Ep71: Who has the Most Pricing Power? with Steven Forth

 

Pricing is where it all comes together, says Steven Forth – co-founder of Ibbaka, the leading platform to price and differentiate for the client’s market.

In this episode. Steven shares how he helps companies redefine their value, as well as how they price offerings in the marketplace through combined deep understanding of pricing design with market segmentation and value creation.  

 

 

Why you have to check out today’s podcast:

  • Discover how to develop a pricing strategy that leverage the value your organization creates
  • Learn how to execute on pricing actions to drive commercial outcomes and growth
  • Discover how to use pricing tools to create and transform pricing that supports your business model

 

“Segment your customers based on value. You need to understand what your value drivers are.” 

– Steven Forth

 

 

Increase Your Pricing Knowledge: Become a Champions of Value INSIDER!  

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Topics Covered:

 

01:24 – Backstory of how Steven started his pricing career: How sitting down with Tom Nagle and reading his book was a turning point in Steven’s career

03:56 – Pricing being an indicator and diagnostic tool in business

05:00 – With new trends coming up in the market, Steven shares what he sees happening in pricing these days and his insights about it

06:32 – Pricing and one’s willingness to pay

08:05 – As there are different views about value-based pricing, Steven shares what value-based pricing means to him

11:42 – Some companies say they have a problem with pricing, but after digging deeper, often they actually have a value problem. Steven expounds on this

16:02 – Pricing optimization is based on available data. How do B2B and B2C businesses differ when it comes to available data to utilize

16:02 – As B2C obtains more data than B2B, how do these two differ in terms of value-based pricing and dynamic pricing 

19:31 – Steven expounds on conventional economic theory and how it relates to price elasticity of the demand curve

22:28 – Where does value-based pricing tie into outcomes-based pricing

26:21 – Talking about pricing power. Who has the most pricing power?

28:21 – Why do you need to have a deep understanding of value when it comes to executing outcomes-based pricing

30:35 – Steven discusses the importance of different economic value drivers and emotional value drivers, especially where medical companies are concerned

 

Key Takeaways:

“Pricing is a great indicator and diagnostic tool. It lets you explore so many different parts of the business.”– Steven Forth

 

“Dynamic pricing has always been how commodities are priced. Markets are dynamic pricing. That’s what they are. And we’ve learned how to make the algorithm and apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to it.” – Steven Forth

 

“Willingness to pay is an outcome. It’s what you’re trying to shape. Framing pricing around willingness to pay, and doing analytics to estimate willingness to pay, I think is actually a way to sub-optimize your pricing outcomes.” – Steven Forth

 

Value-based pricing for me is an understanding of the economic, emotional, and community value that your offer creates compared to the alternatives.” – Steven Forth

 

“Whoever takes on the most risk has the most pricing power. The seller’s ability to predict value outcomes should be more powerful than the buyer’s. Therefore the seller should be willing to take on more risk.”  – Steven Forth 

 

People and Resources Mentioned:

 

Connect With Steven Forth:

 

Connect with Mark Stiving:   

 

 

Full Interview Transcript
 

(Note: This transcript was created using Temi, an AI transcription service. Please forgive any transcription or grammatical errors. We probably sounded better in real life.) 

Steven Forth:   Segment customers based on value.

[Intro]

Mark Stiving  Welcome to Impact Pricing, the podcast where we discuss pricing, value, and the amazing relationship between them. I’m Mark Stiving. Today, our guest is the one and only Steven Forth. Here are three things you want to know about Steven before we start. He is a partner at Ibbaka, I hope I pronounced that correctly, a strategic pricing advisory firm. He is co-founder of TeamFit, a company with a subscription component that we always like; and he was CTO of LeveragePoint, which is a SaaS-based business designed to help companies create and communicate and capture more value. I’ve read many, many of his articles on LinkedIn and elsewhere. Steven is amazingly thoughtful, and I am thrilled to be able to talk to him today. Welcome, Steven.

Steven Forth:   Thank you for having me, Mark.

Mark Stiving:  This is going to be fun. So how did you get into pricing?

Steven Forth:  Well, once upon a time, I had sold a company and was invited to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts to work for a strategic consulting firm called Monitor Group. And at Monitor Group, my mandate was to take one or more of their frameworks and turn them into the software.

