From Your Buyer, with Love: “Dear Supplier, Please Reduce Your Price by 10%!” Or: Five Steps You can Take NOW to Counter Price Reduction Requests

By Jens Hentschel, Founder, THE FIVIS PARTNERSHIP

Many sales teams are being asked by their B2B customers to reduce prices to support them during these difficult economic times, a pattern that is all too familiar for many sales teams. This article proposes an approach on how suppliers can respond to this procurement tactic and how sales organizations can move the dialogue back to a value-adding conversation with the customer and their professional buying team. 

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The quip Winston Churchill formulated in the ‘40s has become a business management mantra. Any economic downturn is used as an excuse to optimize company cost structures and to improve inefficiencies. The COVID-19 health crisis turned economic crisis is no exception.

The resulting actions by many companies and their respective procurement functions will make many B2B suppliers feel like they’re living through “Groundhog Day,” receiving yet another request to support their customer during these unprecedented and extremely difficult times.

If you are in B2B sales, you either have been – or soon will be – contacted by your customer’s procurement team asking for help or – to put it more bluntly – for money.

Why your customer asks for money

Let me be clear: This time around, we are indeed in an extreme situation with end-consumer demand tumbling fast, corporate investments on hold and world trade under extreme scrutiny. Value chains and supply chains are disrupted, and “cash is king” more than ever before. In these circumstances reducing costs fast is for some businesses a matter of life or death. Every stone needs to be overturned to see how the cash burn rate can be contained and how cost can be reduced fast.

Such price reduction requests from your buyers will follow a standard trajectory, namely:

(1) Savings and cash-flow targets will be defined by your customer’s CFO and passed onto his or her procurement function for execution.

(2) The existing supply base will be grouped into categories depending on their contractual value to the business.

(3) Suppliers will then be approached and asked to lower prices immediately by a certain percentage and/or to increase payment terms by X number of days.

The size of these requests will be based on the classification category the supplier falls into and will often be accompanied by direct or indirect threats to reduce contracted volumes or contract lengths, as well as suggestions to restrict access to future business opportunities in case the supplier does not swiftly support the customer demands. 

While aggressive tactics like these might be merited under certain circumstances, they more often risk causing serious harm to customer-supplier relationships by destroying trust that’s been carefully developed over the course of years. This can endanger supplier collaboration on new product development, on supporting future market expansion plans or mitigating tight supply situations, leaving the buyer’s business at a competitive disadvantage and resulting in lost sales and lost market share in a worst-case scenario.

Despite these significant risks, the approach has become a regular occurrence of many procurement organizations, who apply these tactics on a regular cadence – crisis or not.

How you should respond to the requests to cut prices.

So how should your sales team react to these cost-cutting requests by your customers and their buying teams? These aren’t easy conversations to have, but there are ways to manage these exchanges that can actually allow you to benefit from this buying tactic.

First and foremost, maintain an open dialogue with your customer – even if they have decided to engage in these rough cost-cutting tactics. Your instinct will be to respond tactically. Resist this temptation in favor of maintaining an open and consultative posture vis-à-vis your customer.

Equally important: Before you respond to your customer’s request for “help,” map out how you will structure your response. In these situations, it is crucial that your communications be clear and concise. The following five steps are designed to help engage your customer in discussions that divert their attention away from pricing and toward discussions about how and where you can offer meaningful help to your customer in these difficult times.

Step 1: Care about your customer.

This may sound straightforward, but it is the most commonly neglected area by many sales teams, especially in high pressure and extreme situations. Caring means building a thorough understanding of your customer’s end-to-end value chain, starting with your own supply base all the way up to your customer’s customer and the end consumer. 

Ask yourself: Where in the supply chain is value added or lost? What combined or independent actions by you, your co-suppliers or even your competitors could lead to improved efficiencies for the customer? How can you help realize these efficiencies? What savings could be derived by optimizing your supply chain, e.g. through adapting the minimum-order quantities, by elaborating improved forecasting mechanisms or other creative ideas? What are your customer’s total-cost-in-use elements that you could work on without decreasing your per-unit prices? 

