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Winning and Failing in a Marketplace

Analysts widely expect that Apple will offer its popular iPhone through Verizon by the end of this year. In anticipation of the loss of its iPhone exclusivity, AT&T is busy upgrading its network in an attempt to retain its current customer base in the face of the prospective Verizon competition. This story provides a useful illustration of how winning and failing works in a marketplace.

We use particular definitions for “winning” and “failing”. A “win” occurs when a company offers something that less than half of the other competitors in the industry can, or will, offer. (See “Audio Tip #34: How Does a Company “Win” in a Market?” on StrategyStreet.com.) A “failure” occurs when an incumbent supplier will not offer its customer a benefit that more than half of the industry competitors can, and will, offer that customer. (See “Audio Tip #35: How Does a Company “Fail” in a Market?” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Both a win and a failure can drive a change in market share. With a win, a company often offers a unique benefit, for example, a new feature for the product user. In fast-growing markets, wins are the drivers of much of the change in market share. In other markets, a failure must occur before market share will move. Once an incumbent supplier has failed its customer in some way, the customer opens its purchasing relationship to other suppliers and shifts some, or all, of the purchases it made from the failing supplier to another supplier. (See the Symptom & Implication, “Customers are adding suppliers because incumbent suppliers failed them” on StrategyStreet.com.) We call this situation, in which a supplier gains market share after an incumbent supplier has failed, a “weak win”. It is a weak win because the supplier who gained share was not able to offer something that the customer felt was a winning benefit. It simply gained its market share only after the incumbent failed.

In the early stages of the smart-phone market, AT&T had exclusive rights to the iPhone. The iPhone proved very popular, especially with consumers. This drove market share to AT&T in the smart-phone market and was a clear win by AT&T.

The iPhone brought some unique problems, however. It overwhelmed AT&T’s network and made a shambles of its capacity forecasting system. The result has been dropped calls and a deteriorating reputation with subscribers. AT&T is now failing some of the subscribers with whom it is the incumbent due to its exclusive offering of the iPhone. Many of these failed subscribers are now ready to open their relationships to another supplier, in this case, Verizon.

Verizon here is likely to be the beneficiary of a weak win situation. Without the iPhone, Verizon could not pull many of AT&T’s subscribers away from it. The Verizon benefits were not great enough to win market share in competition with AT&T’s iPhone. But, once AT&T has failed some of these subscribers and now that Verizon has the iPhone, Verizon can gain share at AT&T’s expense.

Some of the share shift is almost inevitable now. AT&T probably does not have enough time to get its network upgraded by enough to thwart the loss of some portion of its disgruntled subscribers. This is a fluid situation, though. AT&T was caught unawares by the significantly different patterns of cell phone usage among iPhone users. It’s possible that Verizon will be similarly overwhelmed. That should not be the case since Verizon could see AT&T’s problems. “Forewarned is forearmed”. If Verizon does encounter the same quality problems AT&T has had to face, it will not gain all the customers that it might have gained through AT&T’s current failure. But, in the short term, Verizon is bound to gain share from AT&T’s failure problems.

Posted 4/12/10

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