So I looked at several different frameworks that they had in their scenario planning framework because Monitor owned GBN, which was the big scenario planning company at the time. I looked at their approach to market segmentation. So there is a value-based and behavioral-based approach to market segmentation. I looked at some very interesting psychological profiling work they were doing.

And it happened that Monitor had acquired Tom Nagle Strategic Pricing Group. And I sat down with Tom and I read Tom’s book, The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing. And I thought, ‘Wow if I had read this book 10 years ago, I would be a much wealthier man.’ And I got absolutely enthralled by pricing. If you had said to me 20 years ago, hey, Steven, you are going to become completely intellectually and emotionally committed to pricing and how to do pricing better.

I don’t think I would have even laughed, I would have been so confused. But you know – and Mark, you know this – pricing is where it all comes together, especially with value-based pricing.

Let’s face it, your customer doesn’t care what segment you think they’re in. Your customer may or may not love your value messaging. But if you don’t agree on a price, you don’t have a customer. So pricing is this nexus where many powerful ideas about business, how to do business, how to create a business, how to create communities. We actually have a growing practice with nonprofits and with government agencies, because pricing is so central to what they do.

Mark Stiving:  Yeah, I often think of pricing. In fact, I tell a story about how pricing is like the grade that you get at the end of a class. And so you spent all this time building products and marketing products and going out and in the end, how much do you get for it? Right? What is that one thing that says, here’s how well you did with all those other things in your business?

Steven Forth:  Yeah, I think that’s a great way. I had not thought of it that way. But I will start borrowing your story, Mark. Another thing that we see a lot, and I’m sure you see this as well, is that pricing is a great symptom. So we have many people come to us and say, you know, I have this pricing problem. And then you dig in. And you discover what they really have is a value problem. Always, always. But pricing is, you know, it’s a great indicator and diagnostic tool, and it lets you explore so many different parts of the business.

Mark Stiving:  I agree completely. And so just a quick tie back when I was teaching pricing at Ohio State, I used the second edition of the Strategy and Tactics of Pricing. So I read that book, probably 10 times. Fabulous. I love that book. It was excellent. So you and I had a chance to talk several weeks ago. And one of the questions I asked you was what are the trends that you’re seeing, What are the changes that you’re seeing in pricing, and I won’t steal your words. What do you see?

Steven Forth:  So well as you know, Mark, there is an awful lot of talk these days about dynamic pricing, and how artificial intelligence is going to be applied or is being applied to make dynamic pricing a reality. And I’m a skeptic on that. And, you know, there was a recent professional pricing society conference, where a very smart gentleman from one of the big pricing software companies was up on stage talking about how pricing is all moving towards dynamic pricing.

So, you know, being a bit persnickety, I got up and I asked him, I said, so are you pricing your own offer using dynamic pricing? And of course, they aren’t. There is no major B2B business platform that is priced using dynamic pricing. I believe that to be the case, (and) I would be delighted to be proven wrong. And then the question is, well, why is that?

You know, dynamic pricing is very effective for things like Uber or for Amazon. Dynamic pricing has always been how commodities are priced. Markets are dynamic pricing. That’s what they are. And we’ve learned how to make the algorithm and apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to it. But that’s not what most of us, at least that’s not what most of my customers, are concerned with.

Mark Stiving:  So when you think dynamic pricing, though, you can certainly think of it as yield management, as in the airlines are trying to change prices based on how fast they fill up airplanes. I like to think of it as ‘Can I find some way to monitor what my customers are willing to pay?’ And as that willingness to pay changes, we could change our pricing to go along with that. Is that the way you think of it or do you think of it differently?

Steven Forth: Well, I think that what you’ve described is how many people think about, but I’d just like to sort of press down on the willingness to pay (concept). Because willingness to pay is often – first of all, some companies and some people use willingness to pay as a proxy for value. And I think that’s a mistake.

I think that the reason that they do that is that they have algorithms, and these are the big pricing software companies and some of the people doing conjoint analysis, they have ways of using large data sets to estimate willingness to pay. But to me, willingness to pay is an outcome. It’s what you’re trying to shape. So framing pricing around willingness to pay, and doing analytics to estimate willingness to pay, I think is actually a way to sub-optimize your pricing outcomes.

