Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Customer" is Not a Dirty Word

A comment I made in response to a blog post seems worth storing here for reference. The author took umbrage at being called a "customer" in an e-mail from a firm that knows is name ..., of all places, who otherwise seems to put great effort into getting customer service right. But then, I think he went a bit too far:
"... don't call me a customer. "Customer" is a dirty word."
I disagreed, posted a comment to that effect. I was going to summarize it and explore the topic in my notebook, but I think the comment sums it up pretty well:
I don't entirely agree ... The point is well taken that if someone creates an account (online or offline) and you know their name, then you really ought to use it on the salutation line of correspondence sent regarding their account.

But the attempt to use a word to give a person the impression that "you're more than just a customer" strikes me as disingenuous. When someone calls me a "member" or "supporter" of a brand, I raise shields because I expect they are after something more, want to con me into believing that we have some sort of close relationship where they want more of me than they have the right to ask, and think I am gullible enough that simply using a different word changes the way I think of them.

It's kind of like that creepy guy you've met at a couple of industry conferences, who refers to you as a friend. He hasn't earned the right. And the fact that he's trying a little too hard to make you think of him the same way makes him all the more creepy, makes you wonder what he's really after, and makes you want to avoid him rather than allow the relationship to develop further, as it might have if he hadn't used the word "friend" prematurely.

I don't think being a "customer" is a bad thing and I don't find it offensive to be called such - I give you cash, you sell me a product, and that's our relationship. Sell me a good product, make the buying experience as easy as possible, show concern that I get the benefit you promised, and treat me with common decency, and I will become a "regular customer."

Do any of that poorly, and calling me by any other name doesn't make me think better of you.
My reposting to this site isn't intended to steal his thunder, just wanted to keep a copy in my notebook for future reference. The original blog post, with the comment in context, is here:

I'll tap "post" and likely not update - if there's any response or follow-on conversation, it will be on Chris's blog.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Brand and Product Quality

I'm disturbed by a fact that, taken out of context, gives credence to a fallacy: the fact that customers will pay a higher price for a branded product that is inferior in quality has been misconstrued to indicate that brand sentiment and product quality have nothing to do with one another. I don't believe that to be entirely true.

I don't dispute that a cup of Starbucks coffee, which sells for five times the price of a cup of gas-station coffee, is not significantly better. In fact, I've had a few cups of cheap coffee that had a better flavor, less acrid and burned, than the coffee that Starbucks sells. And yet, when it's three in the afternoon and the slump sets in, I automatically think about going to Starbucks, rather than any other vendor, to get a cup of Joe - and from the length of the line, it's not uncommon behavior.

I also don't accept that customers are entirely ignorant that they are paying a higher price for lower quality when they purchase a branded product. I've remarked, and heard others remark, that Starbucks is not as good as it used to be, and that better coffee could be had for cheaper elsewhere, but there is an association that has been established, coffee equals Starbucks, that is as hard to break as any addiction, even though every purchase of a cup of Starbucks coffee comes with a side-order of regret for failure to consider the options that would result in getting better quality for less cash.

But back to the point: I don't think that a brand such as Starbucks could have made that association if it didn't, at some time, offer a distinctly better product, one that was worth the difference in price to a customer who cared about quality. Whatever the situation in the present day, I recall my first experience of Starbucks being one of "wow, this is really good coffee." And that sentiment has been sustained for longer than the quality of the product.

In the years since, the competitive landscape has changed. Gas stations and other restaurants improved the quality of their coffee, and I do think that Starbucks has let its own product quality slide, such that now there is little difference between them - but things were not always thus. I don't think I, or many other consumers, would have become hard-wired to the association that "coffee equals Starbucks" if there had never been a significant advantage in product quality.

However, for newer customers, those who don't remember the days when most coffee was really awful and Starbucks emerged on the scene with a better cup, the association between brand and quality is less valid. I have the sense that, for such persons, they are following the behavior of others. While consumers are not all sheep, many of them do tend to behave that way, following the actions of others without making any judgment of their own, and believing that popularity means superiority. While quality is not necessary to brand sentiment for such individuals, it remains important by proxy: they may not consider quality at all, but are merely following the choice of others - but those whom they choose to follow made their decision based on quality.

