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Management Pricing Product management

Is it time to raise prices?

I recently received a question from someone who was curious about how to raise prices. They have service customers paying a monthly fee going back almost 20 years. All their customers are on the same price plan – and they’ve had always been at that price. They were concerned that they could not raise prices without losing a bunch of customers – a legitimate concern since they hadn’t changed their pricing in close to 20 years.

There’s a couple things to look at here. First off, if you’ve had customers for 20 years, you’re probably not going to raise prices by such an egregious amount that you’re going to lose a bunch of them.

One possible exception to that – you’re seriously under charging now, losing money and what some might consider an egregious increase is actually what you need to get your margins right. However, this seems extremely unlikely after 20 years unless losing money on this product is a recent development. What I usually find when I see someone’s books is that they’re doing OK, but could be doing a lot better if their pricing made more sense.

While this conversation could have a lot of variables, the raise prices question comes up fairly often. Many times “How do I raise prices for existing clients” ends with “… who have been paying ‘nothing’ forever?”

Customers going back almost 20 years who were all on the same price plan, so the company didn’t know what to do. They were concerned that they could not raise prices, without losing a bunch of customers.

There’s a couple things to look at here. First off, if you’ve had customers for 20 years, you’re probably not going to raise prices by such an egregious amount that you’re going to lose a bunch of them unless you’re seriously under charging now and actually losing money.

If you’re still losing money after 20 years. it’s hard not to wonder what’s wrong with you, or whoever is funding you. I’m guessing that’s unlikely. I didn’t look at this company’s books, but if I had, I suspect that they’re doing okay. And could be doing a lot better if the pricing and their price structure, made more sense.

It’s a bad time to raise prices

The first reaction to get out of the way is that now is a universally bad time to raise prices. It’s COVID time. It’s October. It’s 2020. Winter is coming. My competitors haven’t raised prices recently. Sales are down. We can find many reasons why the time is bad to raise prices. Some of them may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time.

Of course, raising prices for existing customers isn’t the same as raising them for new customers. While you’re focused primarily on pricing, keep in mind that “the price” is but a single component of “pricing”. Pricing includes volume, service delivery, packaging, price tiers, timeliness, value proposition, and other things.

How you sell this new pricing needs to be carefully thought out, particularly if it involves a restructuring of delivery, service structure, etc. Sometimes customers you’ve had for 20 years commonly have different needs and bought for different reasons than those who bought recently. Sometimes not. You should know.

A common thought is “What features can I add to the existing product so that I can raise the price for existing customers?” While that’s useful – do your existing customers want the new features you’re dreaming up to add to the product?

Negative margins? Nope.

The company with the question sells software as a service, but the conversation applies to almost any service that has a recurring service model. Sure, there are some exceptions to the “any service” thing, but there are an awful lot of parallels across industries.

First off… these customers don’t expect you to lose your shirt just so they can do whatever they do with your product / service. If they expect that, they’ll disappear when you make these changes and frankly – that’s a good thing. No one needs customers who buy a product with a negative profit margin. Sure, you might say “Well you know with the whole COVID thing, I can’t afford to get rid of customers.” Tell me, how many customers do you want if you’re losing money on each one? Do most businesses really want even one more customer that costs them more than they charge that customer? In almost every case – no. The exceptions are by design.

If I raise prices, I’ll lose customers

Almost everyone I talk to about these things feels this way when they prepare to raise prices. We know we might lose a few, but sometimes people get this wild idea that they’re going to lose 80% of their customers because of a price increase. Are you really providing that little value to your customers? I doubt it. I suspect you know your customers better than that. In my experience, it simply doesn’t work out that way. You’ll probably lose some but the math will probably work out with you doing less work and making more – even if the increase is small.

So how do prices get like this?

There are many reasons, including an addiction to coupons, not paying attention to margins, missing the impact of step costs as volume increases – among others. The two reasons I see most often are “we can’t do it now” and inattention. When I say inattention, I don’t mean anything specific. It’s as simple as not taking a regularly scheduled look at prices, costs, margins, etc – and then doing something about it when you find something wrong.

Back to the person who asked the question. They indicated that their customers had been paying $29 a month for between 15 and 20 years with zero price increases during that time. I don’t know how many customers they have – I didn’t ask because it doesn’t matter. I assume they are at least marginally profitable at that price level – or were until recently.

Given that customers have been paying $29 a month for 15 to 20 years, they either see $29 as a no-brainer value-wise or they are the type of person who never looks at their bank statements. If you have 1000 of them and 10% leave, you’ve lost $2900 a month. If you raise the price to a mere $32, you regain more than the $2900. But we’re not going to do that.

Stop the bleeding

First off, you have to keep things from getting any worse. Start by determining a fair price with a reasonable margin for new customers. If this is your entry level pricing – figure out what can be removed from it and remove it from that lowest tier. Do it now – before lunch. You should know what can be removed after 20 years.

