What demand analytics won’t tell you…


We do our fair share of number crunching. The latest data set we are chewing over is well over half a million transactions. We are also aware of plenty of outfits who will crunch vast swathes of data to tell what your customers are up to and what they might do next.

However, looking at your sales history has a significant shortcoming: It is your data, not your competition’s data.

Sure, if you trade online, you can scrape your competitor’s pricing and a few other details, but you cannot tell when your customers bought from them.

The two things we look at most are recency and frequency. When did a customer last buy from you and how often do they buy a product. Frequency is an excellent indicator of price sensitivity… if they don’t buy it often they won’t remember how much they paid last time!

However, this kind of analysis only works if you have a strong assumption that the customer only buys from you. If they are fickle and flit off to the competition on whim, then your recency and frequency data tells you nothing about their buying pattern… unless of course you know their underlying usage.

Let’s take some grocery items to make things simple:

If you have a good measure of how much toilet paper the average person uses per week and the number of people in the household then you can tell how loyal they are to your supermarket and even a brand.

However, try doing the same analysis with baslamic vinegar of Modena and you won’t be able to tell the difference between someone who only buys it once in a blue moon because they saw Nigella use it in a recipe, and someone who puts it on their chips but buys a bottle a week from your competitor down the road.

You might get lucky and spot that their baslamic habit was fed by you before they went to the competitor, but these instances are tricky to pick out of the data.

The other common mistake made with simple data analytics, often done in house, is the substitution effect. Your sales data is great if you are never out of stock of anything. If someone is forced to buy an alternative, or worse still go to a competitor because you didn’t have the stock, you can stare at the data all you like and it will never tell you what was in the customers mind. In the old days when lead times were longer, we used to insist on looking at B2B order data rather than sales, because it was closer to what the customer wanted when they wanted it than when it was actually shipped.

Moral of the story:
Be wary of looking at what you sold to someone, because it often doesn’t tell you what you could have sold and didn’t.

What is a brand actually worth on the price?

Many years ago I was running a business that traded under the rather august DUNLOP brand name. It is a brand that has been around for over 130 years and at the time was one of the top twenty most recognised brands in the world.

Some of you will know that Dunlop as a business was broken up in the late eighties and the bit that came under my stewardship many years later enjoyed the rights to use the Dunlop name in perpetuity.

I was out travelling with one of our sales guys and we went to visit the maintenance manager at a factory that bought hydraulic hoses from us. He was friendly but to the point, as often guys in operations can be.

The sales guy introduced me and the customer immediately said “Don’t worry, I am always going to buy your hoses.”

I smiled, thanked him and feeling brave asked him why.

He replied “I know you are about 20% more expensive than the competition. I have had your Italian competitors in here and their hoses are every bit as good as yours” (I knew this, as we had sold them the technology several years prior to me joining the business).

At this point I gulped.

He continued… “…But if one of your hoses fails and the line stops, I can tell the Production Director ‘at least I bought Dunlop’. If an unknown Italian hose fails on the line, the Production Director would hoof my door down and bollock me for buying some unknown brand just to save money”

All I could do was thank him, retreat and make a mental note that the brand was worth about 20% on the price.

Although all the heavy lifting in terms of brand awareness had been done by generations of tyre and tennis racquet advertising for getting on for a hundred years, we were able to capitalise on it and charge a premium.

Brands tend to add a greater percentage premium if the product itself is  inexpensive but the cost of failure is high. The premium this guy paid for his hose probably equated to about five minutes of down-time cost for one of his production lines.

I also spend some time in marketing at Sellotape and the guys selling the technical products to industry often told me that it was the brand that got them seen by the buyer when someone, perhaps with a perfectly good product but unknown company name would never get past the receptionist.

Whilst good B2B salespeople can enhance a brand, the kind of reputation that creates a premium has to arrive in the customer’s mind by osmosis. It is not sufficient to tell the person you are good, or even demonstrate you are good. The buyer needs to have heard of you elsewhere before they will assume that you are good…. even if it is about tennis racquets and tyres.



What Makes a Product Sticky?


I don’t mean what makes something self-adhesive… that’s glue. I am talking about a product that customers seem to carry on buying with little chance of the competition getting a look in.

