Tip for Maximizing Business Value: Diversify Your Customer Base

16__272x300_Our seller and business valuation clients are usually proud of their company’s long-term relationships with major clients, and with good reason. Having a high percentage of business with a few customers can be a very profitable and personally satisfying way to run a business. It allows management to focus its attention and fine tune company operations to deliver exceptional service in a very cost-efficient manner. Customer acquisition expenses (marketing, sales, estimating, etc.) can be greatly curtailed or eliminated. It’s wonderful while it lasts.
So, what’s the problem?
When it comes to selling a company, owners need to know that customer concentration is a major problem. Most buyers won’t purchase a business with a highly-concentrated customer base.  Or, given two potential business acquisitions that offer the same expected return on investment, they will buy the less risky one. They will acquire the riskier business only if compensated by higher expected returns; in other words, by paying a lower price.
In general, when a business goes through an ownership or management change, it becomes more susceptible to losing clients. Also, since financial leverage is used in most business acquisitions, the effect of a major client loss on cash flow is more severe for buyers than sellers. Losing a top client can be an inconvenience for shareholders under the seller’s watch, and catastrophic to a buyer.
What can cause a key customer stop buying? 
  1. They get lower pricing from a domestic or foreign competitor.
  2. They bring production of your product or service in house.
  3. Their parent company shuts down the division that you’ve been supplying, or relocates it outside of your service area.
  4. They acquire one of your competitors, who becomes their preferred supplier.
  5. Or, they are acquired, and the parent has another preferred supplier.
  6. Your key contact person retires; new management doesn’t have the same loyalties and may prefer another supplier.
  7. Products run their course; the next generation product will no longer use the component you’ve been supplying all these years.
  8. The company changes strategic direction and no longer needs your products or services.
  9. Any number of other business motives and external circumstances beyond your control!
Strategies to mitigate customer concentration risk
Develop a deep understanding of your key client’s business risks. Take a close look at their financial condition if you can, and closely watch your payment terms to them. Understand their product life cycles and how that affects your company. Also, if you are the primary contact person, introduce one of your sales staff to the client so that future sales are not dependent on your personal relationship.
Another strategy to partially mitigate concentration risk is to negotiate a long-term supply agreement with dominant customers (an suppliers).  A supply agreement commits your customer to buying and you to selling your product or service on specified terms and conditions for a certain period of time. Putting a long-term supply agreement in place can be an interim measure while you develop a longer-term diversification strategy.
The most obvious strategy to reduce customer concentration risk is to expand your customer base. Embark on a sales and marketing program to get more customers. A good rule of thumb is that no one customer should represent more than 10% of your annual sales.
Business owners looking to maximize value in a sale must find a way to diversify their customer base!
Customer concentration is just one of many factors that drive value in a business. Feel free to call us if we can provide additional information or help with your exit strategy. Al Statz can be reached at 707-778-2040 or alstatz@exitstrategiesgroup.com.