presence in the EU, or plan to expand there, ask potential vendors if they are GDPR-compliant.

Regulations don’t just vary from country to country, however. They can also vary from state to state. California, for example, has the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). Clearly, you want to ask potential vendors if they are up-to-date on the happenings within each country where you want to do business. But you want to go a little further and ask how they plan to stay on top of new regulations—more will always be coming down the pike.

And it’s not just about where you do business, but how much business you do. PCI compliance is based on how many transactions your company processes per year and which card issuers you accept payment through. The auditing process, as it pertains to PCI compliance, is also impacted by your revenue. Initially, the audits can be done through self-assessment, but once you reach a certain revenue threshold, you’ll need to bring an auditor on-site to ensure credit card payments are tokenized correctly, payments are initiated properly, and so on. The right vendor can work with you to ensure this process goes smoothly.

Fraud Management

Fight fraud2x

Fraud and chargeback-related expenses account for 13-20% of merchants’ operating budgets. You simply can’t afford to overlook fraud prevention when choosing a subscription billing platform.

Look for the following in an effective fraud management solution:

  • Easy to implement and easy to use

  • Addresses fraud across all channels

  • Uses customizable criteria to automatically decline suspicious transactions

  • Supports multiple gateways

Recurly has a built-in integration with Kount, making it the only subscription billing platform that includes an integrated, comprehensive fraud prevention solution.

Integration

Keeping sensitive customer data safe is probably one of your top organizational priorities. Integration across your entire tech stack helps to create airtight security.

Let’s say you have an SSO (single sign-on) platform, such as Okta. You’d want to make sure that it integrates with your subscription billing platform to ensure sensitive customer data stays secure and that only the right people within your organization can access it.

Reaching a Final Decision

Whew! That’s a lot of ground we just covered.

A subscription billing platform can be a make-or-break success factor for your company, though, so you have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s.

When you’re making your final decision, remember to consider:

  • How easy it is to get started.

  • Where your company is and where it’s going,

  • How each platform will impact your bottom line.

  • The amount of experience vendors have in your vertical and across the world.

  • The opinions of your internal stakeholders.

  • How each vendor approaches privacy, security, and compliance.

At Recurly, we combine a data-driven approach with client conversations to ensure that we check all of the boxes. Learn more about what Recurly can do for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are recurring payments and subscription billing?

Sustainable companies thrive on happy, loyal customers that keep coming back for more. Many companies in any and every industry build long-term customer relationships by offering their customers subscriptions.

It’s a win-win: businesses get constant, predictable revenue and can simplify how they take payments, while subscribers enjoy an easy recurring billing experience—not to mention a stream of valuable recurring products or services.

Subscription billing makes recurring payments effortless. All companies have to do is get subscribers to choose a plan and offer up their payment information once in order to start a long-term customer relationship.

What is subscription billing, and how does it differ from regular billing?

Companies that sell anything online have basic billing and invoicing needs. Small- and medium-sized companies can typically get by using software like Quickbooks, while midmarket and enterprise companies usually use something more sophisticated, like Sage Intacct or Quickbooks Enterprise.

Companies that offer subscriptions, however, need specialized subscription billing software that can easily handle recurring billing. Subscription billing involves a lot of work on the back end, such as pricing and plan configuration, mitigating churn, and handling different kinds of billing models.

In short, specialized subscription management software does everything companies need to manage all aspects of their subscription billing.

What are the benefits of subscription billing?

Companies that offer subscriptions—and the customers that avail of these offerings—benefit in a number of ways.

First, subscription billing helps minimize risk. Subscribers only have to enter their billing information once, that information is securely stored, and from there, subsequent payments are automated. Less input means fewer opportunities for error or fraud.

Second, offering a variety of pricing and plans lets you diversify your offerings and deliver consistent value to your customers. Subscribers can self-select based on what they want and what they’re able to pay for on a recurring basis, and upgrade or downgrade their plans at every time. Moreover, it’s easier to meet your customers where they are by offering them a variety of payment methods.

Third, subscription billing helps ensure a more predictable revenue stream, stabilizing revenue and making budgeting simpler. This is advantageous for both you (consider the benefits for your finance team) as well as your subscribers—think about how complicated life would be if the goods and services you consume on a recurring basis varied wildly in price every month!

Fourth, recurring billing helps you scale and develop better offerings, increasing customer “stickiness.” Most Netflix subscribers, for example, don’t cancel their subscriptions even when the price increases because Netflix constantly comes out with new content, fueled by the recurring payments they get from you and millions of other subscribers every month. Similarly, by simplifying your revenue outlook, subscription billing can help you deliver more value to your subscribers and keep them loyal for the long term.

What can subscription billing software do? Do I need a subscription billing and management solution?

The best subscription billing software can help you manage every aspect of your subscription program. It can help you:

  • Grow subscription revenue by helping you manage and test new pricing plans and payment options
  • Make billing frictionless and help you account for Recurring Billing Models, such as quantity-based pricing
  • Recover revenue that would otherwise be lost by minimizing involuntary churn
  • Improve decision-making by giving you deep insight into how your subscription programs are performing
  • Automate tax collection
  • Detect and address fraud

If you charge customers on a recurring basis, subscription billing software can help you simplify all of these workflows (and more) so you’re not managing disparate tools and trying to run your business out of hundreds of spreadsheets.

Should I build my own subscription billing software or buy one?

There’s a lot to consider when thinking about building your own solution or investing in a platform like Recurly. You’ll need to consider whether you have the engineering resources to build an initial solution and keep it updated over time, whether your business will expand to new regions, and what capabilities your teams internally care about.

To make things easier, we’ve created a comprehensive checklist for your company to understand all the features and capabilities you’ll need in a subscription billing solution.

How can I determine the best subscription billing platform for my company?

Start with our evaluation worksheet, an interactive Excel spreadsheet that will guide you through all the questions you need to ask of your teams internally as well as the vendors you’re considering. It’ll help you find the right platform for you, whether that’s Recurly or one of our competitors.

What kinds of industries use subscription billing software?

Subscriptions are everywhere, and the subscription economy is showing no signs of stopping. All kinds of businesses that take recurring payments use subscription billing software, including:

  • Software and SaaS
  • Consumer goods & retail (including DTC brands)
  • Digital media and entertainment
  • Education
  • Business & professional services
  • Healthcare
  • Travel, hospitality, & entertainment
  • Government & non-profit
  • Telecom, energy, & utilities

What’s the difference between subscription billing software and a subscription billing platform?

Subscription billing software and subscription billing platforms usually refer to the same thing: a solution to help you manage all aspects of your subscription programs. That said, when evaluating different vendors, you should look for a true platform that can integrate with every part of your payments tech stack, from gateways and accounting software to tax calculators and fraud mitigation software.
Only when you combine the power of a subscription billing platform with the entire payments ecosystem can you optimize your subscription business and get a sense for how it’s performing.

How do subscription billing platforms usually charge?

Subscription billing platforms typically charge a low flat fee per month, plus a tiny percentage of your total transaction volume. It can also depend on which capabilities you need. Check out Recurly’s plans to get a sense for how we charge our customers.

Table of Contents