Investors will often salivate over a business that appears to be operating in a sticky market. There is a fairly simple definition of this type market in rational economic terms:

The cost or risk of changing supplier is greater than the likely saving in price or increase in value to be gained by doing so.

There are common conditions which often indicate a market is sticky:

Relatively Low-priced Items
This means that any saving from switching is likely to be small. A 20% saving on next to nothing is next to nothing.

Perceived as Critical
Anything where failure has a cost to the organisation or disruption to everyday life i.e. a new untried supplier might bring things to an ugly or chaotic halt.

Repeating Purchase or Subscription
The purchase decision was already made some time ago. The rationale may be lost in the mists of time but people assume it was logical, hence you automatically purchase from the current supplier.

Effort Required to Disengage or Switch Supplier
Difficult to cancel subscription, complicated to research and evaluate a substitute supplier. Reconfiguration, reorganisation or re-training needed to use an alternative.

These are the logical and rational reasons that make a product sticky. There are loads of other emotional and instinctive drivers of sticky markets some of these are perfectly logical when dig a bit into the human psyche. Popular sayings often give clues to these. For instance: “Better the devil you know…” “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” “They are not perfect, but they do the job”. If any of these show up in market research or commercial due diligence, they are good indicators.

Often, but not always, businesses like this have pricing power – headroom to increase prices without losing too many customers. The reason for this is simple if you think about it:

It is not the supplier, but the category of product that is sticky. Therefore, it takes a lot to win business in the first place. The incumbent may have had to offer an eye-watering discount. So, when the customer was first won, the supplier had under-priced the product. Unless there has been a strategy to increase the price significantly over time, they are likely to be still under-priced now.

Herein lies the catch that many investors don’t spot. It is by definition difficult to grow in a sticky market. Salespeople will struggle to get appointments, products will find it difficult to get listings or shelf space and worst of all, the heavy discounts required to shift the incumbent make the price look too good to be true.

So, a word to private equity… If it looks like a sticky market, check it ticks the boxes above. If it is a sticky market, don’t expect any organic growth… even if the product has competitive advantages. The exception to this is where the product category is new and the market not fully penetrated or the supplier’s offering is unique and ideally has some IP associated with it.

The good news is though, unless the management have been actively on the case, there is usually a fantastic pricing opportunity with all the pleasing results this brings to EBITDA and enterprise value.

Why Most CRM Systems Don’t Work…

In both our pricing and our sales effectiveness work we find most clients we visit have invested in some sort of CRM system. There are lots of them about and in the main they are all pretty good products. However, time and time again we see them not fulfilling their potential to help salespeople grow the business.

The problem is always the same; the moment senior management decide to spend the money on the system they start salivating at an opportunity to see what the sales team is actually doing… and better still measure it. After all what gets measured gets done doesn’t it?

Everyone in the office always wonders what those flash gits actually do for their over-generous salaries… now is the chance to hold their feet to the fire!

The CFO is ecstatic… with the sales pipeline in a nice piece of interrogatable software, forecasting is going to be a breeze from now on.

…But somehow it doesn’t all work out as planned.

There is an underlying problem. The CRM system will deliver numbers for you… nice crisp numbers often to two decimal places… but this is not data. It is actually an amalgamation of a bunch of extroverts’ opinions, wishful thinking and exaggerations expressed in numerical form.

Assessing the Sales Pipeline from CRM

The most popular form of sales pipeline before the days of CRM was a spreadsheet hastily prepared the night before a sales meeting. If all you do when you set up CRM is to type this in then you will get what you deserve… a bunch of three year old ‘opportunities’ that are never going to land in a month of Sundays.

Forecasting from CRM

If your sales pipeline is made up of fairly hefty chunks of business… big contracts or new customers… then let’s consider just three of the inputs the salesperson is required to put into the system:

The Value of the Deal – Is the customer really going to tell you how much they spend already before they have seen your quote? If so, might they exaggerate how much they spend in order to make you price more keenly? Do they know how much of your product they are going to be able to sell on to their customers before they have tried it? We would suggest that until you are well into the sales process and have done some proper discovery, you can’t tell what it is worth…partly because you haven’t properly set the price.

