Cost To Serve – A Smarter Way to Improved Supply Chain Profitability

Posted on: August 15, 2018

Supply chains are complex entities. Even if you simplify your product range and your upstream suppliers, you still have to deal with the ramifications of diverse customers, their expectations, their location and the logistics needed to meet their requirements. While customer satisfaction is a hugely important criterion by which supply chain success is judged, so is supply chain profitability. The challenge is to measure profitability to the right level of detail in order to see what works and what could be improved. Too little detail won’t give you the information you need about where to take action. Too much leads to resources being monopolized on gathering tons of data and a subsequent risk of “paralysis by analysis”. Cost to Serve (CTS) is an approach that lets you avoid both extremes. It lets you identify specific actions to take for a better bottom line without necessarily sacrificing customer satisfaction.

How Much Does It “Cost To Serve” Your Customer?

That is the question that naturally enough CTS sets out to answer. By calculating what it truly costs to deliver a good or a service to a customer, and by comparing that cost with what you invoice to the customer, you can see what is finally left for your enterprise in terms of overall profit – or loss. It comes as a shock to some businesses to see that some major customers are not making them money, but losing it. The reason for this is simple. It costs you a certain amount to make a product. Unless you are customising your manufacturing for each product, we’ll assume the production cost is the same each time the same product is produced. You then set a sales price for that product. Your sales price minus your production cost is your overall profit or margin; at least, before allowing for further expenses.

So far so good, but what about those further expenses? Here is a sample list (and certainly not exhaustive), with each item on it potentially chipping away at your overall profit:

  • Promotional discounts
  • Efficient order terms
  • Sales organisation costs
  • Marketing costs
  • Ordering and cash collection
  • Storage
  • Picking and packing
  • Outbound transportation
  • Customer-specific services
  • Returns management

Logistics costs are often a big contributor to overall Cost To Serve. Thus, if you find out that an expensive transport solution (courier for example) is routinely being used to deliver a low margin product to a customer, you’ll understand that much better if the end-result for you turns out to be a loss.

The Value of Knowing Your CTS

A knee-jerk reaction to a loss-making sale might be to stop selling that way. A similar reaction to a loss-making customer might be to stop serving the customer. However, while handing a customer over to your competitors is one option, it isn’t the only one or even the best one. The real value of knowing your Cost To Serve a given customer is to identify opportunities to increase or recover profit, rather than to simply cut losses. In other words, it often makes sense to see how you can transform unprofitable customers into profitable ones, rather than cutting them off. This is also more consistent with the statistic that it is up to ten times less expensive to sell to an existing customer than to go out and find a new one.

In addition, while you can take the credit for low CTS, it may also be that high CTS is more your fault that the customer’s. Let’s explain. Customers have their own expectations about the service they receive from their suppliers. They may be just as happy with a lower level of service, meaning that you are losing out on profit by unnecessarily over-serving them. Or they may expect higher levels, but understand that this must also be paid for, over and above standard pricing. In the first instance, you could reduce CTS and increase profit, without upsetting the customer. In the second, CTS would remain the same, but sales pricing could be increased as appropriate.

Knowing your CTS per product and per customer also lets you better control different commercial strategies too. You may decide that if you make an overall profit from a customer, then you’ll accept some unprofitable sales as part of the mix. Knowing your CTS will let you make the initial adjustments so that globally your business relationship with that customer is profitable. If profits start to decline afterwards, your CTS data can offer valuable information about what changed and how to get back on track. It can of course also be used to make an already profitable relationship even more profitable!

Collecting and Using Cost To Serve Data

The Cost-To-Serve approach is a pragmatic one. It aims for a balance between providing useful, actionable information and containing resources and efforts for data collection at reasonable level. It is inherently more useful than the top-level averaging approach of some enterprises, which fails to identify the real cost drivers and therefore the potential for improvement. On the other hand it is less complex than the intensely detailed activity-based costing (ABC) approach often used internally to calculate levels of expenditure and departmental budgets. That said, CTS models that include end-to-end supply chain activities can use ABC data in order to calculate the overall profitability of serving a customer with a product.

The tools for determining Cost To Serve include standard spreadsheet applications, such as MS Excel, and network design modelling software. In the first instance, a CTS model allocates costs that are already being tracked by an enterprise: a spreadsheet model can provide a basic yet useful approach. For categories of costs that are more complicated to manage, purpose-built network modelling applications make it easier to allocate costs and to calculate CTS for different customer/product combinations from transportation, production and warehousing cost data. The pragmatism of CTS means a piecemeal or partial approach can also yield profit improvements. CTS modelling can be done first of all on a subset of costs that already make a large contribution to overall profitability, such as logistics costs. As CTS data collection and modelling capabilities develop within your organisation, you can then extend to an end to end supply chain model as desired.