Your entry price still needs to be a no-brainer, but it shouldn’t include every single thing you do. If you aren’t sure, ask whoever deals with customers all day. Sales, support, service – whoever. Ask them specifically. What portion of our services do our new customers rarely use or not need? Of the things that remain, are there any that create a significant hassle? Pull that one too. Your entry level customers should not have high support costs – and you should work on that next if they do.

Change that price and the explanation of accompanying services right now – before you do anything else. Once you do this, you know that whether you get 10, 100 or 1000 customers in the next month – it won’t be making things worse.

It doesn’t matter how the old price compares to the new one. It simply has to make sense to new customers. Maybe the old price was one percent of what the new price is. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that your new customers see value in what you deliver for that price.

The hard work

Before we worry about the old customers and their $29 price, we need to finish setting the new pricing. Get together with your team and see if you can group the customers you’ve gotten in the three years into a few segments. Don’t get complicated here. You can always do this again later – and you might.

Maybe you have customers new to the industry and for them, the entry service level (and price) is ideal for them. What other natural groupings do you have? Your people will know if you don’t. Ask them questions and do not interrupt. Listen. Take notes. Say “tell me more” or “is there anything else” until they’re done. Let them empty their minds on the table. They’re on the front lines. They may not know your costs or margins, but they know your customers.

Discuss what those groups need of the service levels you offer. Don’t make things up. Use data and conversations to drive decisions. Review the decisions with the team to make sure the grouping of services to a particular customer segment makes sense.

Once you’re done with that, look at your numbers, whether they are in some fancy software or on a chalkboard in the shop. Figure out a price that makes sense for each tier. Not a price relative to the 20 year old price, or even a price that tries to “look right” when compared to the entry price. Make the price a good value that preserves your margins.

Update all your prices and service information to reflect all of this work. Ask for feedback as people buy. You’ll want to know why they chose tier A instead of tier B. What’s different about the customers who consistently choose A over B, and vice versa. The value… the economics must make sense – but the mix of services at that level must also make sense. You wouldn’t give a teenager a Tesla X on an icy winter morning. You also wouldn’t send them out without studded snow tires on their 15 year old sedan.

It’s time to raise prices. Finally.

Tell your existing customers the truth about your unsustainable pricing and what you’ve done about it. They’re going to figure it out eventually anyway. Explain your new tiers and tell them what you believe is a good process for identifying where they belong. Don’t get all sales pitchy. Tell them how it is, tell them when the old price disappears and tell them specifically what they need to do and when. Make it as easy as possible – then make it easier. You’re not punishing them for the last 20 years. You’re setting things up so you’ll be around to help them for the next 20.

Some people will not understand. They will leave. Thank them for their time with you and let them go. Don’t argue with them. It’s their decision. A small percentage will be angry. Let them be. You can’t change that about people. It’s their decision. Thank them and move on.

So you raised your prices and the world didn’t end, but you know the problem isn’t completely solved.

With the new pricing, the economics of your business will change. Pay attention. You may have to go through a price exercise like this more often. You may find that assumptions about you customers will change – or maybe they won’t. Either way, you need to stay on top of it.

Don’t do anything that’s not sustainable. It was a lot of work to get out of the mess you were in. Let’s not do it again if we can avoid it.

Explain the economics

Some will wonder why your prices are what they are. It’s their nature. Your costs are usually none of their business. People don’t buy stuff from you because your costs are $x or $y. They buy because they want or need something and the value is acceptable.

If you need to explain your prices – do it as a value proposition. For example “We charge $1200 per month for our service, while allows our customers to save an average of 47 work hours of labor (for example) per week.” Buy or don’t buy becomes simple math at that point.

Sometimes, this is harder than it sounds, but you may as well do it because they are absolutely going to do it – and they may miss something because they don’t know your service or the follow on benefits as well as you do. There are times when all of the benefits are simply not obvious. Make them obvious.

Even if they choose not to buy your stuff, make it easy for them to assess their decision. If you need 90 minutes on the phone and 13 finance questions to close a sale, find a way to make it easier to understand.

This doesn’t mean assume your customers are dumb or lazy. They are busy. They don’t have time to mess around with spreadsheets and deep research and thought about your service. Make it like the buffet. Lay it out in front of them so all they have to do is choose – even if the choice is “not now”.

Photo by Bertrand Borie on Unsplash

Categories
Management market research Positioning Product management Sales Setting Expectations

Increase sales by making deployment easier

Everyone wants to sell more, yet few ask what impacts it the most: deployment. I had a long overdue conversation to catch up with Richard Tripp this week. His “POV method” is the best process I’ve seen for refining & re-prioritizing product focus. It’s based partly on finding out the number one outcome that the majority of your actual paying customers care about. Tripp calls this group of customers a company’s “center of success”. To my knowledge, use of his process has been limited to software companies – mostly SAAS companies. It struck me during a long drive yesterday that it could be used to improve the sales of any team. Teams with a deployed service or shipped product might gain the most.