The Likelihood of Winning – Sometimes the system applies this. Otherwise it is a measure of the caffeine intake of the salesperson in the 90 minutes prior updating the system.

The Expected Close Date – If you have a sales cycle that typically takes more than 30 days, this is a nonsense field unless it is filled in the day after the order is received. If it is a big opportunity and it slips over a month end… or worse still a year-end… there goes your phased forecast to hell in a hand-cart.

So what do you need to do to make it work properly?

Firstly.. stop the management looking at it…. at least for a while. So long as the sales team know they are being watched, they will tell you what they think you want to hear (remember: they are good at this… that’s why you hired them). We recommend when first implementing CRM, the CEO and CFO should not get a sign-on for at least six months.

Secondly… make it an indispensable tool for the sales person. A friend and great salesman Tony Dimech says CRM stands for ‘Can’t Remember Much’. A good salesperson might be juggling between 15 and 40 opportunities, they can’t possibly remember who said what to whom and when. CRM when used properly reminds the salesperson who to nag today to bring more business closer to landing in the order book.

It should be set up with the salesperson in mind and worry about the management information later:

Field of View – It should immediately present their pipeline and suggest what they can be doing next on its first screen

Available – If they are out in the field, it needs to be mobile. They should want to look at it several times a day. I update mine when I walk out of the client’s office after a meeting.

Synchronised – Pretty much all of a salesperson’s correspondence diary dates and contact details should live in CRM, or at least by synced with outlook/google.

A well designed CRM system puts pace into sales. It makes its users more successful. It stops opportunities slipping through the grating. When it is working well, it is a selling tool and not a tool for management.


If the salespeople come to rely on it as their primary information source, then the information they put in will be accurate and the data coming out the back will be reliable. It doesn’t work the other way round.

Footnote: At Burgin Associates we use Pipedrive. Nobody looks over my shoulder at the data as I am the boss. But I wouldn’t be without it as I know it helps me bring in business. Clients will know that I refer to it as my ‘Nag List’ …once you get on my Nag List, you never get off until you place some work with us or appear in the obituaries column!!

We undertake quite a lot of sales effectiveness work for clients and are pretty good at getting CRM humming.

Why would you ask someone their opinion?


We often get asked if we can research the price customers will be prepared to pay for a product or service. What clients expect is someone with a clipboard asking questions. We tend to upset clients who insist on this approach by telling them that is not what we do.

Whilst we do employ market research techniques in our work it is almost never in the way people think.

Over the years market researchers have been struggling to find a methodology that will provide insight on pricing. The problem is that when confronted with a question about the appropriate price for a product, a respondent is sorely tempted not to give an honest opinion for obvious reasons. Research companies have devised all sorts of question structures to try to avoid this outcome… conjoint analysis, value maps, sequential monadic, relative positioning…. the list is almost endless.

Sadly they all have fundamental flaw. Real decisions about price are not usually made talking to a nice smiley person with a clipboard, they are made with a screaming toddler trying to climb out of the trolley, under pressure from a slick salesman trying to close a deal or scanning pages of online catalogues trying to work out which site is most likely to ship you the goods on time and in one piece.

… in other words context and presentation are everything. All too often companies see price the way it appears in profit calculations; as a variable in isolation, when in fact its one of a blizzard of variables presented to the customer at the point of purchase that will include varying numbers of competitors, alternatives products, the marketing department’s lovely USPs and all the subtleties of branding and packaging….and of course the option of spending their money on something else altogether.

The other problem with asking about price in the sanctified surroundings of a market research interview is that respondents tend to engage what Nobel prize-wining psychologist Daniel Kahneman would call ‘System 2′. This is the part of the brain that thinks logically rather than instinctively. Decisions around price, even in B2B sales, are often made by ‘System 1‘ ..the part of the brain that uses well worn rules of thumb to make judgements. Ever heard the expression ‘Too good to be true’ ?… ever heard it said about a price?… that’s System 1 at work.

On those occasions when we do employ market researchers, these are the rules we tend to follow:

Try to replicate the purchase environment – if you make most of your sales online, use a mock up page with the same choice architecture and sit the respondent in front of it. Alternatively capture the respondents as close to the actual point of sale as you can. We famously set up a qualitative research operation for National Trust in a medieval jousting tent in the bailey of Corfe Castle to capture visitors decision-making criteria just as they came across the drawbridge.

