In my last post I discussed the importance of proper pricing for profitability and success. As most people know, you increase profitability by increasing revenue and/or decreasing costs. But, cost reduction doesn’t have to mean slashing headcount, wages, benefits, or other factors that could negatively affect morale and ultimately quality and customer satisfaction. There is often a better way.
The best businesses generally focus on repeatability, realizing that the more that you do something – anything, the better you should get at doing it. You develop a compelling selling story based on past successes, develop a solid reference base, and have identified the sweet spot from a pricing perspective. People keep buying what you are selling, and if your pricing is right there is money available at the end of the month to fund organic growth and operational efficiency efforts.
Finding ways to increase operational efficiency is the ideal way to reduce costs, but it does take time and effort to accomplish. Sometimes this is realized through increases in experience and skill. But, often optimization occurs through standardization and automation. Developing a system that works well, consistently applying it, measuring and analyzing the results, and then making changes to improve the process. An added benefit is that this approach increases quality as well, making your offering even more attractive.
Metrics should be collected at a “work package” level or lower (e.g., task level), which means they are related tasks at the lowest level that produce a discrete deliverable. This is a project management concept, and it works whether you are manufacturing something, building something, or creating something. This allows you to accurately create and validate cost and time estimates. And, when you are analyzing work at this level of detail it becomes easier to identify ways to simplify or automate the process.
When I had my company we leveraged this approach to win more business with competitive fixed price project bids that provided healthy profit margins for us while minimizing risk for our clients. Larger profit margins allowed us to fund ongoing employee training and education, fund innovation efforts, fund international expansion, and experiment with new things (products, technology, methodology, etc.) that were fun and often taught us something valuable. It was only possible because of our focus on doing everything as efficiently and effectively as possible, learning from everything we did– good and bad, and having a tangible way to measure and prove that we were constantly improving.
Think like a CEO, act like a COO, and measure like a CFO. Do this and make a real difference in your own business!
Pricing is one of those things that can make or break a company. Doing it right takes an understanding of your business (cost structure and growth / profitability goals), the market, your competition, and more. Doing it wrong can mean the death of your business (fast or slow), not being able to attract and retain the best people, and not having the opportunity to work to your full potential. These problems apply to companies of all sizes – although large organizations can absorb bad pricing decisions or sustain an unprofitable business much easier than small ones.
When I started my consulting company in 1999 the plan was to win business by pricing our services 10%-15% lower than the competition. It was a bad plan and it didn’t work. Unfortunately, this approach is something you see all too often in businesses today. In our case we didn’t start to grow until we increased our prices (about 10% more than the competition) and focused on our expertise and value. We were (correctly) perceived as being a premium alternative, and that positioning helped us grow.
Several years ago I had a management consulting engagement with a small software company. The business owner told me that they were, “an overnight success that was 10 years in the making.” His concern was that they might not be able to capitalize on recent success so he was looking for an outside opinion.
I analyzed his business, product, customers, and competition. His largest competitor is the industry leader in this space, and products from both companies were evenly matched from a feature perspective. My client’s product even had a few key features that better for Healthcare and Union environments. So, why weren’t they growing faster?
What I found is that competition was priced 400% higher for the base product. When I asked the owner, he told me their goal was to be priced 75% – 80% less than the competition. He could not explain why he did this, other than to state that his customers would be unwilling to pay any more than that. In many cases he lost head-to-head competition against that competitor, but almost never on features. Areas of concern were generally on the size and profitability of the company, and the risk created by each.
I shared the graph (below) with this person, explaining how proper pricing would increase their profitability and annual revenue, and how both of those items would help provide customers and prospects with confidence. Moreover, this would allow the company to grow, eliminate single points of failure in key areas (Engineering and Customer Support), add features, and even spend money on marketing.
In another example I worked with the Product Manager of a larger software company who was responsible for producing quarterly product package distributions. This work was outsourced and each build cost approximately $50K. I asked a simple question, “What is the break-even point for each distribution?” That person replied, “There really isn’t a good way to tell.”
By the end of the day I provided a Cost-Volume-Profit (CVP) analysis spreadsheet that showed the break-even point. Even more important, it showed the contribution margin and demonstrated there was very little operating leverage provided these products (i.e., they weren’t very profitable even if you sold a lot of them). The recommendations made were to increase prices (which could negatively impact sales) and/or make fewer releases per year, or find a more cost-effective way of releasing products. Without this analysis “business as usual” would have likely continued for several years.