Involve the whole team

The not-easily-impressed folks might think “Wooo, talking to customers – that’s a super new idea” and they’d be missing the point. Having been involved in many such efforts over the years – my experience is that the POV method is different & better.

It’s different in part because it isn’t about a group of VPs sitting around pontificating about things they’re disconnected from. Why disconnected? Because most VPs no longer spend time customers in the trenches. Even if you’re a owner/VP now, you weren’t always one, so you know what I mean. It’s better for the entire team to discuss progress together rather than in a series of silo’d departmental conversations. When everyone hears from everyone who has data / experiences to contribute, a much richer, more complete picture is the result.

One of the outcomes is the reduction of the pain and suffering required to adopt a product / service and substantially shrink / simplify the timeline from payment to “we’re getting the benefit we paid for”. I remember years ago watching the discovery process unfold during the early stages of a POV conversation about a group’s (non-SAAS) product.

During the discussion, a normally quiet member of the service / deployment team who spent all of their time with customers during the deployment process blurted out something like “Do you have any idea how frustrating our installs are and how long it takes our customers to go live with our software? At least three months!!

The product team’s reaction was shock and surprise, as you’d expect. Because management was part of the discussion, the project got immediate momentum. A substantial and cooperative joint effort between the product and the service departments to substantially pare down install / deployment challenges was the outcome – a small but high impact improvement.

Assembling a grill

Software deployment challenges are common, but deployment problems aren’t limited to software. The longer that the time-to-benefit period grows for any product or service, the easier it is for buyer’s remorse to take hold. If it takes 90 days to get your product or service producing, customers can lose sight of why they wanted the benefit.

It reminds me of buying a new grill, getting it home and putting it together.

If you’ve assembled a grill in the last 20 years, you know that the grill business needs some work. People buy a new grill because the old one finally rusted out, they need more capacity, or they’re having an event & need a bigger one. Most people don’t do this weeks in advance. They might buy the grill a day or two before the big event.

The likely result is one of those “It’s 10 pm on Christmas eve and I have toys to assemble” experiences. Instead of fitting together plastic parts, there’s sharp-edged sheet metal & screws that look alike but aren’t. Meanwhile, two people must hold the pieces in position so the third person can turn a few screws. Eventually, this pile of parts becomes something that will eventually cook a meal. Does it have to be this much trouble?

Imagine if the team(s) responsible for packaging, instructions, & parts watched consumers muddle through this process on a third floor apartment patio. Enlightenment is guaranteed. When a developer watches an end user use their software, it’s often painful because what seemed obvious almost never is.

Whether you make software, grills, or campers – your development, packaging, and deployment staff will learn important lessons simply by watching a few customers unpack, assemble, & deploy your product or service.

Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

Categories
Positioning Product management Setting Expectations

Selling someone else’s products

Have you ever thought about selling someone else’s products? When you sell someone else’s products,  parts of that vendor’s business obviously become a part of yours: their products and services. However, the reality is a good bit more complicated.

Be sure what business you’re in

When you consider selling someone else’s products, it’s critical to assess whether the product is germane to what you do.

For example, it isn’t hard to find stores selling fidget spinners. They’re an impulse buy that could add a small bump to daily sales, so grocery stores, convenience stores and the like could justify selling them back when they were hot.

However, it makes little sense to see these gadgets advertised on outdoor signage at pawn shops and musical instrument stores – which I’ve seen lately. The logic behind advertising out-of-context impulse items on a specialty retail store’s limited outdoor signage escapes me – particularly on high traffic streets.

Will it confuse their market? Will they lose their focus by selling a few $2.99 items? Doubtful. While they’re trying something to increase revenue, the emphasis on an out-of-context, low-priced impulse buy product is the reason I bring it up. It makes no sense for a specialty retailer.

When you start selling someone else’s product, there are questions you don’t want your clients and prospects asking. They include “Have their lost their focus?” and “What business is my vendor really in?”  These questions can make your clientele wonder if another vendor would serve them better.

Should you sell out of market?

I had this “Is it in context?” discussion with some software business owners this week.

One of the owners (not the tool vendor) is asking the group to sell the development tools they use to their customers & other markets. Ordinarily, this would be a head scratcher, since most software development tools generate their own momentum, and/or are marketed and sold with a reasonable amount of expertise. That isn’t the case with this tool vendor.

However, the discussion really isn’t about that tool vendor, even though they’re at the center of the discussion being had by these business owners. The important thing for you is the “Should we sell this product?” analysis.

Start the conversation by bluntly asking yourself if makes sense for your business to sell this product.

Adjacent space or different planet?

