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8 steps to maximise margin

Prof Patrick Reinmoeller

Patrick Reinmoeller, Professor of Strategic Management at Cranfield School of Management, gives his top tips on how to beat market expectations

The past 18 months or so have been characterised by increased political and economic uncertainty, fluctuating commodity prices and falls in corporate profits.

With market volatility at a high, organisations are under immense pressure to scrutinise and secure acceptable margins and eke out extra profit where they can to stay at the top of their game.     

The starting point for most large organisations will be to prioritise cost optimisation or simply cut costs. This is mainly because CFOs are brought up on a "cost-optimisation mind-set" throughout their career; remember, austerity started back in 2008 and 2009. Cost-optimisation is ongoing and an important focal point, yet, cost-out as a strategy just isn’t sustainable in in the long-term.     

I was recently involved in an in-depth study in collaboration with Vendavo, which included survey data from 200 CFOs and CMOs across Europe of companies with more than $1bn revenues, to explore the management of margin across a range of enterprises in different industries.     

We found some compelling insights that suggested those companies without the "margin mind-set" or the tools, lagged behind their competitors.  The leading companies, which positioned margin management ahead of cost optimisation, and readily invested into the tools and resources required to analyse financial performance and act on the findings, were outperforming competition and exceeding market expectations.     So how do they do it?    

Making margins matter beyond the C-suite

Clearly, the corporate team need to have their eyes on the margin. However, for margin management to be truly successful, all employees must share the same understanding of margin across the enterprise, the organisations’ margin ambitions and common margin goals. It might sound obvious, yet our research found that in many cases this just isn’t happening. In fact, we found instances where more than 20 different definitions of margin exist across the organisation. This highlights just how important it is to instil the same values and culture throughout the company, if leaders are to make an impactful change on their margins and financial performance.    

Further underlining how the wider organisation is not focused on margin, we found that many sales teams continue to price deals based on gut feeling (43 per cent) or on the relationship with the customer (67 per cent). This is broadly accepted by many, yet, a lot of business leaders also do not know how to influence change in the sales field and capture lost margin.     

The solution isn’t to wrap the sales process in red-tape though; it’s much more about explaining and communicating why margin is meaningful across the company, extending the right data at the right time to instil confidence in the sales field that a great margin opportunity exists. It is also about empowering employees with the right tools to help them rely on their intuition with even greater success. We found that organisations performing ahead of market expectations equip their sales teams with real-time data to help close deals at much better prices. Those without shared understanding or real-time data lag behind.     

A strategic plan for margin success

While many of those we questioned realised they needed greater margin collaboration (61 per cent), better insight (59 per cent) and stronger teams (55 per cent) to better their strategies, when asked if they knew how they’d increase margin tomorrow, more than a third (38 per cent) said they would not know where to start.     

From our research, it’s clear that leaders need to devote more time and resources into developing a long-term, strategic plan for managing and improving margins. They also need to get their employees on board, equipped with the right tools to make the best pricing deals, and execute the margin strategy with a coordinated approach reflective of a "margin mind-set".     

The Eight Actions Model for healthier margins

To be a success, the long-term plan needs to be centred around practical steps which will help organisations to regain control of margins. This eight actions model will guide leaders in managing margins to boost shareholder value and the financial health of their business:    

1.       Increase awareness of growth drivers

Raising margins drives growth. Leaders must create certainty about what drives their growth by gathering data to challenge assumptions.     

2.       Focus on margin

Successful leaders set priorities; they focus on maintaining or increasing margin. More time and resources must therefore be devoted to managing margins, otherwise lower levels in the organisation may try but fail in helping the company focus on success.    

3.       Create a common ground

Companies handle, on average, half a dozen different definitions of what margin means. Leaders must capture the state of confusion about margin in their boardroom and company, visualise it to motivate discussions and develop a shared understanding to finally make margin meaningful.     

4.       Analyse how to increase margin

Many executives at companies that lag behind market expectations do not know how to increase margin. Don’t be one of them. Acquire strategic capabilities. Increase how margin aware employees are. Systematically seize the opportunities that big data presents. Address additional data needs. Identify the key levers to manage margins more effectively.     

5.       Open the data vault

Provide accurate data and insight through systems and reports for larger numbers of employees. Remove data bottlenecks quickly. Identify which employees, aligned to the levers identified above, currently have the strongest need for access to data. Provide them the insight they need to broaden margins.     

6.       Offer data that matters

Using a large volume of data can be good, however data quality and data relevance are paramount. The happiness of employees with big data, data analytics and margin management programmes depends on the quality of the data. Ensure that employees receive the data quality they need to make better decisions in real-time.     

7.       Help client-facing employees exert better judgment

It is essential to bring information and intuition together. Enhance employees’ hard and soft skills; help them to rely on their intuition with even greater success.    

8.       Ensure that awareness, analysis and action are linked

The ‘triple A’ of awareness, analysis and action need to inform each other. Create positive dynamics for better judgment in the crucial moments when customers make decisions about their company’s margin.     

Margin leakage is common across all organisations and poses a real risk for some. Companies must organise to embrace the new technology landscape that is enabling real-time profit and margin analytics, exposing leakage and risk, enabling better prices that still beat competition and empowering the sales force to make more meaningful margins. 

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