Don’t ask directly about price – this sets off a flurry of thinking in the respondent trying to work out what to say to make their next purchase cheaper. It is much better to beat around the bush and lose the price issue in other stuff about their views on the product and competition.

Listen hard to the language – Quantitative research is really bad at this… online survey monkeys and the like are even worse. I want to hear how people talk about price “it’s about five quid isn’t it?” is not the same as a box ticked saying £5…. it means ‘I would be expecting to pay anywhere between £4.45 and £5.65’ (the latter would give you a 13% higher price than the £5 result from the quant survey).

Listen hard for benchmarks – If a respondent says “That sounds expensive” ask “What makes you say that?”. Their answer will often tell you what they are comparing your price to. You will be surprised how infrequently this is your actual competition.


Better still, forget the research and…

Watch behaviour rather than ask about it – People have a habit of post-rationalising decisions made instinctively to avoid the embarrassment of not being seen to apply logic. In our book what people do always trumps what people say they do. Simple market tests and a careful look at sales history will always give a more reliable answer.

I am afraid that much of the market research industry is trying to mathemtise human behaviour so that accountants and economists can claim to have a definitive answer to underpin decisions. Rather joyfully the human race does not think in scales of one to ten.. (one being completely dissatisfied).

On more than one occasion we have declined requests to provide market research data on pricing. We suspect that the client was trying to gain evidence to support a decision they had already made.

After all if all of human decision-making could be reduced to a set of cross-tab tables and price elasticity graph, life would not only be boring but the levers we could pull in our commercial endeavours would be limited to changing one number.






Objection Overload and the Downward Spiral

There is nothing more guaranteed to reduce your price than a demoralised sales team with discretion to discount… except perhaps a demoralised sales team behind budget who need their bonus to pay the mortgage.

Modern CRM systems are very good at measuring conversion rate and delivering it as a metric with which the management can beat the sales team. Consider a 20% win rate. It sounds bad doesn’t it. It feels bad for the salespeople…. four out of five people have told them to get lost. But what if there were eight similar competitors approaching all the available customers in the market. In this case 20% is above what we would call ‘natural share’ and actually demonstrates that your sales team (or the company’s product) must be doing something right.

It is difficult for both companies and sales people to take this positive view. A sales person’s perspective is governed, not by statistics, but by the last two or three people they spoke to. If one those is negative about quality, service or product features, the average person will struggle to re-set the dials before their next call. Even the best salespeople cannot avoid storing these negative comments somewhere deep in their subconscious.

It is not too bad if you are the market leader with a fabulous product that everybody wants, but if you are trying to sell for an also-ran player in a busy market, these objections corner you into turning to discounting to try to win business.

Given enough rope to discount, a sales person will keep on trying to win on price when perhaps price is not the issue. Compound this with an incentive scheme that rewards winning deals never mind the price, then the only way is down.

Eventually your business winds up at a price level that feels too cheap for customers and you still don’t win any business.

How do you get out of this downward spiral?…. four steps:

  1. Find something that truly differentiates your product and make sure your salespeople understand it.
  2. Identify those customers who will value whatever it is.
  3. Fix the price based on value and allow no discounting.
  4. Make sure the sales team only go after these customers. This means improving their discovery skills to enable them to identify suitable customers.

Magically the conversion rate will go up… once it hits 40-50% your salespeople will think they are the bees’-knees.


A Warning to Finance Directors…

Occasionally we get approached by the CFO rather than the CEO. What is usually on their mind is a need to ‘tidy-up’ pricing in their business. You see hundreds of different prices for different products to different customers seems unnecessary and confusing to them.

It is true that the price file in most mature companies is a deal more complex than it needs to be and could stand some sorting out. However, the CFO is usually forgetting something. They seem to think that the tidy up is an administrative exercise performed by someone sitting at a computer staring at a spreadsheet.

We sometimes have fun shattering this illusion by asking a simple question: “If we are going to harmonise the prices for you, would you like us to harmonise them up or down?”

