Although many marketing literature propounds the dictum “Customer is the King”, it is seldom practiced in its fullest sense. Marketers would love to put customers at the center of their business strategy but the intense competitive environment forces them to think beyond the customer and move towards the competitors.
There is a dilemma in the marketers mind with the choice of whether the firm’s principal orientation should be towards customer or competitors. Conventional wisdom say that firms should be oriented more towards customers than competitor. Peter Drucker famously said “The purpose of business is to create customers “. When a firm is customer oriented, the entire business is centered on customer needs and satisfaction.
According to academic literature, there are three components of market orientation (1) Customer Orientation (2) Competitor Orientation (3) Inter-functional coordination. Customer Orientation is where the firm spends its resources on gathering information about customer needs and behavior. Competitor orientation is where the firm directs its resources to gathering information about competitor behavior and activities. The firm’s strategies will then be based on the information gathered through any of these orientations. (Source: Narver, John C. and Stanley F. Slater. 1990. "The Effect of a Market Orientation on Business Profitability." Journal of Marketing 54 (October):20-35.)
Customer orientation helps firms with a clear in-depth understanding of consumer which results in a focused marketing effort. Research has confirmed that customer orientation helps firms to increase performance and enhance customer satisfaction.
Too much customer orientation also can be dangerous. There is a chance of marketers becoming blinded by their current focus thus oblivious of the changes brought about by the competitors. There are critics who argue that customers may stifle innovation in companies because customers may not be able to explicitly state their expectations or anticipate future needs. Customers are often resistant to change and this forces the highly customer focused firms to maintain the status quo thus refraining from game changing innovations.
The firms who are skewed towards competitor orientation are blamed for launching me-too products in an effort to fight competition. Too much focus on competitor often forces firms to invest in understanding customers or anticipate their needs better. Too many resources will be spent on competitive activities which may restrict investment on breakthrough innovations. Competitor oriented firms are more open to the changing trend in the market. Since their actions are more directed by the actions of the competitor, there is less chance of lethargy in marketing activities.
Firms must understand that there is a trade-off between these two orientations. Firms will have to lose something if they chose either of the two orientations. The ideal option is to balance both the orientation. It is easy to advocate that firms should have both customer and competitor orientation but with a limited resources in-terms of men and money, firms will find tough to have best of both worlds.
Companies must realize that the choice of customer / competitor orientation is dependent on the environment in which firms operate. There are external and internal factors that will decide the orientation of the company. For example, there are organizations like Zappos.com which is totally customer oriented. The customer orientation run deep within the organization’s DNA and the entire firm is structured around the customer.
Competitor orientation is more preferable in markets which are growing very fast. In fast growing markets, firms should invest in gathering more data about competitors which will enable them to develop innovations at lower costs.
Customer orientation is preferable in more uncertain markets. When the markets are changing very fast, firms can focus on customers which will enable them to change their marketing strategies quickly in accordance with changing customer needs. Also firms that deal with complex markets need to focus on investing in customers rather than competitors.
The choice of customer vs. competitor orientation is ultimately depended on the top management’s world view. The choice is important because there are only limited resources available with the managers to spend on either of these orientations.
Firms can strike a balance between these orientations if they can focus on the following guidelines.
- Invest in a robust market intelligence mechanism in the marketing department. The mechanism can be internal or outsourced, but the emphasis will be on information gathering and dissemination. When a mechanism exists, depending on the market environment, organization can decide on the type of information that should be gathered.
- Encourage free flow of information within the organization. Market orientation tends to be ineffective if the organization is bureaucratic. Hence firms should ensure that important market information is passed to various levels quickly.