Mark Stiving:  Okay, so we have to pause for just a second because I, by the way, I love disagreeing with anybody. I define value-based pricing as charging what your customers are willing to pay.

Steven Forth: Now, that is not how I would define value-based pricing. Okay, so I would define value-based pricing. And I think this is actually going to be important when we get to the next part of our conversation.

Value-based pricing for me is an understanding of the economic, emotional, and community value that your offer creates compared to the alternatives. And then, depending on your pricing goals and your pricing strategy, finding a fair way to make sure that value is created for your customer, that you retain enough value so that you can make a return on your investment and to continue to innovate. and the value is created in your community.

So I think you know, we’ve taken Tom Nagle’s principles of value-based pricing, which are really very much around building economic value estimations, EVEs, and using that to inform pricing. We have layered in initially emotional value drivers because we found that you can’t understand the willingness to pay and you can’t understand value perceptions without factoring in the emotional dimension.

And then recently – and it largely worked when we did it for a quasi-government agency who came to us and said, ‘We have a pricing problem.’, and I thought, this was at a product management conference. And I thought, huh, that’s interesting that a government guy would come and talk to me. I had zero expectation that it would lead to business. But in fact, it turned into a very large contract that has taken on many different shapes.

And what they thought was a pricing problem was actually a much deeper problem around how the value was created for different communities that they serve, and how different segments of their market perceived value. But anyway, that’s how we approach value-based pricing, we try to understand the differentiated value in terms of the economic, emotional, and community value drivers.

Mark Stiving:  Okay. And so I would say, everything you just described, defines willingness to pay. Right? I think what you did was you took a willingness to pay to say, it’s really broken up into these chunks. And it’s more articulative, right? So if I make you happy about my product, or I have a high reference price, and I give you a discount, so your transaction utility is higher. So I didn’t increase value, but I increased your perception of value, and your willingness to pay went up and life is awesome. So I got to charge more money for that.

Steven Forth: So I see a willingness to pay is the outcome. And so if your fancy dynamic pricing software is estimating willingness to pay, I think it will frequently mislead you because the willingness to pay is something that is far more within your control than you think.

Mark Stiving:  Oh, I agree. Absolutely.

Steven Forth: That’s why guys like you and I have jobs.

Mark Stiving:  Yeah. Well, and before we hit the record button, the thing we talked about which you just articulated with your government customer as well, is that when people tell us they have a pricing problem, they almost never do. It’s almost always a value problem. And if you could learn how to create more value or communicate more value or pick the right market segment that values the things that you do, pricing becomes so much easier.

Steven Forth:  Yeah. So you know, if I look at our work, I would say that the project is 100%, 70% of it is understanding value and using that value to segment the market, then 20% of it is connecting the value drivers to the value metrics, the value metric being the unit of consumption that is associated with value. And then 10% of it is the actual pricing design work.

Now, sometimes our customers sort of look at our proposals, and they say, well, I just need the pricing design. And, you know, back when we were younger and more naive, and maybe a little bit more desperate, we used to sometimes say, ‘Okay, we’ll just do the pricing design.’ And that never went well. For the people that just want the pricing design, they would never actually say pricing design, they’re almost always thinking in terms of pricing optimization.

You know, there are other people out there who have very good mathematical models for how to do pricing optimization, and you should be working with them, not us. And, you know, there’s pricing consultants that do this work and if you have one of those big heavy metal pricing software systems, it’s very built into that software, and, you know, as you pointed out those, the origin of those platforms, in many cases was actually load balancing for the aviation industry.

Mark Stiving:  Yeah, absolutely.

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Mark Stiving:  God, I want to talk to you about so many different things. I often think of the difference between B2B and B2C. It isn’t really, right. But it’s a pretty common difference.

In B2C, we have tons of data. And so we throw these algorithms and we have dynamic pricing, and we’re watching what’s changing in terms of volume. In B2B, we so often don’t have all this data. And now it’s a salesperson having a one-on-one conversation, and trying to help a buyer understand how much value they’re really going to get when they utilize our product.