This leads to the question: how long can a brand sustain its appeal when the reasons that caused customers to prefer it are no longer valid? For the individual customer, the association is likely very hard to break, such that they will continue to purchase a brand even after quality has faded - provide that the quality does fade, slowly and over a long period of time, rather than a sudden and rapid decrease.

It would stand to reason that they continue to purchase a familiar brand until something better comes along and takes their attention - but given what I noted above about continuing to buy Starbucks even knowing there are better alternatives, it seems unlikely that the switch is instantaneous: there would have to be surreptitious contacts with a better brand to supplant a familiar brand.

This may ultimately be the reason that brands die with their customers. It's not that young people resist certain brands simply because they were popular with old people, and youth merely want to be different and use different brands - it's because the quality that their elders once associated with a brand is no longer valid, and the younger generation has no memory of the time at which it was so.

Back to personal experience, there are still a number of brands I buy that my parents, and even my grandparents, favored - but I tend to think it's because these companies have sustained product quality, such that the product isn't good simply because grandfather said so - it's good because it is objectively better.

But for many brands, the saying holds - "they don't make them like they used to" - and while the memory of quality that a product once had was enough to sustain my grandparents' loyalty, my own encounters did not have sufficient quality to make the Pavlovian connection, and I was easily won away.

To try to swing this meandering meditation back to where it started: establishing preference for a brand depends on product quality and the two cannot be divorced. To be effective, a brand must mean something - specifically, it must mean quality - or else it will not take hold with its original customers, and it will not gain sufficient popularity to draw the me-too crowd.

However, once a product reaches a certain level of maturity in its relationship with its customers, likely it can let itself slide and still retain their loyalty. But this does not mean that brand and product quality are entirely unrelated - they are separable, but cannot be separated until the association has taken root.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Long Run

It seems to me that focus on the short term is a common theme in many of the problems in maintaining customer relationships, and it may extend far beyond that realm to the relationships firms have with employees, suppliers, partners, and all others with whom they interact. Many of these problems can be avoided if we take more of a long-term perspective.

It's acutely apparent in consideration of ethics: people in general are not inherently evil, but in attempting to get something they want right away, they fail to consider the long-term welfare not only of the individual whose cooperation they need to get it, but they also fail to consider their own. But the same problem seems to plague marketing, accounting, operations, human resources, and every other facet of business, and the same essential problem of focus is evident in every industry.

In any instance of advertising where the customer is given false expectations, either through exaggeration, understatement, or an outright lie, the focus is clearly on the short-term perspective of making an immediate sale, heedless of the long-term effect on a customer who will eventually discover that he has been misled. A firm that focuses on the long term would not mislead a customer to make an immediate sale, but many will.

In any instance in which a shoddy product is delivered, one that will break down or wear out quickly or do harm to the customer (consider fast food or tobacco - the companies that produce them cannot still deny the effects of long-term use on the customer), the focus is clearly on the short term profit rather than the long-term welfare of the customer. A firm that is focused on the long term would not deal in shoddy or unhealthy goods.

In any instance of financial misconduct, where the ledgers are "cooked" to exaggerate the performance of the firm to make it more appealing to new investors or hide its shortcomings from the present ones, the company is seeking to create a false impression, and it's likely the entire accounting staff knows that it's just playing games with numbers to cover up a serious problem. A firm that is focused on the long term would be forthright in its reporting, and focus on addressing the problem rather than merely hiding the evidence.

In any instance where a firm fires employees by the hundreds or thousands, its motive is in the immediate reduction of expense to improve its performance in the present quarter or year, only to find that it has drained itself of the experience that contributes to its long-term profitability. A firm that is focused on the long term would hire the personnel it needs, and recognize that it needs the personnel it has hired, for more than just the present quarter.