It takes a mere moment of thought before they say “Up please”. Whereupon, we say “Then someone is going to have to tell some customers they are going to get a price increase… hadn’t we better talk to the Sales Director?”

It had not occurred to them that generally speaking (but not always) customers notice price movements.

A price file filled with lots of different prices might be a sign that someone has carefully assessed the sensitivity of each customer and each product and priced it accordingly. If this were true, the more price combinations the better in theory. However in our experience much of the untidiness comes from poor attempts to price by badly trained salespeople and then negotiated down by customers. Often the deal was done years ago against a promise of mind-boggling volumes that never materialised in a marketplace with different dynamics and a different competitive landscape…. just nobody has had the gumption to go back to the customer and re-negotiate an up-to-date appropriate price.

Tidying up a complex price file can make you a fortune. But our advice is let’s get the Sales Director in on the project at the outset… because sooner or later we are going to need him.

…unless of course you really want to harmonise prices to the lowest common denominator. In which case you probably don’t need our help.





Tech firms and the obsession with pricing in a spreadsheet

Perhaps it is because I am getting old, perhaps it is because I am a pricing consultant and I don’t like giving things away, but there is something about the word ‘Freemium‘ that triggers a little retch in my oesophagus every time I hear it.

We work with quite a lot of tech companies, helping to price their offering and the conversation usually starts like this “We want your advice… here is our first stab at pricing… what do you think?”

We are then presented with what we describe as an ‘open grid pricing schedule‘. You have all seen one; a table with features down the left hand side and price packages across the top. The packages are either boringly called ‘Freemium’ ‘Silver’ ‘Gold’ and ‘Platinum’ or ‘Basic’ ‘SME’ ‘Enterprise’. Then someone has helpfully filled all the boxes with little ticks to show you what you get in each case. The list of ticks gets longer the further you go to the right.

This is fine if you are selling a standardised piece of consumer software or access to an online service for £20 a month or so. However we keep on coming across clients who are trying to sell sophisticated bespoke B2B software and service packages this way.

My theory is that being techies, their starting point was the ever-present Excel spreadsheet. Whilst setting out some rough segmentation and price positioning in a spreadsheet is OK, publishing it to the whole wide world is another matter. Those mesmerising little rows of boxes force you to think in a certain way… a way that is not necessarily helpful when setting prices.

Although it might seem open and friendly to plonk all of your prices on your website, we tend to start with the question: Do you really need to tell everybody what everybody else pays?

Open-grids work when you think people will be initially tempted with the cheapest option and then either at the point of purchase of subsequently, trade up to a better package. If you are pricing to the value the product delivers to them as a customer you will find a very much wider range is needed than would look sensible set out in one of these grids.

The golden (or should I say platinum) rule is that your web prices are the highest you will ever charge. What happens if your software or service package is worth millions to a really big client and stretching your Platinum package beyond £99 a month would look silly in the context of the grid?

The moral of the story is: By all means use excel to record your prices for internal purposes, but segment your market first before deciding to show your knickers to all and sundry.



Price Elasticity… Wrong Question

It is a bit of a common theme… about a third of new clients come to us and ask us to measure their price elasticity of demand… the amount their volume would drop or increase if they changed their price.

Bless them, they don’t know any better. It is the only thing they remember about price from their economics GCSE. But it is the wrong question to ask. Sure, if you put your price up some customers would probably (but not always) go away. The right question is ‘which would stay?’

I am afraid I struggle with neo-classical economics. Our experience of customer behaviour is never as simple as they would make out. Decisions are seldom based on all available information; seldom logical, rational or driven by utility value. If they were, vast swathes of the economy would have to shut down overnight.

Nobody would buy a Dolce and Gabana handbag, you would see the womenfolk of Knightsbridge carrying their belongings in 5p Tesco carrier bags.

Households would switch their electricity and gas suppliers every four to six weeks and British Gas would be on its knees.

Everyone employed in marketing or sales would find themselves on the dole and Apple would not be the most successful brand in the world.

The other problem with this request is that it requires at least three data points to plot from empirical data in order to draw a curve (two would be a straight line). Although some high volume online businesses can flex their price on a daily basis, for most firms this is simply not possible…. the number transactions is too small or you would simply annoy customers by moving the price all the time.