And I think in the ideal world, you have this combination, I think the B2C people could go out and do value conversations and do a much better job at what they do at pricing or product design. And I think the B2B guys have the advantage because they don’t have the data, right? They have to understand their products and their value?

Steven Forth: Yeah, I would, I think this is another way to say the same thing. In B2B, we have sparse, high-dimensional data. And the current deep learning algorithms do not work well with sparse high dimensional data.

And in fact, what often does happen in deep learning is collapsed data dimensions. Any data set becomes sparse if you add enough dimensions, right? You know, part of what we’re doing in our work around value-based pricing is unfolding those dimensions of value. So if you’re asking us to collapse them down, we are losing valuable information. It may work in very, you know, one-dimension- that’s not fair, but I’m going to just say – one-dimensional situations where all you’re doing is moving a price point. But that’s not the world that B2B lives in.

You know, even if you have an inbound sales team, and a fully automated sales system, you are almost always directing people into different packages into different tiers. This is why if you look at what open view does, they have packaging and pricing as an integrated discipline because it is, you know, you are designing packages that will create value for a target segment. And then you are pricing that package for that segment based on its value. And I think that’s the work that you do, and that I do and that a number of other people do. And that’s really where we get deep into value-based pricing.

And that’s the approach to pricing that is needed for innovation, for category building, for transformation. That’s where it really matters. And just to bring us back, I don’t see that dynamic pricing is going to deliver that in the immediate future. I’m thinking sort of five to 10 years. The other thing is with dynamic pricing – if we can just do one more cycle on that – is everyone says I’m going to have this dynamic pricing system that will allow me to optimize my prices. Well, buyers and their procurement organizations are very sophisticated.

And they can also say, well, you may have dynamic pricing, but I have dynamic buying. And I am going to run my buying algorithms against our data sets in order to drive your price down. And, you know, this is how trading works. So one future of pricing, if dynamic pricing dominates, is a machine to machine pricing, where we have the vendors dynamic pricing and the buyers dynamic buying, and they’re negotiating in a kind of auction.

That’s one future and that, you know, William Gibson, the great science fiction writer has a quote, ‘A future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.’ Nice. And you know, so that situation of a machine to machine pricing exists. And I think it’s going to grow to be a larger and larger part of the market. But anyone who was thinking about dynamic pricing also needs to be thinking about dynamic buying. And the fact that this is all going to move over into different ways of thinking about auctions.

Mark Stiving:  Yes, and I think that only applies if there are obvious alternatives, and we’re doing repeat purchases.

Steven Forth:  Yes. You know, so conventional economic theory and all of the pricing approaches and systems based on ‘it work best when you’re dealing with commodities’. Tom Nagle tells a great story about the origins of value-based pricing. Now you probably know this story, Mark, but you know, perhaps some of our listeners have not, so, the short version is, Tom, a newly minted Ph.D. at the business school at the University of Chicago comes in and says, ‘I’m here, you know, give me a hard problem to work on.’ And the grouchy, old leader of the B school said, “pricing”. Well, that’s easy. That’s a solved problem.

You know, you look for the price elasticity of demand and the price elasticity of supply and you find the market-clearing price and bam, you’re done. “Tom, talk to some of our partners, go out and talk to caterpillar and see if they’ve ever seen the price elasticity of demand curve. You know, most of our customers, most people in B2B do not have a well-defined price elasticity of demand curve.”

And in fact, there are complex interactions which are referred to as market dynamics between price elasticity of demand and cross-price elasticity. And you have to understand what parts of your market have high cross-price elasticity and the high price elasticity of demand. The conventional ways of thinking about commodities, you know, don’t really work very well for most B2B companies.

Mark Stiving:    So can I say this is just a huge bugaboo of mine? So often I walk into a company, they’ve got a pricing department and the pricing people have run price elasticities on all their products.

And I’m just thinking you did not just do that, right? Because there’s no way that makes any sense. It doesn’t take into consideration any competitive response, and we have no clue what’s really happening. Price elasticity is great for economists, and especially in commodity markets or in industries, we’ll put it that way. When we’re talking about a company and a product, please don’t do that.

Steven Forth: If your aspiration is to build a product that is a commodity, well, good for you, you probably are not talking to the right person when you’re talking to us. That is absolutely true.