This problem of the short-term focus reaches beyond the business world to poison many of the relationships in present society: a politician who has lied to his electorate, a journalist who misinforms his readers, a father who mistreats his children, a man who has betrayed his friends. In each of these instances, there is most often an individual who has sought to gain something in the present without consideration of the future. Perhaps taking it outside of the realm of business is a diversion, but it suggests that the problems in the sphere of commercial affairs are not "corporate" or "business" problems alone, but a wider issue throughout our present culture.

But the point remains that instances of ethical misconduct, and those that do damage even in a more practical sense, can often be traced to a short-term mentality, and a desire to achieve something today, this month, this quarter, or this year - meanwhile ignoring the long-term consequences.

It's a theme that seems to repeat itself, a common thread among the many lessons that can be learned to avoid similar mistakes in future - but even learning such a lesson runs contrary to the nature of those who are the very cause of the problem: those whose focus remains on what they want right away have already demonstrated a disregard for the future that may be a systemic problem.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Zombification and Marketing

Some notes from a conversation that started in an unlikely place, but led me to a more pedestrian topic: we were talking about zombies, then took a left turn to marketing, then turned to culture. Not sure if it's useful, but it's stuck in my head and I need to get it out:

The conversation began out in left field: the current popularity of the zombie theme in current entertainment (particularly, the upcoming second season of "The Walking Dead," a television series on the subject). What makes it so popular?

Aside of an engaging story, a genre of fiction becomes popular because it speaks to the underlying concerns of a society: Aside of the gore factor, the action potential, and the clear motivation of the characters that drive the plot of a story that holds our interest for the duration of a film, there is a much deeper and more persistent horror at the underlying concerns.

That is to say that what scares us most, what persists in our minds as an ongoing sense of dread, is the fear of the loss of our individuality in the modern world. We perceive the mass of humanity around us as a horde of mindless zombies, whose sole intent is to eat our brains and turn us into one of them. And that's deeply disturbing, in a way that won't quite sort itself out in the plot of a film.

And here, the conversation turned to marketing, the sense that there are companies that seek to profit by erasing the individuality of consumers, to pull their strings and subvert their intelligent and turn them into a mass of creatures whose sole motivation is consumption. But I don't think that's quite right ...

In some of the films of the genre, there is a focus on the creation story - the explanation of how the zombies came to exist - that generally gets back to a corporation (these being the kings and wizards of the modern age, it's as normal for current entertainment to glorify or demonize them as it was for Shakespeare to write about the ruling class of his time). But this is very seldom the focus of the story, or the element that carries the sense of horror and loathing throughout much of the film. The creation of the zombie is just a device, a back-story, and the horrific element is the mass of zombies themselves.

And this is where the conversation turns to culture: the threat to intelligence and individuality is not the zombie-makers, but the zombies themselves - the way that other people are constantly attempting to drag you down, eat your brains, and make you into one of them. It's base and loathsome behavior, but it seems to be an omnipresent force in contemporary culture that attempts to overwhelm and smother the individual characteristics of a person and make them conform, join the horde, become another zombie like the rest.

You can witness it in any elementary school: where the child who wears the wrong brand of jacket is taunted, teased, bullied, and threatened by his peers until he conforms to the preferences of the majority. You can witness it in the workplace, where sycophants and cronies are on the fast-track to promotion, and the higher-ups give preferential treatment to others who are "like" themselves while anyone who behaves differently, abnormally, and individually, is stuck in a dead-end job until there's a convenient excuse to get rid of them. You can witness it on any street: watch what happens when a person lights a cigarette, and is approached by complete strangers who are upset by the fact that he is behaving differently to themselves, and who use the same tactics as schoolchildren to compel him to conform to the majority beliefs and behaviors.

Switch back to the marketing channel: is this not the exact tactic, and the exact hope, of marketers, especially in the social media? The marketers seek to get a few key people to adopt their brand, in hopes that they will help to spread it to others - in much the same way as the evil corporations and mad scientists of the zombie genre infect a few subjects and turn them loose on the population to spread their disease. The very use of the phrase "viral marketing" is an explicit acknowledgement of this unsavory fact.

