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updated 11/23/2012 2:19:34 PM ET 2012-11-23T19:19:34

Q: How can I identify the customers I should shed--the ones who suck up my time and energy in exchange for meager returns?

A: Most business owners know in their guts that a good chunk of customers are not profitable. But in a universe in which it's drummed into us that the customer is always right, it amounts to heresy to admit that a customer may, in fact, be wrong and should go. It's difficult to send any potential revenue packing, but culling the client list is worth it--it frees up resources to take better care of your best customers.

The Pareto principle, more commonly known as "the 80-20 rule," can be applied to customer profitability. In short, it means that 20 percent of your customers likely provide 80 percent of your profits. Inversely, it says that 20 percent of your customers may be sucking up an astounding 80 percent of your direct customer costs.

The problem is that many small-business owners don't have the tools they need to determine if one unprofitable client is worth nurturing for a big payday down the road, or if they should say, "Sorry, I can no longer work with you," and move on. That's why I'm here to help.

Analyze Profit By Customer
Profit equals revenue minus costs. Simple, right? To analyze customer profitability, we must assign revenue and costs to each customer. For those of you with thousands of customers, you'll want to put them into groups. For example, a restaurant could divvy up its patrons among the breakfast, lunch and dinner crowds; a building-supply house could group retail and wholesale customers separately.

Revenue is usually pretty easy to pull, since accounting systems can match each sale or invoice to a specific customer. Costs, however, are trickier to determine. Without burying you in the arcane world of cost accounting, I'll lay out a simple yet effective approach. Assign the costs of goods sold plus the direct costs of acquiring ( marketing ), serving (your staff's time) and retaining (follow-up) customers to an individual or customer group. Keep in mind that for this exercise, overhead costs are not assigned to customers. But even without including overhead, you'll have enough information to make good decisions.

The actual number-crunching is, unfortunately, not trivial. You may need the help of an experienced analyst, controller or CFO to do the work or to set up and train your staff to periodically run the numbers themselves. I often find that a company's chart of accounts needs to be tweaked to get costs into the right "buckets" to make the profit analysis correct and straightforward.

The Numbers Game
With a revenue-cost number attached to each customer, you can easily identify those who are ruinously unprofitable. And now you have a choice: You can work to make them profitable--i.e., raise their prices or cut the costs associated with serving them--or get rid of them.

On the flip side, you've also identified customers that make up the majority of your profits. Don't just use that information to send them a nice thank-you note; consider exactly what it is that makes them profitable. Can you turn other customers into better ones? How can you find new customers like the most profitable ones you already have? And what do you need to do to keep them?

After running through this exercise the first time, make it a regular task (quarterly is a good frequency to shoot for). This way you can catch problems before they seriously affect your business; for example, a longtime great customer who suddenly turns into an unprofitable one. That's one client you want to nurture, not cut.

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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