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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