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How to Become the Industry Leader

Charles Schwab is the clear leader in the online brokerage world. While there have been hiccups in its development from a simple discount broker to a full-fledged online brokerage firm offering a range of products, the company has always maintained its leadership in the retail brokerage business. It focuses on the individual investor and, importantly, on investment advisors who manage retail customer accounts.

As the long time leader in the online brokerage industry, Schwab has emphasized the Customer Buying Hierarchy elements of Reliability and Convenience. Its advertising emphasizes Reliability, especially a personal caring relationship with its customers, for example, with its “talk to Chuck” advertising. The eponymous chairman and his company have consistently emphasized a relationship of trust between Schwab and the investor. (See the Perspective, “Reliability: The Hard Road to Sustainable Advantage” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Over the last few years, Schwab has entered many different product categories. As part of that effort, the company has recently introduced eight branded exchange-traded funds with very low cost management fees and commission-free trading. A couple of years ago, the company brought out a Visa credit card with no annual fee and a 2% cash-back feature. Its effort in entering these product categories has been to become a one-stop-shop for its customers. These are Convenience innovations. The customer has no need to leave Schwab to buy other products.

Schwab has been insightful in the way it manages its products and customer relationships. Two recent statements by Walter Bettinger, the current CEO of Charles Schwab, demonstrate the company’s commitment to Reliability and Convenience. In the first, the CEO acknowledges that the company may have to offer some products that have poor profitability in order to maintain a long term customer relationship. His observation: “We’ve never looked at product by product profitability as the answer to building a business.” A Standard Leader often has to measure profitability at the customer, rather than the product, level. (See the Perspective, “What We Do Know Can Hurt Us” on StrategyStreet.com.) The second statement is equally compelling and counter-intuitive in many companies. He observes: “Most companies are taken down, not by their competitors’ moves, but by their own.” In other words, industry leadership changes because the former leader fails, not because the new leader wins.

Posted 6/10/10

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