Our advice is to start from the other end of the thought process and ask the question how far can we move price without losing any customers. Then look at the type of customers you think would be first to go and price them separately…. and keep doing this until you have segmented you customer base.

Keep in mind our motto at Burgin Associates:

Some of your customers would have been perfectly happy to pay higher prices… the trick is to know which ones!

We will offer a modest reward and some online kudos to anyone who can accurately translate this into Latin for our coat of arms.








Getting a Grip of Pricing in an International Group

Often clients come to us determined to enforce some sort of central pricing discipline on their overseas subsidiaries, convinced that they are leaving money on the table. Anyone who has ever run an international group (that’s what I was doing ten years ago before I set up Burgin Associates), knows that controlling policy on anything is like keeping a gang of frogs in a wheelbarrow.

A client with just such ambitions approached us the other day and I put together a short paper for them offering advice on the potential pitfalls. I thought you might like to see it.


Autonomy and Profit Centres: You expect General Managers to deliver profit. Price is one of their key levers although often badly used. Simply taking responsibility for pricing away from them back to the centre would stir howls of dissent if they are worth their salt as managers. Bringing them alongside the process and helping them understand how it works and what it can deliver for them is the key. Initiatives in the first instance should be advisory rather than mandatory. Any subsequent shortfall in their profit performance can then be used to drive the policy in place …”If you had done what we suggested on price in the first place….”.


“It is different here”: At least one overseas operation will tell you that their market is fundamentally different in some way. All markets are slightly different and the central marketing function ignores this at its peril. We have seen product launch initiatives fail because the sub-pack size did not work with the peculiar conditions in retail in a territory. However, more often than not this is a political signal to ‘stay out of my business’. A subtle, more advisory approach, often lower down the subsidiary’s organisation will overcome this so long as the General Manager is kept in the loop.


KPIs and Incentives: We have seen the way that salespeople and management are measured completely undermine pricing initiatives. The obvious toxic combination is; discretion to set price but measured on sales volume or value. Aligning KPIs with profit objectives combined with modelling the effect price has on profit performance is a key driver of appropriate behaviour…. “Look how much money you can make if you get it right…”


Cognitive Bias: There is an inherent cognitive bias relating to pricing that hampers almost all organisations. There is a belief that the market is more price-sensitive than it actually is. The primary reason for this is nobody tells you when you are too cheap, so the groundswell of anecdotal feedback from the market is that you are price positioned higher than you should be. This leads to a belief that the market is more price elastic and that a cut in price will drive volume. For a variety of reasons this is nearly always wrong. For instance it assumes that competitors will not cut price in response (see Sweezy’s kinked duopoly model 1939). Price is the leading excuse for poor sales performance and the desperation manifests itself in calls for cost to be stripped out of the upstream operations. This is exacerbated by a panic at senior level about sales volumes.


Rule of Thumb and No Science: Price setting in smaller organisations like local profit-centres is seen as a black art only based on experience. We seldom see subsidiaries deploying market tests or careful measurement to determine accurate price positions. Some will avidly collect competitor price information but forget that the consumer does not see this level of detail. If you have 15 competitors in a territory but stockists only stock one manufacturer’s range, then the share decision is not made by the consumer (unless they choose a store based on the product in question). In this instance a higher RRP makes the retailer or distributor more money.


The Retailer or Distributor as the Customer: Smaller operations particularly with a limited share of retail presence, will regard the retailer as the customer rather than the channel to the customer. As you know, the mindset of a brand is that they own the consumer and this strength should make retailers hungry to stock their wares. Limited marketing budgets in smaller territories mean that building brand awareness is a luxury they cannot afford. Support from the centre, a strong brand-driven culture will help change this perspective.

Footnote: Strong brands, no matter how nice their people are, will always be considered as arrogant by retailers and distributors. This is simply an expression of their limited power to negotiate with you. Calling the shots on RRPs (in a legal way) is sometimes seen as arrogance. This has to be assuaged by demonstrating the superior profit opportunity it offers.


The moral of the story is: Tread carefully lest you give your subsidiaries the very best of excuses for not selling enough.