If your company sells to businesses that develop software internally or for sale to others, then you might consider selling a vendor’s software development tools to your customers. It might make sense if you sell into enterprise IT.

However, if you sell software to family-owned, local businesses like auto parts stores and bakeries, it makes no sense at all. You’re going to appear to be from another planet going to these customers to sell software development tools.

If you try to sell these tools in an unfamiliar market, then you’re starting fresh in a market your team probably isn’t used to selling and marketing into. The chance of losing focus is significant unless you’re leading your current market by a sizable margin and have plenty of extra resources.

Ideally, a new product line feels congruent to your team, clients and prospects. Even when it’s a good match, the work’s barely started as selling and supporting a ready-to-sell product requires a pile of prep work.

Your sales team needs training to sell the product and know how/when to integrate it into multi-product solutions. You need to include the product in your marketing and training mix. Your support team needs training to provide the level of support that your customers expect. Your infrastructure team needs to incorporate it into your CRM, accounting, website, and service management systems. Your deployment team may need training as well.

What if the new product’s vendor has problems?

Reputation damage is one of the biggest risks when selling someone else’s products, particularly if you have to depend on the other company to service and interact with your customers.

Does the product vendor provide support as good as yours? Do they communicate in a timely & appropriate manner? Do they service things promptly? Are they a good citizen in the developer community? These things are important in the software tools market. In your market, they may not matter.

The actions of the product’s creator reflect on you, since YOU sold the product to YOUR client. Carefully consider the risk/reward. Your entire clientele will be watching.

Categories
Product management

When is it OK to kill a product?

Does your company struggle with product life cycles? Some products make it easy to exterminate them. They get a tepid welcome in the market, produce little sales and/or are difficult to sell. It gets difficult when these product produce a decent amount of revenue – say 10% of your company’s gross income. In more difficult situations, these products may turn a profit, but it might be hard to find.

All of the sales, marketing and intellectual effort combined to keep the product alive can match or even exceed its revenue – making the decision seem easy. If there are multiple products in that situation and several of these products aren’t in the early part of their life cycle, you have work to do and revenue to replace.

In a manufacturing or assembly situation, there is inventory, equipment and floor space to consider, much less the potential lost opportunity cost of the space and funds being consumed for this product. When it comes right down to it, it’s hard to cut yourself off from that 10% of gross revenue.

If the product is profitable, we might only be talking about two or three percent of your profit. To a company with profit all over the building, the decision is probably easy. To a company losing five to ten percent of revenue, it means going in the red, even if only for that year. The repercussions of that loss can be more serious. There could be tax implications and possible impacts on lines of credit, etc.

Given all these considerations, how do you decide when a revenue-producing product’s life cycle is over? No one ever said this would be easy.

What makes it easy to kill a product?

I suspect I can get easy answers from your team about products they’d love to get rid of. The answers will sound something like this:

  • The product requires a difficult on-boarding, ramp up and/or installation process that customers don’t enjoy.
  • It’s difficult to pay a sales commission on the product, making it less attractive to the sales team, which makes it harder to sell.
  • The product requires substantial ongoing support or customer service.
  • High maintenance and service costs and related downtime make the product value harder for clients to realize.
  • The product attracts the worst kind of clientele. “Worst” from your company’s perspective, not mine.

You may have other reasons more specific to your situation.

What makes it hard to kill a product?

A better question might be “When is it not OK to kill a product?”

You can find any number of books, courses and strategic direction documents on how to manage a product life cycle. You may be an expert at managing a product through its life cycle. Even so, there are reasons why you wouldn’t want to kill a product that would normally get the ax for overhead or other financial reasons.

A few answers come immediately to mind:

  • When the product consistently attracts new customers who historically have a high LTV (lifetime value – ie: the revenue gained on average per customer), even if the value is usually delivered by another product.
  • A substantial percentage of the product’s customers ascend your product ladder.
  • The product acts as an add-on to your higher-end products.
  • Deployments of this product are an essential component of your product platform or ecosystem.
  • The addition of this product, however trivial, makes your overall offering unique and/or as a whole allows it to create much higher value than competitive product platforms.
  • This product attracts customers who can be described as ideal takeaways from your competition. I’m not a big market pie slicer (vs. expanding the size of the pie), but this is different. Ideal takeaways are the clients that you would cherry pick from your competition, if you could choose.

Bigger picture considerations

Before you kill a product, make sure that you’ve looked at it holistically, in other words – in the context of the entire company, strategy, market and the life cycle of your client community.

Does the product fit your overall strategy? Do the product’s clients fit the profile of clients you want and need? If the product still seems wrong when considering those two items, you may find that your overall strategy and/or client profile requires re-examination. In an extreme case, the “bad product” might be telling you that the market has changed and that it’s time to “fix the company”.

Photo by oneiric wanderings