Overcoming Price Objections in Small Business

Many the small business entrepreneur complains about not being able to charge enough to make good profits. Yet, in the business world around us, we all see businesses who seem to be doing very well and who charge the proverbial “arm and a leg” for what they do. Why is it that some niches seem more capable of avoiding price sensitivity than others? For instance, goods that carry with them a great customer experience command a luxury price. Mark Stiving took note of how the healthcare industry is a conundrum when it comes to pricing. In an article for All Business, he made the following observations:

“It’s something we all need. It’s an industry where there is huge pressure from major insurance companies, the media, governmental agencies, and even consumer groups to cut costs and prices. However, even with these factors prices have never been driven down to commodity levels or even to parity.”

Pricing

This is in sharp contrast with the experience of many small business owners. I hear all the time about being beat up on price, having to price services in competitive bid situations near the bottom, and many other such war stories. As you can imagine, I often am advising clients to compete on value versus price. Just how does one go about this?

Stiving continues in his piece, noting the following consumer behavior in healthcare:

“How is this possible? Like almost everything in pricing, human psychology is at the root. For example, when was the last time you used price to decide where you were going to have a medical procedure done? When was the last time you even knew the price of the service before going in?

Most people don’t pay attention to prices because their insurance company pays. Yet virtually everyone has co-pays, and therefore knows the general cost and has an incentive to ‘price shop’. Think about it. Even a 10% co-pay on $1,000 is $100. Isn’t it worth $100 to find the best deal for a procedure? So most people have financial incentives to shop for price, but don’t.”
Let’s focus on several key words and phrases from the quote.
  1. Human psychology. If you are sharp enough to have built a target market strategy, you have surely thought through who you want to serve. What is often overlooked, however, is how and why people buy. As is pointed out, consumers have habits. Observe the habits and then customize your approach to what you see.
  2. Insurance company pays. This fact is significant because it illustrates that many buying decisions are facilitated by removing the consumer from having to make a painful (excuse the pun) choice. Think of software as a service as another type of business wherein the monthly $9.99 or whatever you allow to be charged to your card on file is “out of sight, out of mind.” How can you make purchasing easier and less “thinky” for your customers so that the decision is almost automatic? Do you have something that could be billed on a recurring basis at a lower price point?
  3. But don’t. In describing how healthcare consumers do not look around for alternatives, Stiving makes a keen observation. Even when alternatives exist, they are often not sought out. Those who study consumer behavior far more than me would point out that the trouble associated with switching to something new holds many buyers back from changing to what may even be a better value. How can you use this behavioral paradigm to your advantage? Can you make it easier for others to but from you instead of the competition? How can you make it harder for existing customers to stop buying from you?

Finding a way to address these three issues in your own business will pay off. As you are able to make inroads, you will find that your pricing becomes justified and that you won’t have to fight as hard to maintain price integrity.

 

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When and Why to Withdraw Money From a Start-up

Working with entrepreneurs all day every day produces a certain fixation with what is most important to their survival. Unfourtunately, what is best for the business may not (in the short run) be what is best for its founders. Constantly, with existing operating businesses, there is the challenge of how much to compensate the owners and be fair about it. With start-ups, the goal is to get to the place that one can get paid at all. 

Recently, I ran across the story of Vinyl Me, Please. This new business is seeking to capitalize on the revived appreciation of vinyl records. While the number of records sold nationally has increased each of the past five years andby over 17% in 2012, the co-founders are trying to realize the benefit of the trend in their own business and wallets. They still are not earning a living from their efforts, though the prospects of doing so are better than at any prior point.

Vinyl recordsJeff Cornwall at Belmont University writes that, “The niche that Vinyl Me, Please fills is to bring new and interesting music to a new generation of vinyl record enthusiasts.  Each month the subscribers to Vinyl Me, Please are sent a brand new, hand-wrapped vinyl album from a relatively undiscovered artist. In addition to the monthly vinyl record, subscribers are assigned a personal music consultant who gets to know their musical tastes and preferences.  Every month the consultant creates a personalized playlist specific to each subscriber. Vinyl Me, Please brings together in one service what today’s young music enthusiasts want.  Their customers love the sound of vinyl, they like to interact on social media with friends about new music to try, and they like the surprise factor they get from services like Pandora.”

As a daily user of Pandora (and demographic that grew up with LPs), I can truly appreciate this business concept. Interesting to every new venture is how to make the most of market trends to create customer experiences that are profitably delivered and fun to pursue. Cornwall observes of the Vinyl Me Please business model that, “although they have identified what their market wants, their model has proven to be a challenge to scale to a large enough size to pay the founders a consistent salary.  They need to grow to at least 700 subscribers to reach this important milestone.”

He goes on to provide an account of his interaction with one of the co-founders, Matt Fiedler, and what he feels needs to occur next in their business development:

“The biggest challenge we face is keeping the personal touch,” says Fiedler.  “We think this is what makes the experience unique to a lot of people and is something we’re going to have to fight through in order to achieve true scalability.  We need to find a way to maintain a personal touch but be able to bring a massive number of customers into the system without it straining the resources of the company.”