Companies are in business to make money – pure and simple. Everything you do as a business owner or leader needs to be focused on growth. Growth is the result of a combination of factors, such as uniqueness of product or services provided, quality, reputation, efficiency and repeatability. Many of these are the same factors that drive profitability. Pricing can help drive profitability, so as you can see pricing can significantly impact growth.
Some customers and prospects will do everything possible to whittle your profit margins down to nothing. They are focused on their own short-term gain, and not on their long-term risk. Companies that are not profitable generally lack longevity. Those same companies expect to make a profit on their business, so it is unreasonable to expect anything different from suppliers. My feeling is that, “Not all business is good business” so it is better to walk away from bad business and focus on the business that helps your company grow.
One of the best books on pricing that I’ve ever found is, “The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing: A Guide to Profitable Decision Making” by Thomas T. Nagle and Reed K. Holden. This is an extremely comprehensive and practical book that I recommend to anyone responsible for pricing or who has P&L responsibility within an organization. This addresses the many complexities of pricing and is truly invaluable.
In a future post I will discuss the metrics that I use to understand efficiency and profitability. Metrics can be your best friend when it comes to finding ways to optimize pricing and maximizing profitability. This can help you create a systematic approach to business that increases efficiency, consistency, and quality.
At my company we developed a system where we know how long common tasks would take to complete, and had efficiency factors for each consultant. This allowed us to create estimates based on the type of work and the people most likely to work on the task, and fix bid the work. Our bids were competitive, and even when we were the highest priced bid we often won because we would be the only (or one of the few) companies to guarantee prices and results. Our level of effort estimates were +/- 4%, and that helped us maintain a 40%+ minimum gross margin for every project. This approach helped our business double in revenue without doubling in size.
There are many causes of poor pricing, which include: Lack of understanding of cost structure; Lack of understanding of the level of effort; and lack of concern for profitability (e.g., salespeople who are paid on the size of the deal, and not on margins or profitability). But, with a little understanding and effort you can make small adjustments to your pricing approach and models that can have a huge impact to the bottom line of your business.
Lord William Thomson Kelvin was a pretty smart guy in the 1800’s. He didn’t get everything right (e.g., he supposedly stated, “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”), but his success ratio was far better than most so he did have useful insight. I’m personally a fan of his quote, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.”
Business Intelligence (BI) systems can be very powerful, but only when they are embraced as a catalyst for change. What you often find in practice is that the systems are not actively used, or do not track the “right” metrics (i.e., those that provide insight into something important that you have the ability to adjust and impact the results), or provide the right information – only too late to make a difference.
The goal of any business is developing a profitable business model and then executing extremely well. So, you need to have something that people want, then need to be able to deliver high quality goods and/or services, and finally need to make sure that you can do that profitably (it’s amazing how many businesses fail to understand this last part). Developing a systematic approach that allows for repeatable success is important. Pricing at a level that is competitive and provides a healthy profit margin provides the means for growth and sustainability.
Every business is systemic in nature. Outputs from one area (such as a steady flow of qualified leads from Marketing) become inputs to another (Sales). Closed deals feed project teams, development teams, support teams, etc. Great jobs by those teams will generate referrals, expansion, and other growth – and the cycle continues. This is an important concept to understand because problems or deficiencies in one area can manifest themselves in other areas.
Next, understanding of cause and effect is important. For example, if your website is not getting traffic is it because of poor search engine optimization, or is it bad messaging and/or presentation? If people come to your website but don’t stay long do you know what they are doing? Some formatting is better for printing than reading on a screen (such as multi-column pages), so people tend to print and go. And, external links that do not open in a new window can hurt the “stickiness” of a website. Cause and effect is not always as simple as it would seem, but having data on as many areas as possible will help you understand which ones are really important.
When I had my company we gathered metrics on everything. We even had “efficiency factors” for every Consultant. That helped with estimating, pricing, and scheduling. We would break work down into repeatable components for estimating purposes. Over time we found that our estimates ranged between 4% under and 5% over the actual time required for nearly every work package within a project. This allowed us to fix bid projects to create confidence, and price at a level that was lean (we usually came-in about the middle of the pack from a price perspective, but the difference was that we could guarantee delivery for that price). More importantly, it allowed us to maintain a healthy profit margin that let us hire the best people, treat them well, invest in our business, and take some profit as well.