That is, if you "infect" the ten most popular kids at any high school by giving them your brand of jacket, your hope is for the infection to spread - first by a few individuals who want to imitate the trend-setters, but ultimately to the point where any kid that doesn't wear your brand is beset by his peers, ridiculed or bullied, until he capitulates and joins the mindless horde. You can wrap it up in whatever euphemisms you prefer, but this is essentially the tactic and practice of social marketing, online or otherwise.

So in the end, it's not just the zombie-makers, but the legion of zombies they have created that makes marketing successful - in getting people to ignore their own tastes and preferences, subvert their intelligence and individuality, and go along with the crowd.

Granted, all of this casts the practice in the negative view - you could as well claim that the practice is "enlightening" a few individuals, who teach others about the features and benefits of your brand, and "convince" them that they would benefit as well, and that instead of making zombies, they are creating enlightened citizens.

Disease and ideas seem to follow the same vectors, and whether a given product is good or bad for the consumers is a matter of some conjecture. The point to this ramble, if I can claim to have made one, is merely to consider the similarities and pause, if only for a moment, to consider the abject horror of it all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Generational Selling

I've recently read Cam Marston's latest book, Generational Selling Tactics That Work, which deals with differences in the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the different generations that currently compose the adult population of the United States, examining how the differences in culture result in generation-specific buying behaviors, which in turn should lead those in sales and marketing to adjust their tactics to be more applicable to the unique characteristics of a given customer.

Naturally, generalizations such as this are less than perfect: it's foolish to assume that every person between the ages of 45 and 65 have the exact same mental model as one another - it's one of a multitude of factors that contribute to the psychology of a given individual - but similar life experiences have similar effects on those who are subject to them, and considering this from a perspective of age is not entirely a bad idea.

It is reasonable to conclude that everyone born at a certain time was deeply affected by the World War II, the shooting of John F. Kennedy, or the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is reasonable to conclude that a generation that grew up with the Internet at their constant disposal is significantly different than another that had only newspapers. And it is reasonable to conclude that people who were a certain age at a certain time had many common experiences that had a significant and similar impact on their psychology, making them similar to one another and different to anyone who was not the same age at the same time.

All things considered, a person who was twenty years old in 1950 and a person who is twenty years old in the present day live in entirely separate cultures - it's no longer accurate to look to a younger person and assume "he's the same as I was when I was his age." So it ultimately makes sense to consider generational differences when marketing and selling goods - dealing with a customer of a different generation is as awkward and unfamiliar as dealing with a customer of a different country - and since the two live in the same nation and speak the same language, the differences are often overlooked.

There are certainly other factors to be considered, weighed, and matrixed against the notion of generational identity - but it is certainly a factor that merits consideration in the mix of many others, perhaps much more accurate, reasonable, and meaningful than many of the other factors that are used to segment the market (race, religion, ethnicity, income, etc.).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Evolution of Knowledge

An exchange with a mobile-channel enthusiast led me to a train of thought about the role that mobile computing plays in the evolution of knowledge that contextualizes the technology a bit better for me. I'm still of the mind that it has wondrous potential that has yet to be fully realized, and that sentiment is reinforced by the consideration of the way in which mobile extends the evolution of knowledge.

Knowledge has historically been a thing that exists inside the mind of a person - and I believe this remains true to a great extent, even today. But the way in which information gets into the mind of a person has changed over time and continues to evolve, and mobile has the potential to become the next step in that evolution.

Consider, first, the storage and spread of information prior to writing, or at least prior to the ability to store knowledge on a physical device (that is, a scroll or a book). Information was stored in the minds of scholars and sages - and the querent would travel great distances to access the knowledge of such a person, in the nature of a pilgrimage to Delphi to consult the oracle.

And while knowledge has been demystified, it's still a common practice today to seek wisdom of those who possess it: the notion of a college education is based on this ancient tradition, where a young person seeking knowledge leaves home, travels quite some distance, and spends a few years in the tutelage of the scholars. In more than two thousand years of history, this has not changed.