Do not expect your buyer to know the ins and outs of the value chain! For any efficiencies you identify, estimate their value and determine what support you would need to implement them.

The Value Chain in B2B Relationships
Figure 1: A basic value chain map

Step 2: Compete for your business and understand your level of competitiveness.

Many suppliers believe firmly that they are strategic to their customers. Sorry to break it to you, but in many cases this is not the case. In reality, your buyer has specific expectations of you depending on the spend category they’ve put you in, and nothing is more counterproductive than misalignment between you and your customer on this front.

That is why it is of paramount importance that you clearly identify how and where you fit into your customer’s supply chain. A good approach is to self-apply the tools your buyer is using to categorize you – like the Kraljic matrix. .

Kraljic 2x2 Matrix
Figure 2: Example of a Kraljic 2×2 matrix with its four supplier categories and respective buyer assessments and actions

Once you have determined the supplier category you’re in, you will be in a much better position to understand your customer’s needs and expectations – and, as a result, how you can help them with their current predicament. Take your findings and start over at step 1, readjusting your proposal(s) to reflect your competitiveness and strategic position.

Step 3: Continuously improve

It may seem like an obvious point, but it’s an area I found most sales teams underperforming during my procurement career. Simply put: Do not wait for your buyer to request price cuts. Rather, proactively suggest interventions and efficiencies in your supply chain that can anticipate and even mitigate your buyer’s problems. If you regularly showcase an understanding and support for your customer’s business challenges, you will be much less likely to fall under the scope of a tactical cost cutting program in the first place. 

In case you have been lagging behind in this area, take this opportunity to announce (or reiterate) your commitment to continuous improvement in this regard and try to lay out a multiyear plan to contribute to your customer’s competitiveness moving forward. Keep the focus on the measurable value you bring to the partnership. Every crisis will come to an end eventually, and your customer wants to make sure they’re doing business with suppliers who contribute end-to-end value.

Step 4: Communicate clearly, proactively and regularly

Understand your individual buyers’ challenges and how you can contribute to keeping their internal stakeholders happy. During a price-cutting exercise, your customer’s CFO and CEO might be your procurement counterpart’s most important stakeholders. Manage your communication approach with an eye to supporting your buyer’s efforts to communicate internally, e.g. by providing your buyer with valuable market information on your input price developments in a format that their CFO can understand. This will help your buyer to better position opportunities and risks with regards to these cost-cutting efforts.

Map out which stakeholders your buyer and your organization need to influence, and create an action plan that showcases your commitment to helping your customer’s organization. Who is important? Who is influential? Figure 3 shows a simple stakeholder assessment tool that can help clarify your communication approach.

No alt text provided for this image
Figure 3: A simple stakeholder assessment tool

Step 5: Define your goals

This may feel like an obvious point, but in my experience it’s another area suppliers tend to overlook, namely: What do you want to get out of this customer relationship? What does success look like to you? In the absence of clarity, your buyer will just assure you care only about increasing their margins – which, to them, will offer the perfect justification for demanding price concessions. To avoid this, provide them with your short- and long-term vision and seek to get them excited about the future value you plan to co-create together.

In my many years as a procurement professional I did, unfortunately, have to engage in many cost-cutting exercises. And one thing I noticed is that those suppliers that followed these five steps tended to come through these programs much better than the ones that either fell in line and reduced their prices or those that took a more confrontational approach.

Jens Hentschel is founder of THE FIVIS PARTNERSHIP. Before that he served in a variety of senior, buy-side leadership and director roles at companies including Procter & Gamble and KFC. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn on August 17, 2020. Learn more about FIVIS at https://www.fivis.io/ Contact Jens Hentschel at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jenshentschel/

“Extreme” Negotiations with Customers

By Jonathan Hughes, Partner, Vantage Partners; Ben Siddall, Partner, Vantage Partners; and David Chapnick, Principal, Vantage Partners

In November 2010, Jonathan Hughes, Aram Donigian, and Jeff Weiss published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Extreme Negotiations” that highlighted lessons in effective negotiation under extreme pressure from the U.S. military that also apply in the business world. Today we revisit those lessons in a very different world. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken world markets, created significant political and financial instability, and reduced business predictability. Many companies have experienced a slowdown in business activity, with resulting revenue losses over the past several months.

