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How to raise profit margins without losing customers

The beginning of the year is the ideal time for small and medium enterprise (SME) owners to explore additional revenue streams and other means of increasing their profit margins. However, this process is expected to still present some challenges for SME owners owing to South Africa’s economic environment, which while showing some slivers of hope, is not out of the woods yet.

While the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) has increased the country’s economic growth outlook from 1, 2 to 1, 5 for 2018, the economy has not yet recovered which makes it difficult for local businesses to secure avenues for increasing their profit margins. The SARB outlook is also far from the 5% required to meaningfully impact poverty and unemployment.

These challenging conditions in relation to raising profit margins were confirmed by an analysis of the Quarterly Financial Statistics (QFS) released by Statistics SA over the 10 years between 2006 and 2016. The report found that the average profit margin for the South African formal business sector declined, from 0, 09 between June 2006 and September 2008 to 0, 05 between December 2013 and March 2016, showing that each unit of turnover generated less profit in the later period.

While this decline in average profit margin appears to be quite minimal, it is important to remember that SMEs only account for a portion of the formal businesses surveyed and were likely the hardest hit during this period. Smaller businesses tend to be more vulnerable to sustained periods of low economic growth and increasing costs, compared to larger businesses who have the financial resources to sustain shrinking margins.

For SMEs to sustain themselves, business owners should consider the following strategies for improving their profit margins for the new year:

1. Find out what your customers value

It is vital to understand how customers perceive value, and to what extent your business can raise prices while still retaining its customer base; this can be done by engaging with your customers through conversations and surveys. Once there is an understanding of what customers value, business owners should work on meeting these customer expectations.  Business owners should also identify their unique selling point as this will help the business stand out from competitors, it could be superior service or quality.

2. Acquire new customers

The most straightforward method to improving profit margins is to acquire new customers from existing markets or industries, away from other players and competitors in the market. The quick and easy solution to attract new customers within an existing industry, is to reduce prices. However, given the increased competition to retain and attract customers, this can increase the risk of ‘price wars’ within a certain industry, resulting in profit margins coming under further pressure which business owners are advised to avoid. Understanding what customers value, as mentioned above, presents business owners with information they can use to attract new customers by responding to their requirements. Acquiring additional customers may not improve your gross margins but should improve your net margins.

3. Get comfortable with costing structures

Understanding costing structures and income and expenditure is crucial to managing and driving profit margins. Profit margin is made up of variable and fixed costs. Variable costs are incurred when producing or selling a product, while fixed costs, such as rent and wages, are payable regardless of whether the business sells anything or not. It is important for business decision-makers to consider these costs when pricing products or services, in order not to compromise on their projected profit margin.

While reducing prices may bring in more customers, overheads such as rent, remain the same, putting more pressure on margins. Similarly, raising prices could improve profit margins, but increases the risk of being priced above the market and potentially driving customers away.

4. Manage variable costs

It is also important to acknowledge that increasing prices may not be viable due to the reality that many business owners operate within the confines of limited economic growth and decreasing customer spending. As such, effectively managing variable costs – like utilities, raw materials and labour – is the next step when reviewing profit margins.

For example, business owners should aim to negotiate discounts with current suppliers or explore the use of alternative suppliers that can provide the same products or service at a lower cost without compromising on quality. To save on utilities such as electricity or water, a business can make a more conscious effort to utilise these resources more effectively. In terms of labour, businesses can incentivise staff to become more productive and deliver greater output during the same hours. Another avenue is ensuring the business has sufficient security and adequate stock controls in order to minimise theft.

5. Don’t lose sight of your business plan

Whichever option a business owner may choose to maximise their business’ profit margins, it is imperative to refer back to the business plan regularly as this might unearth ideas the business owner may have long forgotten. This should secure long-term business success, especially during trying economic conditions.



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