The profession of scholarship has grown, and the knowledge disseminated, such that there is a university located in any town of reasonable size where a body of scholars is available to obtain knowledge. The ability to hire a scholar, which I'd loosely define as anyone with a graduate degree, gives a commercial operation the ability to have knowledge at their immediate disposal, right in their office. I don't have a sense of how long this has been a historical practice, but I expect it might be a tradition of centuries or millennia for anyone of much influence to have professional advisors close to them, at their disposal.

Move forward in history to the evolution of writing and the ability to store knowledge in physical devices - and while a book or a scroll seems laughably primitive by modern standards, it was a great leap forward: the ability to extract the knowledge from the human mind, to fix it in a physical object in the form of writing and illustrations, did much to forward the evolution of knowledge.

And in the same way, dissemination of knowledge in written form has evolved through history, where there were once great libraries such as the one at Alexandria where all knowledge was stored, and to which a querent would make a pilgrimage to gain the knowledge he might seek. Every great nation, to this day, maintains a national library - and in terms of dissemination, most cities have a significant collection of books and manuscripts, even outside of the academic institutions.

There are public libraries in most industrialized nations, and private individuals maintain libraries in their homes. Prior to the Internet, even a modest middle-class home had a bookshelf and a set of encyclopedias, and even after the Internet, any reasonably educated person, which might be anyone with an undergraduate degree, maintains a bookshelf, from which they can carry forth whatever knowledge they may need at any given time, such as a traveler abroad who takes with him a guidebook and a translation dictionary - the knowledge he needs at for a given purpose.

Step forward finally to the evolution of computer technology. Prior to the Internet, a vast amount of knowledge was stored in databases. Accounts vary, but a few generations before the evolution of the personal computer, this information was not widely accessible and was stored in a few databases, then spread to corporate headquarters offices, then to the branch offices.

The Internet merely facilitated access to the information stored in the various repositories - I've not done the research, but I would guess that the vast majority of information that we consider to be "the internet" is likely stored in a few dozen cities, and a few hundred data centers, but is accessible at any office location via a personal computer with a connection to the network.

Mobile computing further extends access to this knowledge - with a notebook or laptop and a wireless modem or network card, it's possible to access knowledge in any location. Granted, some distinction is made between the "true" mobile device that is worn in a holster and the notebook computer that is carried in a briefcase - but this is on the far edge of the quality of convenience, and the core functionality is the same.

The point of all this rumination, if there indeed is a point to be made, is that mobile computing is not an outlying force, but an extension of knowledge that makes it accessible or portable - and more to the point, this is not entirely a new phenomenon. It's merely a different technology for accomplishing the same thing that has been possible in the past: to access knowledge.

Consider, as an example, the need of a person traveling abroad to have knowledge of a foreign city. He can, in advance of his travel, speak to a person who is familiar with the location, read a travel book, or study the location on the Internet at his home computer. If he feels the need for portability, he can hire a local guide to accompany him, bring along a guidebook, or access information on his mobile device. In each case, person, book, and computer all serve the same purpose.

Seen in that way, mobile computing is not the knew and unheard of phenomenon that many of its enthusiasts claim. It can be touted as being more convenient, more comprehensive, or more accurate - though this remains entirely arguable, as the device has no power to determine the validity of information and is only as good as its sources. But more to the point, it's merely another method of accomplishing the same goal.

And so, the sense that we need to "re-think" for mobile at the most fundamental level is entirely mistaken. It is just another device, another "thing" that exists in the context of an old and established set of needs, just another step in the evolution of knowledge and the methods by which it is accessed it.

We can ponder the specific capabilities of mobile computing, and we can design knowledge sources to accommodate the particular limitations and capabilities of the device - but the principle use of the mobile channel, and the fountainhead of all the value it is capable of providing, is well established.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mining Social Media

In every person who wants to know how to do something, there is potential for business to profit by helping them to do it - whether this means starting a new business or adjusting the service the firm presently provides. The difficulty for most firms is discovering what people really want - they proceed on their own suppositions of what they think customers would want, generally based on their own desires or a half-baked attempt to understand the customer - but the best and most accurate information is to do a little research.

