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The Challenge of Pricing Disruptive Technologies

This month, I attended a couple of entrepreneur and investor events.  The term “disruptive technology” appeared frequently and prominently – as it should.  What figured less prominently was an understanding of how to capture the value of disruptive technology in the form of price.

If you’re disrupting, you’re delivering value differently….often enabling value differently.  You need to be paid for your creativity…That’s the market imperative. After all, it costs money for a company to build new, highly differentiated value…and the price is how that all gets paid for.

My Lens on the World: Value-based pricing.

Full disclosure: when I call myself a sales, value, and pricing expert, I mean I am an expert on helping companies achieve win-win, value-based pricing.  Customers use price as a comparison point against perceived value. If I can help your B2B salespeople regularly build enough value, customers will have stronger buying preference, at higher prices.

I’ve heard several good definitions of value, but for our purposes, I’d like to use this one:

Value is the desirability of outcomes your products or services deliver to a customer.

This definition gives insight into how value forms and builds in the customer’s mind.  It guides to sales and marketing organizations working to build – then objectively price – a disruptive innovation.

Outcome-based Value Analysis.

Customers don’t buy your offer; they buy their own outcomes/results.  What they are willing to pay for your offer is how strongly they desire results.

Human buying behavior around price is pretty consistent.  Customers:

  1. Compare noticeable differences between options (almost always the top two).
  2. Translate differences into personal and business outcomes. Any outcomes not envisioned are ignored.
  3. Assign value to all outcomes. “Assigning value” can be gut feel, emotional desirability…all the way to a formal analysis of business impacts.
  4. Compare the value of outcomes to the relative prices, and buy according to this calculation

The good news:  This is how customers operate intuitively. It’s no work at all to get a customer to engage in this mental process. Did you ever pay more for gas because a station is easier to get to? How much work went into getting you do decide?

The bad news: contrary to what “rational buyer” economic theory predicts, customers only think as hard as they need to (read those four steps again to see how mental shortcuts could form). It’s not particularly hard to force more detail on their process, it simply takes purposeful selling and marketing effort at the right time.

For established products, salespeople must either walk a prospect through more detail in analysis…or hope that the customer makes perfect value assessments unguided. Hint: they almost never do. I have a secure income helping “established product/service” companies sell at better prices.

For disruptive products, value-building must be even more purposeful. Each customer is walking an unfamiliar path.  They require more detailed guidance all along the way: comprehending novel outcomes, envisioning those outcomes for themselves, belief/confidence in realizing outcomes, valuing outcomes, and more.

Penetration / Skim pricing: a Myth?

The Internet age has introduced us to the idea of buying profitless market share and figuring things out later: penetration pricing is the new false idol of business.

You can — and people do– price disruptive technology for profitable penetration.  The key:  be in a winner-take-most (WTM) market.  Only buy market share in WTM markets….and either have deep pockets or patient money.  Any company bringing a disruptive offer to a normal market is at risk with a penetration pricing strategy.  You’re far more likely to end up as roadkill than as the next Amazon.

As long as your price is less than your value, the idea of charging less to sell more is a myth (the topic of one of my most popular posts ever).  The demand curve you learned in econ class is based upon several unrealistic assumptions – assumptions made so that the math works more easily, not to explain real-world buyer behavior. For one thing, the math assumes little to no differentiation.  In contrast, the whole point of disruption is differentiation.

Pricing Is Profit

Regardless of the price you charge for a piece of business, your production costs don’t change.  That means that an additional price dollar is a bottom-line dollar.  Conversely, every dollar you don’t charge (or discount away) is a profit dollar you just donated to a customer.

Those profit dollars?  You need them for disrupting, innovating, customer education, etc. Whether you do subscription pricing (or its economic cousin, leasing), or whether your offer involves Uber-style distributed asset ownership (or its economic cousin, franchising)…understanding who receives what outcome/value is the key to a successful pricing strategy.

You Can’t Price The Value You Haven’t Built

If your disruptive offer generates value, you need to have a system for causing that value to come into being in the customer’s mind.  In consumer markets, this might come via media-delivered content.  In a complex/consensus B2B environment, the mix will shift to include more human-to-human value-building customer conversations: that’s my thing.

Disruptive Change and Value

Value only exists in a customer’s mind.  Value for something disruptive often involves a little more commercial teaching work — getting a customer to wrap their mind around a novel outcome.  Unless the outcome is unusually intuitive, that takes some sort of value building communication. That value building is rewarded by a higher, value-based price.

I hope this helps.  If you’d like to talk in greater depth, please feel free to reach out. Also, I’d appreciate your liking, commenting, or sharing with your networks, or with colleagues who it might resonate with.

To your success!