They have recognized that it will not be possible to continue to hand wrap the albums as the business grows.  They also are looking at ways to make the personal consulting more efficient.

“We have plans to set up an internal database that allows us to categorize and sort music to create a more efficient process around creating playlists,” explains Fiedler.  “We are also looking at rolling out a playlist-only offering that will help us capture more users and, at the same time, start paying our consultants without dipping into the revenue that comes in from standard, full-membership subscribers.”

This commentary demonstrates the need for business launches to be very iterative, flexible, and responsive. Finding some group who will purchase your product or services is not enough; sustainability comes with staying attuned to original and ensuing target market needs.

 

Stay Out of the Ditches of Entrepreneurial Growth

Having studied causes of business failure and what can be reversed versus what is usually fatal, I can assure that a leading problem for small businesses is unplanned growth. When the pace of advancement exceeds the ability of the infrastructure to keep up–in any category–there will be problems galore. Bankers, CPAs, and attorneys have all witnessed this phenomenon with their small business clients and wished they could have persuaded the founder to slow things down until growth became more manageable.

Jeff Cornwall, of Belmont University in Tennessee, writes a popular blog entitled The Entrepreneurial Mind. In a recent post, he says that, “The road to growth can be both narrow and treacherous.  There is not a lot of room for error, and when you make a mistake it can lead to serious or even fatal consequences for the business. There are two ditches alongside the road to growth.” Below, I have featured excerpts from his post on the subject of the two ditches:two ditches

  • One ditch is the one that catches those businesses that underestimate what they have to do to manage their growth.  This is the ditch that most people worry about with fast growing businesses.

Entrepreneurs who end up in this ditch spend too much time continuing to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the business and not enough time working on creating an organization that can support growth.

These entrepreneurs move too slowly to build a team to whom they can begin to delegate important functions and tasks.  As they add employees, they don’t create systems and procedures that make sure work gets done efficiently and effectively.  They don’t think about what organizational structure will best support their strategy and achieve their goals.  And they don’t take the time necessary to intentionally build the culture they want to have within their business.

Entrepreneurs who get caught in this ditch alienate customers with poor service and lose their best employees due to frustration with the constant internal chaos.

If failure is the ultimate result, it is not because of a poor product.  It is due to poorly managed growth.

  • The other ditch is the one that catches those entrepreneurs who actually over-prepare for growth.

These entrepreneurs hire too many managers too quickly, added overhead expenses that the business is not yet ready to support.

They also make systems and procedures that are much more complicated than necessary, also adding to cost and bogging down employees and customers in excess complexity and paperwork.

Eventually it can seem like employees are serving the system, rather than the system supporting them and making their jobs more manageable.  And even worse, customers can begin to feel like they are serving the company rather than the company serving them.

If failure is the ultimate result for entrepreneurs who end up in this ditch, it is due to over-managed growth that kills the innovation that made the business special and successful.

What, then, is the solution? Cornwall suggests (and I would concur!) balance. The choice to grow should be a conscious choice. Sure–everyone who begins a business hopes it will be successful. Note, however, that growth is not necessarily a sign of success, but can be like an albatross hung around one’s neck. Managed, sustainable growth is more likely to be a solid measurement of success in small business. 

Determine how you will handle the growth long before it arrives so that you neither allow the enterprise to flail out of control nor squelch its inertia with an overkill of “orbiting the giant hairball.”

Entrepreneurs Who Don’t Pass the Grade

Can an entrepreneur be graded? What would the assessment look like? Jason Nazar, the founder of Docstoc, created a 55 question assessment to do just that. He posted it on Forbes yesterday and invited the reader to begin with the end in mind. The questions are listed below:

