Feb 222018

No One Will Ever Thank You for Keeping Prices Low

I was in a Board meeting last week (not Return Path’s), when one of my fellow directors came out with this gem:  “No one will ever thank us for keeping our prices low.”

When I first heard this, as is the case with most great quotes, I was drawn to its wit and simplicity.

But then I started thinking – is it true?  My mind first went to retail.  Having a reputation as being a low-cost provider can be in and of itself effective marketing – if that reputation is strong enough and your selection is wide enough, at least in retail-oriented industries, customers may consistently buy from you even if you’re not ALWAYS the low-cost provider.  Wal-Mart and Amazon prove this one out every day.  That’s the economic equivalent of customers thanking you for keeping your prices low.  Or pick an even more extreme example – gas stations, where there’s even more limited brand loyalty and even more product commoditization.  There’s really no reason to buy gas from a station who charges more than a couple pennies more per gallon than its neighbor.  No, thank you.

But in a B2B environment with smaller numbers of customers and smaller numbers of SKUs, this comment makes a lot more sense.  IT or Marketing departments don’t exactly go to the grocery store twice a week to buy data or software solutions!  I’m a big believer in the diminishing differences between the B2C and B2B universes, but this area may be one where the difference is still sharp.

Low prices might lure prospects to your doorstep, but they’re not going to keep buying your product if it’s not of sufficiently high quality.  Buyers measure quality in different ways, but here are three frameworks to think about as you contemplate the quality of your solutions relative to their prices:

  • Is the quality of your product “above the bar”? Meaning, does it work well enough to get the job done that customers are hiring you to do?  If not, you do not have a sustainable business.  If so, see the next two questions
  • Is the value of your product strong enough relative to the price you charge? Value-based pricing is increasingly difficult in an era of hyper competition, but if you can offer tailored enough solutions by vertical or of course by client, you can really optimize your pricing model
  • Is your price/value equation strong enough relative to the price/value equation of a competing solution? Sometimes a “just barely good enough” solution can beat out a superior solution as long as it’s a LOT cheaper and the job the client needs done isn’t mission critical

The final thought vector in this equation is friction.  Go back to the consumer examples above – your switching cost to buy gas at Station A one week and Station B the next week is zero.  But in a B2B environment, there’s always at least some friction around switching products.  Friction could be implementation cost, time, execution risk.  It could be employee or customer training.  It could be integration with other systems or workflows.  It could even be desire to maintain a halo effect from doing business with you.  The more friction you have with your product, the easier it is to maintain higher pricing.

So my conclusion is that high prices are rarely going to chase someone away in a B2B, low client count/low SKU/moderate friction environment.  And that means my fellow director was spot-on:  no one will ever thank you for keeping your prices low.  All in, this comment was a great reminder for any B2B organization about how to think strategically about pricing.

Jun 162011

Keeping It All In Sync?

Keeping It All In Sync?

I just read a great quote in a non-business book, Richard Dawkins’ River out of Eden, Dawkins himself quoting Darwinian psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s revolting of a likely apocryphal story about Henry Ford.  The full “double” quote is:

It is said that Ford, the patron saint of manufacturing efficiency, once

commissioned a survey of the car scrapyards in America to find out if there were parts of the Model T Fird which never failed. His inspectors came back with reports of almost every kind of breakdown:  axles, brakes, pistons — all were liable to go wrong. But they drew attention to one notable exception, the kingpins of the scrapped cars invariably had years of life left in them. With ruthless logic, Ford concluded that the kingpins on the Model T were too good for their job and ordered that in the future they should be made to an inferior specification.

You may, like me, be a little vague about what kingpins are, but it doesn’t matter. They are something that a motor far needs, and Ford’s alleged ruthlessness was, indeed, entirely logical. The alternative would have been to improve all the other bits of the car to bring them up to the standard of the kingpins. But then it wouldn’t have been a Model T he was manufacturing but a Rolls Royce, and that wasn’t the object of the exercise. A Rolls Royce is a respectable car to manufacture and so is a Model T, but for a different price. The trick is to make sure that either the whole car is built to Rolls Royce specifications or the whole car is built to Model T specifications.

Kind of makes sense, right?  This is interesting to think about in the context of running a SaaS business or any internet or service business.  I’d argue that Ford’s system does not apply or applies less.  It’s very easy to have different pieces of a business like ours be at completely different levels of depth or quality.  This makes intuitive sense for a service business, but even within a software application (SaaS or installed), some features may work a lot better than others.  And I’m not sure it matters.

What matters is having the most important pieces — the ones that drive the lion’s share of customer value — at a level of quality that supports your value proposition and price point.  For example, in a B2B internet/service business, you can have a weak user interface to your application but have excellent 24×7 alerting and on-call support — maybe that imbalance works well for your customers.  Or let’s say you’re running a consumer webmail business.  You have good foldering and filtering, but your contacts and calendaring are weak.

I’m not sure either example indicates that the more premium of the business elements should be downgraded.  Maybe those are the ones that drive usage.  In the manufacturing analogy, think about it this way and turn the quote on its head.  Does the Rolls Royce need to have every single part fail at the same time, but a longer horizon than the Model T?  Of course not.  The Rolls Royce just needs to be a “better enough” car than the Model T to be differentiated in terms of brand perception and ultimately pricing in the market.

The real conclusion here is that all the pieces of your business need to be in sync — but not with each other as much as with customers’ needs and levels of pain.