There are many standard metrics for all aspects of a business. Getting started can be as simple as creating some sample data based on estimates, “working the model” with that data, and seeing if this provides additional insight into business processes. Then ask, “When and where could I have made a change to positively impact the results?” Keep working and when you have something that seems to work gather some real data and re-work the model. You don’t need fancy dashboards (yet).
Within a few days it is often possible to identify the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are most relevant for your business. Then, start consistently gathering data, systematically analyzing it, and present it in a way that is easy to understand and drill-into in a timely manner. To measure the right things really is to know.
One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the seven years that I was running my own consulting business. Prior to that I had worked as an employee for midsize to large companies for ten years, and as one of the first hires at a start-up technology company. I felt that the combination of doing hands-on work, managing, selling, and helping establish a start-up (where I did not have an equity stake) provided everything needed to start my own business.
Well, guess what? I was only partially correct. I was prepared for the activities of running the business, but really was not prepared for the responsibility of running a business. While this seems like it should be obvious, what I’ve seen many times since then is that small business owners usually focus the majority of their efforts on growth / upside. That type of optimism is important for entrepreneurs – without it they would not bother putting so much at risk. I will write more posts about my business ownership experiences later.
People tend to adopt a different perspective on the decision making process once they realize that every action and decision can impact the money moving into and out of their own wallet. Even in a large business you can typically spot the people who have taken these risks and run their own business. It’s more than just striking out on your own as a contractor or sole proprietor. I’m talking about the people who have had employees, invested in capital equipment, and went all-in. These are the people thinking about the big picture.
What do these people do differently than people who have not had this type of experience?
One of the biggest things is they view business in terms of “good business” and “bad business.” Not all business is good business, and not all customers are good customers. There needs to be a fair commercial exchange where both sides receive value, mutual respect, and open communication. You know this is working when your customers treat you like a true partner (a real trusted advisor) instead of a vendor. A business is in business to make money, so if the work is not profitable it is very likely that you should not be doing it. And, if you are not delivering value to an organization it is very likely that you would be better off spending your time elsewhere – building your reputation and reference base.
When you are not thinking or acting like an owner it is all about the sale and your commission. Selling products and services that people don’t need, charging too little or too much, and making promises that you know will not be met are typical signs of a person who is not thinking like an owner. Their focus is on the short-term, and they often feel that someone else will fix this once it becomes their problem.
How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. My feeling is that employees are either viewed as Assets (to be managed for growth and long-term value) or Commodities (to be used-up and replaced as needed – usually viewed as fungible and treated as if they are easily replaceable). Your business is usually only as good as your employees, so treating them well and with respect creates loyalty and results in higher customer satisfaction. Successful business owners usually look for the best person out there, and not just the most affordable person who is “good enough” to do the job. The flipside is that you need to weed out the people who are not a good fit quickly. Making good decisions quickly and decisively is often a hallmark of a successful business owner.
Successful business owners are generally more innovative. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide good and/or services that are different and often better than what larger vendors offer. Sometimes this means specialization and customization, and sometimes this means more attention and better support. Regardless of what is different, these people are observant of the small details, understand their target market, and are good at defining a message that articulates that difference. These are the people that seem to be able to see around corners and anticipate both problems and opportunities. They do this out of necessity.
Former business owners are usually more conscientious about money, taking a “my money” perspective on sales and expenses. Every dollar in the business provides safety and opportunity for growth. These usually are not the people who routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on business meals, or who take unnecessary or questionable trips to nice places. Money saved on things like travel or training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.
While these are commonly traits found in successful business owners, it is possible to develop them even if you have never owned a business. Do you understand the big picture vision and mission of the company that you work at? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? When selling, are you focused on delivering value, developing a positive reputation within that organization, and profiting on the long-term relationship? When delivering services, is your focus on delivering what has been contracted – and doing so on time and within budget? Are your projects used as examples of how things should be done within other organizations? Are you spending money on the right things – not wasteful or extravagant?
These are all things that employees at all levels can do. They will make a difference and will help you stand out. That opens the door to career growth and change. And, it may get you thinking about starting that business you have always dreamed of. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to change and improvement.