Mark Stiving:   Okay, so we have to move on. We’re already running so late, but I don’t care. We’re going to keep going. I hope the listeners don’t mind too much. But let’s jump into the last one of the three that we talked about, and I’ll let you lead it. Toss it up?

Steven Forth: Well, I think dynamic pricing is not the whole of the future pricing. What is, is I think the question, and I think it’s quite well established that value-based pricing is the state of the art and the best way to approach pricing for any solution that has differentiation. So what comes next? I think that there is going to be a move towards, you can call it performance-based pricing or outcomes-based pricing.

And this is no pricing where your price is dependent upon the actual outcome you deliver. So in value-based pricing, you have promised value. If you have good practices, your value promises that were made during sales are coded into some sort of pricing and value calculator that is then used by customer success. And that is I think, you know, the current state of the art for many, so to establish value to actually meet value promises, put those into a value calculator, and make sure that value calculator is carried forward across from pre-sales and sales to onboarding and adoption through customer success.

That’s fantastic. But then, as you do that, you’re gathering a lot of data – or you should be gathering a lot of data – about what drives the value. The actual value, not your hypothetical value, but the actual value of using your product or your offer.

So as you gather that information, you can then start to make promises that you will stand by and say, ‘Look, we are claiming that we are going to create this amount of value for you, and we feel that it is fair for us to get 5% of that value with a cap of $3 million, or 20% of that value…’ you know, so we now have the data that shows us how we can get to performance-based pricing. At the same time, predictive analytics software is getting better and better. So why have we not done outcomes-based pricing in the past? I think there’s a couple of reasons.

One is we didn’t really know what the outcome was going to be. We had hypotheses that we used in order to establish value and set the price. But there were so many other factors that determined the outcome, that we just couldn’t stand behind it. And then another reason not to have outcomes-based pricing is that buyers need predictability. You know, very few CFOs will sign a contract that says, ‘Well, this could cost us between $20,000 and $4 million next year.’ Yeah, a CFO is not going to sign that contract, in most cases.

So the key to outcomes-based pricing is better predictability. And as we get a deeper and deeper understanding of value, and build richer and richer value models, and then collect data across the sales, delivery, and execution process, we can start getting more predictability. And with that predictability comes the ability to execute on outcomes-based pricing. Many people, I think don’t realize that prices come with a steep risk discount. So, you know, we work and we establish value. And the buyer sometimes consciously – more often unconsciously – is saying, “Yeah, maybe”. And is discounting that for risk.

Mark Stiving:  A lot.

Steven Forth:  Yeah. And as they should. So if you could move the risk from the buyer to the seller, or whoever takes on the most risk has the most pricing power. Now, obviously, you can’t take on risk unless you are able to manage the risk.

But as we get more sophisticated in how we understand the value and how we collect data and how we apply the math to that, prediction becomes more and more powerful and the seller will have data across multiple companies. So the seller’s ability to predict value outcomes should be more powerful than the buyers. Therefore the seller should be willing to take on more risk. And as in taking on more risk, they have more pricing power. Does that make sense?

Mark Stiving:  It makes a lot of sense. So I’m going to disagree with one thing. But here’s what I love about these conversations is almost every time we disagree, it’s because of a definition, it’s not because of the thought process. Right?

I think what you described was absolutely perfect. And when you first told this to me six weeks ago, in my mind, I’m thinking, what’s the difference between outcomes-based pricing and value-based pricing? And I heard you define it the way that you would, and I would have defined it a little bit differently, where I would have said, the outcome, I shifted to how I communicate value from promising it upfront, or, you know, saying this is what I predict that you’re going to be able to get, to, maybe I’ll make a promise that you’re going to get it or maybe I’ll take a percentage of what you’re going to get, then each one of those I’m trying to capture what my markets are willing to pay by convincing them I’m delivering more and more value to them. Right.

And so I, I wouldn’t say it’s not value-based pricing, but I think it’s a different stage, right? It’s where we’re heading to because we’re getting more and more data and more and more information, we’re getting the ability to make these predictions, and be more accurate. I think it’s brilliant.

Steven Forth: Yeah. And I believe that one cannot execute on outcomes-based pricing or performance-based pricing when you cannot successfully execute on it, unless one has a deep understanding of value. Absolutely. And so value-based pricing remains the foundation, and we need to get better at it. This is probably obvious to you, and I’m surprised I did not understand this properly until about a month ago.