The Benefits Derived by Enterprises and Organisations

Cost To Serve data and modelling benefits are sometimes deceptively simple. They may confirm things you already suspected were true. For example, a CTS analysis may show you that customers ordering directly from you at your factory also generate lower costs in transport and inventory costs. This sounds like common sense. However, what a CTS analysis also then brings to the party is accurate data on how much lower, allowing better cost allocations and pricing decisions for profitability.

Individual customers can be assessed for overall profitability and the results collectively plotted on a graph. This often gives what is called a “whale curve” of accumulated net profits that shows how:

  • First, a small percentage of customers (say 20%) is truly profitable for the company, showing a steep climb in accumulated profits
  • Then, a relatively large percentage (say 60%) only allow the company to break even, representing a flat line in the graph (no further profit)
  • Finally, another percentage (20% in this example) of customers actually loses money for the company, showing a steep dive back downwards in total accumulated profits.

By grouping a particular number of customers together, profitability can also be evaluated for a customer or market segment. A product can be analysed in terms of overall costs to stock and distribute it. CTS models may therefore also lead to SKU rationalisation and simplification. Besides identifying low (or negative) margin customers and products, high cost processes can also be picked out for improvement and optimisation.

Taking CTS further still, the data and the models built can be used to manage real time decisions about stocking, transport routing and order handling. Orders can be evaluated in terms of their true Cost To Serve, and either accepted, declined or modified on that basis. Seasonal variations can be taken into account, whether in the costs of production, storage or transport.

Besides optimising the present or fixing the past, CTS reporting and analysis opens the door to what-if scenarios and projections. Alternative modes of service and distribution can be investigated before trying them out in practice. Similarly, finding out the Cost To Serve customers for another company if you are considering a merger or acquisition can show where additional value can be unlocked if under-pricing or over-serving is happening.

Real Life Cost To Serve Cases

No individual supply chain is the same as another, but the cases below highlight principles or tactics that could find application across a wide range of industry sectors.

  • Hospital group supplies in Thailand, with about 20 hospitals in the group, supplies were being purchased either individually by each hospital or (about 20% of supplies) via a central purchasing organisation. Up to 7,000 different items were being purchased with inefficiencies in multiple handling, redundant stock levels and duplicated order processing. At the same time, quality of patient (‘end-customer’) care was of paramount importance. A Cost To Serve analysis highlighted wins for reducing costs that had up till then been undetected by conventional cost reporting. Patient care remained uncompromised and as a bonus, supplier management was streamlined too.
  • Dealing with order-changers. Some order changes in business are inevitable, but they all have a cost. When order changes become the norm instead of the exception, the financial impact can be seen in areas such as logistics, customer service and returns management. CTS reporting for one company allowed costs to be broken out and applied per customer. Accounts that repeatedly changed orders, especially orders of high dollar value, were charged correspondingly more to compensate for the negative effect on the company’s profitability. The immediate benefit to the company was estimated at $5 million in additional profit. There was also a longer term change in customer behaviour that was advantageous for all concerned.
  • Consumer goods distribution in Australia and Thailand. While both in the same business sector, each company benefitted in different ways from Cost To Serve reporting. CTS showed the Australian company how 30% of its products were already suffering unnecessary margin erosion even before delivery started for customers. CTS then also helped pinpoint simple process changes to significantly improve margin retention. For the company in Thailand, the issues were linked to poor fleet utilisation with high costs to serve small customers and small orders. After identifying these problems and modelling better use of distributors and modes of transport, CTS led to annual savings on distribution costs of $10 million.
  • Swedish manufacturer of heating systems. This company found itself confronted by a classic ‘whale curve’ of profitable and unprofitable customers, following Cost To Serve analysis. In particular, 20% of customers were generating 225% of total profits, 70% contributed zero profit (break-even) and 10% caused a loss of 125% of total profits. The big surprise however was that its two largest-volume customers were also its least profitable ones. The CTS analysis allowed the manufacturer to adjust pricing and supply volumes to increase profits with the two customers concerned, but without derailing the commercial relationships.


Cost To Serve reporting, analysis and modelling has much to offer organisations of all kinds.

Besides allowing a pragmatic approach without the complexity of other accounting approaches, CTS often helps highlight hidden profit potential that does not show up elsewhere. Some customers on the other hand are aware that their low CTS status can also be used as leverage to gain price discounts. Retailer Wal-Mart is an example of a customer using CTS information to its advantage in this way. Whether or not CTS analysis leads to price increases for other customers with higher CTS may also depend on other factors such as the strategic sales importance of the customer as a reference for others. However, visibility of relevant Cost To Serve data means organisations can already make informed choices and better control their profitability instead of being forced to struggle with mediocre bottom line performance.

Guest Author: Rob O’Byrne, Logistics Bureau

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