Rama Bijapurkar strikes an amusing note in her latest book, Customer in the Boardroom?, when she talks about the penchant of Indian businesses to say, “Yes, yes, this is the main thing, but what’s the harm in doing a bit of that as well?” They usually end up, the author tells us, like this sign at an eatery: ‘Pisces Seafood Restaurant (accompanied by an appetising picture of tandoori fish) — specialists in vegetarian food also’. This little story brings out the readability and practical wisdom that marks most of Bijapurkar’s writing.
Nothing she writes in the book is entirely new for an audience that may have immersed itself in the thinking of Hamel and Prahalad, or researched customer behaviour for the benefit of companies, but it’s put together in an enlightening and entertaining package that’s well worth a read.
Bijapurkar makes a compelling case for new thinking in the boardrooms of corporate India even though gloom-and-doom predictions have made an environment of growth rife with uncertainty. The abundance of products available in every category, and the maturing of competition, is compelling companies to define strategic market priorities and make choices in
their attempt to win in the marketplace. Since winning through operational effectiveness is no longer an easy or profitable strategy, a powerful customer-centric strategic compass is the only way to develop a strong and differentiated market position.
Starting with this premise, the book develops arguments and methods for adding “the customer thread to the fabric of business strategy”. The differentiation the author draws between a ‘business-market strategy’ and a ‘functional marketing strategy’ is well argued since many firms do fall prey to the assumption that a marketing programme for a company will lead to an effective business unit strategy with long-term competitive advantage for the firm.
The book also argues in favour of an outside-in approach, starting with customer needs to build the firm’s strategy, quoting the example of Southwest Airlines in the US, which chose to look at its market not as airline customers but as people with varying travel needs.
Being part of the fast growing IT sector, I can testify to the fact that companies that have segmented their business based on customer preferences for end-to-end solutions, or the best-of-breed technologies, have been more successful than companies that continue to look at supply-side capabilities like enterprise software packages and remote infrastructure management as the way to structure themselves and win in the marketplace.
The customer-based business strategy (CBBS) in the book is
simple: start off with the mission of the firm, develop a strategic posture with internal and external analysis, choose where and how to compete, and define sources of competitive advantage.
The book’s only weakness is its lack of specifics to define the state of a company in its supply and quality readiness so that it can chart a course towards building a truly customer-focused strategy. Nevertheless, in an increasingly competitive business environment caused by slowing economies, it’s a great read for any CEO or business student, and an imperative for any firm that seeks to stand out from the clutter.