And while I've been trained in the various methods of marketing research, I've never been comfortable with their accuracy. Market research of has always been tainted on both ends - by companies asking questions to get the answers they wanted even before asking, and by customers who answer as if their decisions were always motivated by the better angels of human nature. As such, my sense is that better and more accurate information can be gleaned by observing human beings in the wild - where they are candidly themselves, and where the researcher doesn't get to decide how to phrase the questions.

Social media has some ability to enable that sort of observation - limited, of course, by the fact that people know that their behavior can be monitored by others and are (mostly) discreet in what they choose to share. So I'm not entirely sold on its accuracy - but am convinced that it is less inaccurate than other research methods.

As an example, consider the list of the most popular articles on the how-to site Wikihow. My sense is that this is semi-tainted, in that the information you can gather is limited to the level of interest in existing articles (if there is no article on a given topic, you cannot assess the level of interest in it, though a firm that wanted to test ideas could post a handful of articles to gauge interest). I'm less concerned about the effect of "posturing" by users of the site, as people are less discreet about what pages they choose to view then they are when indicating that they "like" and article, or post a comment about it.

By way of an experiment, I pulled the top 100 most popular pages - the site provides a utility for doing exactly this. Because it's a general-interest site, the information there on a random scattering of topics, but did seem to be concentrated in a few key areas:
  • Relationships and Dating (30 articles)
  • Software and Internet (16 articles)
  • Health and Fitness (14 articles)
  • Electronics and Computer Hardware (6 articles)
  • Food and Cooking (5 articles)
  • Writing and Communications (5 articles)
Zooming in on the "electronics and computer hardware" category, half of the questions pertained to specific products - for example: how do I add an external hard drive to a Playstation 3? This is likely of great interest to Sony, as providing documentation on doing this (or the capability to do it if it is not presently possible) will result in greater customer satisfaction for nearly two million customers who cared enough to view the article on this particular Web site. It may also be a marketing opportunity for a hard drive manufacturer to position one of its products as a "kit" for this specific need.

Another question that would be of broader interest is: "how do I save a wet cell phone?" The fact that nearly three million people (again, on this site alone) showed interest in this topic should be a clear indication of a need that cell phone manufacturers could address to improve the satisfaction of current customers and use as a copy point in marketing to make their product more appealing to new customers (especially those shopping for a replacement for a waterlogged cell phone that cannot be saved), or a demand for skins/cases that would render weaker cell phones waterproof.

Those are just two examples of opportunities that can be identified by combing social media - chances are that every single question asked holds some potential, and that most companies could find among the top thousand answers some idea or inspiration for improving their customer satisfaction and marketing to attract new customers. It's definitely a resource I plan to make greater use of in future.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Competitive Advantage: A Meditation

I've heard the term "competitive advantage" tossed about lately with little regard to its definition - while innovative use of language has its merits, it is irksome when a word is cheapened by misuses, and especially so when the word pertains to a concept that is critical and the way in which it is used strips it of its value. But rather than ranting about the examples of misuse, it's probably more productive to meditate on it proper use, and consider my own understanding of definition of the term "competitive advantage" that I believe ought to be preserved:
Competitive advantage pertains to the regular practice(s) of a firm that promise to deliver unique and exceptional value to prospective customers, leading them to select its products in lieu of other options.
I think it can be said as simply as that, but with some consideration of each component:

... regular practices ...

The first critical distinction in this phrase is that competitive advantage comes from regular practices - the things that a firm does as a matter of course, rather than special treatment in a specific situation. It's entirely possible (and widely practiced) that a firm will act in an unusual manner in specific situations where they recognize a customer may choose a competitor - when wooing a reluctant new customer or appeasing a disgruntled one that is on the verge of leaving. While it may be argued that unusual or irregular actions are the reasons the customer chooses the firm at that moment, it is not a competitive advantage, but a recognition that the firm does not have a competitive advantage in its regular practices and must offer something "more" to win or retain the customer.