But in some industries, asset values on the balance sheet are what drive enterprise value, and the value-based pricing analysis for those industries has to be based not on the P&L, but on the balance sheet. And for whatever reason, because of both my company operating experience, and because of the kinds of companies I’ve tended to work with, I’ve always been focused on building models for the impact on the P&L. And I had never really understood the importance of understanding the impact on the balance sheet.

So, I may be the only guy in pricing who did not understand this. But, you know, it was a bit of a revelation for me to start working with companies where, and these are actually largely mining and energy companies, where the value of their reserves is critical. So if you can, you know, do something that changes the value of the reserve, this can have an incredible impact on shareholder value. And it’s a far more powerful analytic framework than, you know, if it had been applied to the P&L.

Mark Stiving: Yep. So let me give you another one that I see that’s similar to that if you don’t mind.

Steven Forth: Yeah, absolutely.

Mark Stiving:  If you’re trying to sell medical equipment into a hospital, certainly there’s someone in operations that cares about the P&L; most of that sale is a life saved, the efficacy of the product. And so the value isn’t in how much money we make the hospital, the value is in how much better we help them do their mission.

Steven Forth: Yes. And I think you know, when we are doing value-based pricing for – and we don’t do pharma – but for medical technologies, we often include value analysis in terms of quality-adjusted life years, or qualities.

And, you know, quality is a very, very important value metric in healthcare. And we’re just at the beginning of our journey around the application of community value drivers, which as I said, was originally driven by our work with government and non-profits. But I think there are, you know, many, especially because of the current situation that we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 crisis, community value drivers are actually becoming more important to more and more people. And we’re actually seeing this in our data.

So we’re seeing a shift, both in the relative importance of different economic value drivers, which we saw during the 2008 crisis as well. By the way, this is sort of well understood by people who follow pricing.

We’re also seeing a shift in the emotional value drivers over the last, you know, three to six weeks of data. And we’ve really just started to survey and try to understand community value drivers and I don’t think we have a rich, analytical framework for this yet. But we’re working towards it. But based on the framework we do have, we’re also seeing the shift in community value drivers.

And we’re also seeing that in buying behaviors, we’re actually seeing a change. And this is even in B2B, by the way, because we really don’t do much B2C, we’re seeing a reweighting of those value drivers. Now, is this a temporary thing? Or will it code itself deeper into market behaviors? I have no idea. I don’t think anyone has any idea. I’ll speculate. And we won’t know for two or three years.

Mark Stiving:   Yep. Steven, oh my gosh, I’ve been having so much fun. I always end with this one question though. So let’s toss up the softball. What’s one piece of pricing advice that you would give our listeners that you think would have a big impact on their business?

Steven Forth:   Segment their customers based on value.

Mark Stiving: What a great answer. You’re articulating it all and just leave it at that.

Steven Forth: Well, so you need to understand what your value drivers are. And they are not equally important to all of your customers. And they are also not equally important to all of your stakeholders, all of the stakeholders in the buying process and the value delivery process. If you don’t understand how you create value for different groups of customers, you cannot price properly.

Mark Stiving:  Yep, I agree absolutely. So, Steven, thank you so much for your time today. If anybody wants to contact you, how can they do that?

Steven Forth: So I think the best way is by email, Steven S T E V E N @ibbaka.com, I B B A K A. And I’m also visible and easy to find on LinkedIn.

Mark Stiving:  He really is. I’ll tell you that. Thank you, Steven.

So Episode 71 is all finished. My favorite part? You know my favorite part of any episode is when I disagree with the guest amicably. So that had to be my favorite part. What was your favorite part? Please let us know in the comments or wherever you downloaded and listened to the podcast. While you’re at it, would you please give us a five-star review? We take these seriously and they’re hugely helpful to us.

Don’t forget we have a free community at community.championsofvalue.com, where we post pretty much everything I publish. So it’s there for you and LinkedIn doesn’t show you everything so it gives you a chance to see it all. If you have any questions or comments about the podcast or about pricing in general, feel free to email me, mark@impactpricing.com. Now, go make an impact!

 

 

 

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