Bottom-feeding for blockbuster businesses

Harv Bus Rev. 2003 Mar;81(3):52-9, 139.


Marketing experts tell companies to analyze their customer portfolios and weed out buyer segments that don't generate attractive returns. Loyalty experts stress the need to aim retention programs at "good" customers--profitable ones- and encourage the "bad" ones to buy from competitors. And customer-relationship-management software provides ever more sophisticated ways to identify and eliminate poorly performing customers. On the surface, the movement to banish unprofitable customers seems reasonable. But writing off a customer relationship simply because it is currently unprofitable is at best rash and at worst counterproductive. Executives shouldn't be asking themselves, How can we shun unprofitable customers? They need to ask, How can we make money off the customers that everyone else is shunning? When you look at apparently unattractive segments through this lens, you often see opportunities to serve those segments in ways that fundamentally change customer economics. Consider Paychex, a payroll-processing company that built a nearly billion-dollar business by serving small companies. Established players had ignored these customers on the assumption that small companies couldn't afford the service. When founder Tom Golisano couldn't convince his bosses at Electronic Accounting Systems that they were missing a major opportunity, he started a company that now serves 390,000 U.S. customers, each employing around 14 people. In this article, the authors look closely at bottom-feeders--companies that assessed the needs of supposedly unattractive customers and redesigned their business models to turn a profit by fulfilling those needs. And they offer lessons other executives can use to do the same.

MeSH terms

  • Commerce / organization & administration*
  • Consumer Behavior*
  • Decision Making, Organizational
  • Financial Management / methods*
  • Humans
  • Marketing / methods*
  • Models, Organizational
  • Product Line Management
  • United States