This article originally appeared on HBR.org.
Poor pricing practices are insidious—they damage a company’s economics but can go unnoticed for years. Consider the case of a major industrial goods manufacturer that was struggling with low profit margins, relative both to competitors and to its own historical performance. It traced much of the cause to a mismatch between its sales incentives and pricing strategy. The manufacturer was compensating sales representatives based solely on how much revenue they generated. Reps thus had little motivation to hit or exceed price targets on any given deal, and most were closing deals at the lowest permissible margin.
Like this manufacturer, many business-to-business (B2B) companies have a major opportunity to improve their standing on price. To help companies understand the state of pricing capabilities and how they figure into performance, Bain & Company conducted a global survey of sales leaders, vice presidents of pricing, CEOs, CMOs, and other executives at more than 1,700 B2B companies. We gathered their self-rating of 42 pricing capabilities and outcomes.
Roughly 85% of respondents believe their pricing decisions could improve. On average, large capability gaps exist in price and discount structure, sales incentives, use of tools and tracking, and structure of cross-functional pricing teams and forums.
What Pricing Leaders Do Differently
To understand which capabilities matter most, we studied a subset of top-performing companies, as defined by increased market share, self-described excellent pricing decisions, and execution of regular price increases. While different pricing capabilities may be important for a particular situation, the analysis showed that top performers exceed their peers primarily in three areas. Top performers are more likely to:
- employ truly tailored pricing at the individual customer and product level
- align the incentives for frontline sales staff with the pricing strategy, encouraging prudent pricing through an appropriate balance of fixed and variable compensation
- invest in ongoing development of capabilities among the sales and pricing teams through training and tools
Our analysis also revealed just how much excelling across multiple pricing capabilities pays off. Among the companies that excel in all three areas, 78% are top performers, versus just 18% of companies that excel in none of the three. Let’s explore why these three areas have such a strong effect on pricing effectiveness.
Pricing to the Average Is Always Wrong
One-size-fits-all pricing actually fits no one. Yet it is not unusual for sales executives to admit that their ability to tailor prices at the customer and transaction level is rudimentary, or that they are not even aware of how much margin they make on deals.
By contrast, more-advanced companies tailor their pricing carefully for each combination of customer and product, continually working to maximize total margin. They bring data and business intelligence to bear on three variables for setting target prices:
- the attributes and benefits that each customer truly values, and how much value is created for them
- the alternatives and competitive intensity in the industry
- the true profitability of the transaction after accounting for leakage in areas such as rebates, freight, terms, and inventory holding
One North American manufacturer with margins that were highly dependent on raw material pricing suffered from an undisciplined approach to pricing. A diagnosis allocated costs at the product and customer level to determine true profitability. That diagnosis, which showed the manufacturer was undercharging in many cases, provided the support needed to raise prices where appropriate in subsequent contract negotiations, leading to an average 4% increase from that opportunity alone. The company designated an executive to be accountable for related profit margin opportunities and to track the status and effect of each price increase. As a result, the company improved earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization by 7 percentage points.
Bad Incentives Undercut the Best Pricing Strategies
Managers often criticize sales reps for losing a deal, but rarely for pricing a deal too low, so reps learn to concede on price in order to close the deal. Moreover, companies rarely reward sales reps for exceeding price targets, which means few reps take risks to push for a higher price. Misaligned incentives push deals down to the minimum allowed price.
The antidote is to align compensation with strategic goals. Incentive plans benefit from following a few principles:
- Clarify the objectives—be they revenue growth, share gains, margin gains, or others—and the behaviors that will help meet the objectives.
- Make it foolproof. Help sales reps understand the payout calculation, simplify the quota structures and supplemental incentives, and make the upside for outperformance meaningful.
- Ensure transparency. Sales reps should easily see the effect of a deal’s price on their personal compensation.
- Track the results through regular reviews that flag areas where frontline staff might game the system.
Returning to the case of the industrial goods manufacturer described earlier, the company also overhauled its incentive program to balance revenue and profit. It created a pricing tool to make the commission on each deal visible to sales reps—or instance, “If I raise the price by $2,000, I earn an extra $700.” Sure enough, reps began to close higher-margin sales. These changes led to a 7% increase in prices, which added almost 1 percentage point as part of a 3.5-percentage-point improvement in margin overall.
Training and Tools—Often Afterthoughts—Can Have a Big Payoff
Top-performing firms invest in building the capabilities of the pricing team through training and forums to share best practices. This runs counter to the norm at many B2B sales organizations, which give little or no formal training on price realization.
Further, most companies can raise their game by adopting pricing software tools. Based on the performance of historical deals, software solutions—whether in-house or from a provider such as Vendavo or Price f(x)—can provide frontline reps with real-time pricing feedback based on the characteristics of a deal under way. Using dedicated pricing software is associated with much stronger pricing decision making, our survey analysis shows. Yet despite the proven value of pricing software, only 26% of survey companies use it.
The value of developing capabilities became evident to a specialty chemical producer with lackluster margins. The company had hundreds of different products, each with different competitors, substitutes, and customer bases. Product and sales staff could not explain their pricing decisions, and often resorted to a rule of thumb summed up by one product manager as, “I estimate I can raise the price by four cents per pound.” Not surprisingly, she had raised prices by four cents per pound for four straight years, leaving money on the table.
By analyzing the various products and their markets, the chemical producer found pricing opportunities that enabled it to increase earnings before interest and taxes by 35% within two years. Just as important, the company set out to raise its game on pricing capabilities. It created forums for sharing best practices, trained product managers in doing fundamental pricing analysis, and trained salespeople on how to have better pricing discussions with their customers. New dashboards monitored progress toward pricing goals and flagged places where sales reps might be getting too aggressive, or weren’t getting aggressive enough. Finally, the CEO reinforced these measures by demanding that the product and sales teams report on pricing actions taken, as well as results, so that effective pricing remained a high priority. The company established itself as a pricing leader in its markets and continued to optimize margins, both by raising prices and, in selective cases, by lowering prices to drive the right balance of price versus volume gains.
Regardless of a company’s starting point in pricing, there is significant value in building out the capabilities highlighted by our survey analysis. The three areas discussed here have proved to be the most important for upgrading tools, resources, and behaviors. That said, companies in almost all industries have underinvested generally across pricing. The episodic “pricing project” approach leaves companies well short of full potential. With meaningful margin upside at stake, managers cannot afford to continue pricing by rules of thumb or by taking a one-size-fits-all approach to pricing across entire segments of their business.
Ron Kermisch is a partner with Bain & Company’s Customer Strategy & Marketing practice. David Burns is a partner with Bain & Company’s Customer Strategy & Marketing practice.