Good Customers Can Be Bad

When can good customers be bad? What could be wrong with a customer who buys a lot, pays promptly, and never has a service problem?

They might be buying too much. No matter how strong or comfortable a sales relationship is, it could end. You may be confident that the customer is yours for life, but therein lies the problem. Someone who buys the business doesn’t have the same level of confidence that the customer will be around for a whole new ownership lifetime.

Many mid-market companies rode one horse to success. There were bringing in a few million dollars in revenue when the landed “the big one.” Perhaps they had to scramble to add capacity and ramp up talent, but the seized the opportunity and met the challenge.

As these companies grow, the owners always say the same thing. “I know that it’s bad to have my eggs in one basket. I’m going to find other customers to even things out.”

big and little businessmenBut the good customer keeps buying more. They are twenty times your size, and an increase of 2% for them translates into 40% more for you. Businesses in this situation aren’t necessarily complacent. They are just scrambling to keep up.

This good customer brings many other benefits along with its dollars. They ask for plans and budgets, so you develop capabilities to meet their requirements. They coordinate packaging a shipping, so you learn more about logistics. They ask for detailed reporting, so you upgrade your tracking systems.

Your company’s increased capabilities translates into more business with large customers. You can show your ISO certification or online reporting. You deliver specifications or scope of work statements as professional as those of much larger competitors.

But you never quite catch up. You are like the dog that caught the pickup truck. You don’t have any control, but you can’t let go, either.

There is an obvious risk of good customers having a change in management or strategy, but for the most part the relationship is favorable. The problem arises when it is time to exit your business.

This issue is specific to mid-market companies. In a Main Street sized business, an entrepreneurial buyer (one who is purchasing a job) will often look at the steady income from a large account favorably. If you’ve grown large enough to attract a professional buyer, however, the “Quality of Earnings” audit will bite you.

Quality of earnings analyses are done by larger accounting firms for mid-market buyers, particularly private equity groups. Those firms typically charge between $20,000 and $60,000 for the audit. Not surprisingly, the client wants a return on that investment. That comes by way of discounting profitability associated with the “risky” business.

If the letter of intent is offering five time earnings, the price reduction is of course on a 5:1 ratio to the profits. Not to belabor the math, but if a $40 million company had $4 million in profits, and 40% came from one account, a 35% discount for that account alone would be $2,800,000 off the purchase price.

That’s when good customers can be bad.

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Categories: Building Value, Customer Relations, Entrepreneurship, Exit Planning, Marketing and Sales, Sales, Selling a business, Strategy and Planning... Bookmark this post.

One Response to Good Customers Can Be Bad

  1. allen james says:

    exactly i was thinking a day ago when i faced this problem

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