Michelle de Haaff

The Art of War is the darling of business and new age development gurus. How they interpret Sun Tzu’s classic is as you would expect. Attack your competitors’ weaknesses. Take them by surprise. Crush them with your wiles. Win at life. To summarize, these interpreters of Sun Tzu would have you focus on your competition, figure out how they work and what their weaknesses are so that you can become the industry leader. Just as descriptions of actual warfare are becoming increasingly euphemistic, businesses are clamoring to adopt the language of war.

One factor that these business gurus seem to leave out is your customers — the people who actually buy your products and services. Occasionally, the customer does get a mention: for example, that you should “capture your market without destroying it” — a business gloss on Sun Tzu’s advice:

“Generally in war, the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this….For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

It’s slightly worrying that the advice isn’t to nurture the community that buys your products and services, but to “capture” it without “destroying” it, and “subdue the enemy without fighting.” In this metaphorical battle, your adversaries aren’t just your competitors, they are your customers who may switch their allegiances at any time.

The thing is, your customers aren’t your enemies, metaphorical or otherwise. They are your customers! They are the community without which you could not exist. Companies often focus too much on the competition, without paying attention to their lifeblood and their reason for existing — their customers and what customers actually want.

Win By Focusing on the Customer, Not the Enemy

In the mid-2000s, Microsoft, with the Xbox, and Sony, with the PlayStation, were competing for the video-game console market by watching and matching each other’s games and technical specifications. Rather than focus on these competitors, however, Nintendo took a completely different route. As Nintendo game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, said, “The consensus was that power isn’t everything for a console. Too many powerful consoles can’t coexist. It’s like having only ferocious dinosaurs. They might fight and hasten their own extinction.” Instead, Nintendo decided to examine what its customers wanted and came out with the Wii — whose pronunciation (“we”) indicated its inclusivity as a family-friendly video-game console — outperforming Xbox and PlayStation in profits when it launched. Rather than compete in a games and specs war with the Xbox and Playstation, Nintendo looked directly at their customers and thought of a way to capture their hearts.

When Nordstrom decided to launch Nordstrom Rack, its own discount department store chain, the space was already filled with competitors like Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, and Ross Dress For Less. But rather than focus on what the competition was doing, Nordstrom decided to retain the Nordstrom Way, and emphasize the excellent customer experience associated with the Nordstrom brand. In its customer feedback, Nordstrom found that many of their customers had trouble locating Nordstrom Rack associates, who wore street clothes and nametags rather than uniforms. Nordstrom decided to launch an initiative in a few test locations, where salespeople would wear branded, brightly colored t-shirts so that customers could easily spot them. Within two days of the pilot, there was an immediate 30-point jump in its primary salesperson metric. By constantly taking a pulse on its customers and acting on their feedback, Nordstrom was able to dramatically improve the experience of shopping in its stores.

Make the “One-Track” in Your Mind, Your Customers

Having a one-track mind directed only towards your competitors could close out innovation and inspiration that you could have otherwise obtained by listening to your customers. You’re making your products and providing your services for your customers. Don’t get distracted by your competitors and let their voices go to waste.

Photo Credit: Danielle Buma