Checklist man

1. See opportunity where others see issues 

2. Have a discipline for making decisions among various opportunity costs

3. Rapidly double down on something when it starts to work and blow it out to its full potential 

4. Balance “gut decisions” with of a love of data-driven decisions

5. Focus on 

6. Stay attached to the problem they are trying to solve, but be flexible in the solutions to solve it 

7. Know when to apply a 

8. Protect their downside and prevent the organization from being put at risk

9. Communicate expectations clearly, build buy-in and hold everyone accountable (most of all themselves)

10. Encourage open feedback on what they can improve

11. Put others in positions to make critical decisions and drive key initiatives forward 

12. Prefer to give credit than to take credit

13. Do, or have done, what they ask others to do

14. Remain organized and disciplined in any work habits that affect others

15. Seek out and follow the council of advisors in and outside of the business 

16. Balance “Coaching and Cheerleading” vs. “Doing and Directing” 

17. Know when to set unrealistic goals

18. Regularly thank and appreciate others for a job well done (thanks to my co-founder Alon Shwartz for reminding me)

19. Make themselves consistently accessible to their team

20. Are honest and ethical in all their dealings

21. At least 20% of their time goes towards recruiting top talent (tip: some say 50% via Vinod Khosla)

22. Build a team of A vs. B players

23. Define the most important qualities for hiring 

24. Counter-balance their weaknesses by hiring people better than them

25. Hire Fast & Fire Fast 

26. Define what the culture should be

27. Create an ingrained culture, not one of platitudes 

28. Make the culture about something bigger than business 

29. Build ownership and accountability across the entire organization

30. Put in their own capital before they ask others to put in theirs

31. They sell ether, sell the dream

32. Have mastered the investor pitch process

33. They first sell themself

34. Understand “People, Product, Progress, Passion, Persistence” 

35. Always ensure the business is properly capitalized 

36. Treat investor’s capital like a borrowed treasure to be protected and returned

37. Know their product better than anyone else

38. Regularly talk with customers to see what can be improved

39. Have a vision for the product that gets translated across the organization

40. Make their product different and better than the competition

41. Build lean products iteratively and ship expeditiously

42. Genuinely care about the interests of the customer more than their personal financial gain

43. Focus on execution over ideas

44. Participate in key sales functions and deals 

45. Spend enough time courting key relationships that move the business forward

46. Great at generating PR and buzz for the company 

47. Listen more than they talk 

48. Stay scrappy as they grow 

49. Have a strong sense of demand and how to extract it 

50. Self aware, willing to admit mistakes and take responsibility

51. Fierce competitiveness, hate to lose

52. Extreme sense of urgency and intense work ethic

53. Have a big WHY 

54. Can sell the dream

 

55.) Do they get results with integrity?  That is the only standard by which entrepreneurs are eventually judged.  Everything else is just a test; grades don’t matter, but results do.

 

What a great and wise summary of what’s most important! When Nazar sums it all up in the phrase “results with integrity,” he eliminates all doubt as to what is really the key driver in successful leaders–be they entrepreneurial, intrapreneurial, or otherwise! 

Picking a Small Business Niche That Will Grow in 2013

Some business owners just started their enterprises since the 21st century “great recession.” Others have been in business considerably longer. Whether new or “seasoned,” most want to know what trends their businesses face. Knowing growth rates of a market sector can be very helpful–if for no other reason than benchmarking one’s own performance against the average of one’s peers. A company that compiles a lot of research data on small businesses in my own back yard of Raleigh, North Carolina is Sageworks. In an interview with Catherine Clifford of Entrepreneur.com, Libby Bierman of Sageworks said that a recent study by her company showed the average growth rate of small businesses across all industries was 8% in 2012.

While growth is a very good sign, there are winners and losers in every statistical average. Certain sectors, however, performed poorer than others. According to the research, the slowest growth industries for U.S. small businesses in 2012 were:

  1. Skilled nursing care facilities: -3.29 percent
  2. Printing and related support activities: 1.86 percent
  3. Automotive repair and maintenance: 2.81 percent
  4. Offices of physicians: 3.00 percent
  5. Highway, street, and bridge construction: 4.24 percent
  6. Insurance agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities: 4.32 percent
  7. Lessors of real estate: 5.07 percent
  8. Other miscellaneous manufacturing including jewelry and silverware, sporting and athletic goods, dolls, toys, and games, office supplies other than paper, and signs: 5.55 percent
  9. Offices of health practitioners other than physicians and dentists, including chiropractors, optometrists, mental health practitioners, speech and occupational therapists: 5.98 percent
  10. Other amusement and recreation services including bowling centers, golf courses, and recreational centers: 6.03 percent

As I reviewed the list above earlier today, it occurs that personal services, low technology manufacturing and discretionary spending-based businesses have been it hard. Why would this be the case? In terms of  the personal services businesses, many of them are healthcare related. The Affordable Care Act may have a lot to do with this poorer performing sector, as many have shunned making decisions to invest capital in an arena that is in extreme flux. Many before me have written about the loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas competitors. In the United States, we have become less competitive in manufacturing that is not highly customized or based on a technology. Whether infrastructure projects or amusement, spending is down on items that don’t seem necessary. Take note if you have a business in any of the above sectors. While you may be able to outperform your sector, you may consider how your sector as a whole is not growing as quickly as others. How should you respond? This question should drive your strategic planning.

Professional officeHowever, the list of fastest growing sectors (below) identified by this research highlights some additional trends and opportunities. Many who have the flexibility to diversify or move their efforts to one of these sectors should seriously consider doing so.

Fastest-Growth Industries for U.S. Small Businesses in 2012

  1. Residential building construction: 14.77 percent

  2. Building custom software and servers for businesses: 14.29 percent

  3. Machinery, equipment, and supplies merchant wholesalers: 13.75 percent

  4. Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: 12.31 percent

  5. Architectural, engineering, and related services: 11.40 percent

  6. Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors: 11.37 percent

  7. Building finishing contractors who make additions, alterations, maintenance and repairs: 11.32 percent

  8. General freight trucking: 10.41 percent

  9. Services to buildings and dwellings, including pest exterminators, janitorial services, and landscaping: 10.11 percent

  10. Other specialty trade contractors, including site preparation activities and other specialized trades: 10.04 percent

Most of these businesses, as Bierman mentions in her interview, require very little capital to get going. They do not require the purchase of expensive assets and can be successful based on the strength of human capital. As a result, business services firms are performing strongly and should continue to do well.