The second distinction is that competitive advantage arises from the practices of a firm. Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but a product does not have a competitive advantage in and of itself - it may be argued to have better qualities than others of its kind (it is better suited to a specific need, it is more durable, etc.), but quality itself is the result of the firm's practices. That is, a product is not something that exists in nature, but results from actions purposefully undertaken by its creator - design, manufacture, and the like. And while the customer may consider the product as a thing unto itself, and be wholly uninterested in the process that brought the product into existence, the producer of the product should be intently focused on that process, as the sole means by which he has the capability to offer product quality are the practices of its production. A good product is the result of good process, and only the latter can be managed.

... that promise to deliver ...

The notion of promise is an important distinction. It is an expectation on the part of another party - that is, what the customer believes rather than what the firm believes, and especially distinguished from what the firm wants the customer to believe.

Ideally, the promise is kept and the customer expectation is met, but the meeting of expectations is something that the customer will not discover until later, after the sale has been made, the product used or the service experienced, and the customer then makes the evaluation of whether the promises made in advance were actually kept.

However, at the time the customer makes the selection, he can consider only what is promised, not what will actually be delivered. I would argue that keeping this promise is a core component of business ethics and essential to maintaining the reputation of a firm, hence setting and reinforcing customer expectations, but the degree to which businesses fail to act in accordance with ethics and yet succeed in winning customers is a disheartening reminder that things are not always thus.

... unique and exceptional value ...

Arguably, I'm packing on adjectives here, but I have the sense that both are necessary: to have a competitive advantage, the value delivered by a firm must be unique (different from the value offered by competitors) as well as exceptional (outstanding in some critical way). That is, a firm can offer a value that is unique but not exceptional, or one that is exceptional but not unique, but it's only a firm that meets both qualities that has a true competitive advantage.

Even so, this could likely use some refinement - when it's necessary to use multiple words to describe a single concept, likely the writer has not found quite the right word to express his intended meaning. But I won't belabor it further at present and will accept this as a point where improvement can be made in future.

It seems worth considering the nature of value, though much can be said, and has been said, on that notion. In general parlance, value is misused as a synonym for price - and a value product is simply one that is cheap. However, I mean value in its original and unadulterated sense: not that it is cheap, but that the benefits derived from ownership are well worth the price of obtaining it. A product may be terribly expensive but still be a value if the benefits it delivers exceed the cost of ownership.

And while the rational consumer would not even consider purchasing a product that had negative value (a lack of benefits to justify its cost), not all customers are rational creatures. Or perhaps it's more reasonable to state that not all people, at all times, act in a perfectly rational manner, as even otherwise rational individuals will act irrationally at times. But neither do I think that a firm would be wise to consider its competitive advantage to be the result of consistently irrational behavior on the part of the customer, but must seek to appeal to the "better angels" of their nature, which will eventually hold sway.

... to prospective customers ...

This is perhaps unnecessary, except that there is a widespread misconception that a firm may distinguish between prospective customers and regular customers - and my sense is that firms that succeed at sustaining competitive advantage make no such distinction and harbor no notion that anyone is regular customer whose future patronage is to be taken for granted simply because they have purchased in the past. It's a goose that wants chasing, but I will try to stay on the path of the present thesis.

Just as competitive advantage pertains to the expected value of something that has not yet been contained, so does it pertain to the perspective of an individual who has not yet obtained it - the prospective customer, or the future customer, even if this very same person has purchased the very same item in the past. The tendency among consumers may well be to repurchase unless there is reason to reconsider, but sustaining competitive advantage means winning repeat business by addressing expectations of prospective customers.

And again, product quality and service experience are critical matters in retaining a customer and winning their next purchase, but even such a person should be regarded as a prospect rather than a regular unless this critical point is to be forgotten.

... leading them to select its products in lieu of other options.

Likely this much is self-evident and needs no explanation, except inasmuch as is necessary to indicate that this phrase is the sum and total of the notion of competitive advantage as it is mangled in the mouths of those who would bastardize it.

Ultimately, competitive advantage is about getting prospective customers to buy your firm's product instead of something offered by another firm. But "ultimately" is not "completely," and if your perspective is limited merely to this fragment, much meaning is lost.

And that, I believe, is the point and purpose of this meditation.