The Power of Price

“However valuable your product is… however clever your marketing… nothing will grow your customer base faster than underpricing the competition.”  – Michael Masterson

When I was in college, I was desperate to find a way to make some money. And I wasn’t crazy about the idea of working at the usual part-time, minimum-wage jobs available to students. So I came up with a business plan and put it into action. One hot summer day found me trudging from door to door, passing out flyers and praying that I would get some customers from the effort.

By the time I returned home, I’d received my first inquiries. And those quickly resulted in my first customers. Within a week, I had a business that was earning more money than I needed. Within a year, that business earned over $100,000 in profits. Not bad for a college kid living at home with his mom!

That first successful start-up was a pool service. Since then, I’ve launched more than a dozen very profitable small businesses. When I analyze what made those businesses successful, I can pinpoint several reasons. But my pool service was successful because of one business strategy: price.

I got people’s attention by offering a monthly rate that was 20 percent lower than the competition. On top of that, I had an introductory “special.”

Michael Masterson says that underpricing the competition may be “the most important secret a businessman can know, for it is the most powerful and most reliable way to make a small business grow.” It’s also one of the best ways to enter a market and grab a share of the customer base.

When it comes to consumer merchandising, a small business can’t compete with giants like Wal-Mart. But a new service business can usually offer a better price than larger established companies providing the same service. That’s primarily because a small start-up can keep overhead low and sometimes accept a smaller profit margin. So if you can operate your small service business out of your back bedroom, without hiring a lot of employees or needing a lot of fancy equipment, you can almost certainly afford to underprice the competition.

But just because you enter the market with the lowest price in town doesn’t mean you stay there forever. For example, one of my entrepreneurial ventures later in my career was a ballroom dance instruction business. When I entered the market, I was a one-man operation, and I offered lessons at $29 when most studios charged $60. Sure, I made less money per lesson, but it was still pretty good money for me at the time. And once I had a nice little client base, I gradually inched up to the going market rate. That allowed me to hire other instructors to teach the lessons… and freed up my time to develop additional sources of income.

I already had considerable experience as a ballroom dancer – and teacher – before I decided to go into business for myself. But with the pool service business, the only “skill” I needed was the willingness to do the work. So let’s go back to that example so I can show you how well the underpricing strategy works.

Here in South Florida, where I live, the average monthly rate for pool service is about $65. In this particular industry, an account is generally worth six times the monthly gross. So an average pool account would be worth $390.

But let’s say you decided to get into the business by undercutting the competition by $15 a month. That means your average account would be worth $300. That’s a difference of just $90. Would you be willing to give up $90 a month to get a loyal, long-term customer?

And you’d only have to give up that $90 for the first six months. I can tell you from experience that if you do a good job of servicing your pool customers for six months and then raise your price by $15, at least 95 percent won’t drop you. In fact, most of them will feel that they got a bargain, because they enjoyed a very low price for a reasonable period of time. It’s not like you low-balled them and then jacked up the price right away.

And, let’s not forget that you were still making money on all those initial $50 accounts… just not as much.

Here’s how to use this strategy to start a small service business:

* Identify a service business where you see a chance to compete on price

Some of the easiest service businesses to get into are house cleaning, lawn maintenance, exterminating, and car washing. Services like these are often offered by big operations that have been in business a long time. But they tend to have big overheads, and aren’t hungry for new business, so their prices are somewhat inflated. Crunch the numbers and see if you can offer the same level of service at a better price.

* Create a marketing campaign that emphasizes the price savings

Whatever advertising medium you choose, make sure the discounted price is mentioned prominently. For the pool service business, I used flyers and direct-mail pieces. But for the ballroom dance business, I started with classified ads in newspapers and the local Yellow Pages.

A good way to emphasize the savings is to show how it adds up over time. For instance, in the pool business, I didn’t just tell prospective customers that they’d be saving $15 a month, I pointed out that they’d be saving $90 over six months.

One thing to keep in mind: Make sure your customers know they won’t be getting a lower standard of service from you. Explain that you can provide high-quality service with a lower price because, for example, you’re doing the work yourself and have practically no overhead.

* Be ready to begin operations immediately

When you launch a marketing campaign that offers a greatly discounted price, you can expect to get customers ready to do business with you in as little as a few hours. So make sure you’re prepared. Providing the promised service efficiently (and well) will assure your profitability.

[Ed. Note: Paul Lawrence is the creator of the Quick and Easy Microbusiness System, ETR’s program for starting a business for under $100. He is also the publisher of the Street Smart Business program, which has dozens of “no nonsense” tactics for the small-business entrepreneur. Check out the details here.]