As the news changes every day, timeframes for recovery are uncertain and will vary significantly by industry sector. As we saw in the 2009 financial crisis and subsequent recession, challenging contract renegotiations are a predictable result of this new reality. As companies in many industries confront shrinking demand, higher levels of unused inventory and increased uncertainty, they will undoubtedly turn to suppliers for cost savings while simultaneously looking for guarantees of supply assurance.

Sales teams will need to respond to heightened pressure from customers to reduce pricing, while negotiating to protect revenue and margins — even as they work collaboratively with customers to meet their needs and address their constraints. The current environment thus raises the stakes in customer negotiations and also increases the risk that negotiations become adversarial.

A key insight underlying the ideas in the 2010 HBR article is that negotiation behaviors tend to be deeply ingrained and are often reactive rather than deliberate, especially in high-stakes and stressful situations. Today’s environment can be viewed through the same lens. These strategies are not only useful at the bargaining table but can (and should) also serve to reshape planning and positioning far in advance of formal negotiations that we know are coming. A strong (collaborative) offense is the best defense.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited for length. The full piece, featuring multiple customer examples, will appear in the Fall issue of Velocity magazine.

Strategy 1: Broaden your field of vision, question assumptions, and rethink objectives

Start by identifying key assumptions and subject them to scrutiny; use negotiation planning and execution to continually gather new information and revise strategies accordingly.

One hallmark of the “extreme” negotiation is a feeling of danger creating pressure to act fast to reduce the level of perceived threat. In the face of this pressure, negotiators often begin acting before they fully assess the situation. They act and react based on gut feel and initial perceptions. Given the added pressure to look strong and gain (or remain in) control, they tend not to test or revisit their initial assumptions even as the negotiation progresses. As a result, they often negotiate based on incomplete or incorrect information. This often leads to conflict, impasse, or, at best, a resolution that addresses only a part of the problem or opportunity at hand.

Continue reading ““Extreme” Negotiations with Customers”

Being accessible, being human and being thought leaders: How a 150-year-old insurance company “shows up” for its customers during a crisis

Think Zurich Insurance knows a couple of things about helping customers through crisis? They’ve been doing it since 1872, so we’re going to say “Yes.” We pick the brain of Zurich’s Executive Vice President and Head of Customer Management, Ron Davis.

Listen to this episode of The SAMA Podcast here.

In difficult times, sometimes red tape turns orange

By Saleh Al-Ben Saleh

Strategic Account Manager, Emerson Automation Solutions

It is quite rare you get into a global economic struggle with two, simultaneous disruptive factors, but we have just this situation now with the combination of the COVID 19 pandemic and the deterioration of the price of oil. As if one of them wouldn’t be enough to wreak havoc around the globe, it’s almost like they joined together to achieve their goal of maximum disruption.

The overall impact of these two simultaneous disruptors is something I doubt any of us will forget any time soon. It has forced decision makers to enact abrupt cost cuts (fixed and variable), encourage remote working, reduce active manpower on sites, adopt high dependence on virtual communications and virtual teamwork technologies, and finally to acknowledge the harmful impact of the pandemic and seek to at least minimize the damage. Only a lucky few end-users are still on the upper side of the revenue/cost chart. 

I would say there has never been a more important time for strategic account managers to proactively steer business efforts aimed at creating new business value for both the supplier and the customer. While SAMs have surely already created and captured real business value for his or her accounts, it’s time to take these efforts to the next level. But how?

Continue reading “In difficult times, sometimes red tape turns orange”