How Real Are those Price Pressures?
By GEORGE F. BROWN, JR., Author, CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers Overcome Theirs
Decisions on pricing are almost among the toughest ones facing business executives. Customers and competitors alike put tremendous pressure on firms that raise prices. At the same time, ongoing increases in the costs of health care benefits, energy, raw materials, wages, and other factors of production cannot be easily overcome without price increases. The question most often asked in discussions about pricing is “How real are those price pressures?” If they reflect fundamental market forces, price increases can translate into lost business and a serious erosion in market share. If they involve posturing and negotiation tactics alone, price increases can remove a lot of the pressure on the coming year’s annual plan.
Four fundamental indicators can help to determine if price pressures are real or not. Each of these can be measured, and provides solid insights into the characteristics of a firm’s business environment that impact on pricing decisions. These indicators are useful in multiple ways. In addition to helping to identify price pressures that must be taken seriously, they are useful when monitored over time and when evaluated from one product line to another or from one market segment to another.
Monitoring these indicators over time can spotlight instances in which a product is evolving towards commodity status, with the obvious implications of such a migration in terms of future margins and the need to focus on ways of reducing the costs of such products. Evaluating these indicators across product lines and market segments can allow a firm to focus price increases appropriately, thereby avoiding a strategy that is on average right, but wrong for every product and market segment.
One executive commented that his sales team’s philosophy seems to be to respond to every price challenge that is encountered. That strategy might avoid an occasional loss of business to a competitor, but it has adverse long-term implications. In CoDestiny, we discuss the trap of falling unnecessarily into a vicious cycle of price-based competition. Firms that do so subsequently find themselves having to reduce investments in product development, high-value services, and other ways in which they respond to customer needs and differentiate their offering. As they do so, their products become more and more of a commodity, and price cuts become the only way in which they can win competitive battles.
The first indicator that defines the strength of pricing pressures is the capacity balance in the industry. Simply stated, the more excess capacity that exists in an industry relative to demand, the more real and intense pricing pressures will be. This indicator can change rapidly over time as demand moves with the business cycle. It also can change in a significant step-function way as firms build new plants or shutter older ones. To a significant extent, this indicator is one that is largely outside the control of the individual firm. It can make decisions on its own capacity, but except in a few unique industries, the overall capacity balance is determined by other industry participants. The capacity balance is a very significant indicator; in industries with a massive overhang of unused capacity, the pricing pressures will be incredibly intense, almost overshadowing any favorable implications that might be seen in the other three indicators.
The second indicator involves the degree of “protection” that exists for the business or product line being examined. Protection can be legal in the form of patents or copyrights, but it also can involve the degree of customization, engineering, design, or service embedded into the product. The evidence is strong that such value contributions place implicit barriers to competition and impose significant costs of change on customers that shift suppliers. The customers that elect to buy products which are customized or highly engineered do so because of the value they get from them; as a result, they are not likely to casually shift to another supplier with increased risk of disappointing results. In a common sense way, this indicator reflects the fact that when a supplier’s offering includes elements that are of high value to customers, that supplier should be able to capture some of that value in their pricing.
The third indicator focuses on the business environment into which the supplier is selling. In healthy business environments, pricing pressures are less intense and less real. The measures of health involve not only the supplier’s direct customer, but even more so the customers are later stages further along the customer chain. Every business has seen occasions when everyone is scrambling to keep up with demand. In those circumstances, price challenges are often the furthest thing from everyone’s mind. And every business has seen unhealthy markets, ones in which finding a customer is itself a challenge. In those situations, the tendency is to look back at the supply chain and battle for every dime. Pricing pressures travel along the customer chain. If a participant at any stage of the customer chain, from the lowest tier supplier to the final end customers that use the product, is facing a difficult business environment, the implications tend to ripple along the customer chain, another manifestation of the old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
The fourth indicator focuses on the relationship between the supplier and the customer. There are two basic elements to this indicator. On the positive side, instances in which the parties consider each other a “strategic supplier” or a “strategic customer” are ones in which pricing pressures are likely to be less intense. This isn’t to suggest that buyers become soft in strategic relationships. Rather, the reality is that other elements to the relationship are far more important than price, and pricing rarely dominates the agenda of meetings between the two organizations. In strong relationships, the firms involved have largely solved the pricing issue, and can quickly reach agreement and move on to more important topics. On the negative side, our research indicates that the suppliers that rank among the customer’s largest, suppliers whose products are expensive, and suppliers whose products represent a significant portion of their customer’s product cost structure sit on the bulls-eye, attracting the attention of both purchasing managers and competitors.
In the context of various consulting projects, we’ve examined these indicators in many diverse industries and economic environments. Over and over, the result has shown significant variation from product line to product line and from one market segment to another. Such learning has allowed firms to make pricing decisions that were appropriate to the business environment in which they were operating, and to do so on a segment by segment basis. Occasionally, the process has spotlighted sharp shifts taking place from one time period to the next, allowing firms to make forward-looking pricing decisions.
The process has also allowed firms to uncover quite a few surprises in the indicators and their implications — and these surprises have been in both directions, some positive ones where firms had inappropriately accepted pricing challenges as an ongoing reality and some negative ones in which firms had been unaware of the pressures that were sure to come. A real strength of this approach is the rigor that it brings to discussions of pricing, allowing firms to get beyond the latest “war story” and to discuss pricing options from a factual base.
George F. Brown, Jr., along with Atlee Valentine Pope, is the author of CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers Overcome Theirs, published by Greenleaf Book Group Press of Austin, TX. For more information, please visit www.codestinybook.com  for more details. He is also the CEO and cofounder of Blue Canyon Partners Inc., a strategy consulting firm working with leading business suppliers on growth strategy.