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The Jewish Ethicist: Comfort and Competition

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

My clientele prefers familiarity over innovation.

Q. My qualifications and service are significantly beyond those of my competitors. Yet in my conservative community, much of my potential clientele is stubbornly loyal to their regular establishments. How can I convince them that my competition will improve quality for everyone?

A. Competition is certainly a wonderful spur to merchants to constantly improve their service and prices. While we do find that our Sages were occasionally suspicious of the competitive mindset and its potential for motivating exploitative behavior, on the whole we find that our tradition is receptive to the benefits of competition. For example, Rebbe Yehuda states in the Mishnah that a merchant should not offer inducements, such as sweets for the children; yet the Sages permit this, and we rule in accordance with their view. Their rationale: inducements don't provide an unfair advantage. On the contrary, "just as I give out nuts, you can give out prunes". The very essence of competition is that it doesn't give any arbitrary advantage to one seller but rather enables all to attract the customer with the best service.

Rebbe Yehuda furthermore opposes undercutting the market price; yet the Sages again prevail with the view that such a merchant is "remembered for good". (1)

However, competition can only encourage merchants to meet customer needs; it can never define those needs. From a marketing point of view, a demand for familiarity and stability, like the one you find widespread in your very conservative community, is exactly as valid as a demand for innovation and professionalism, in which you personally excel. One of the tenets of marketing is that the object of the merchant is to identify and meet customer needs. Of course sometimes the marketer does need to invest in educating the customer about the way in which his or her product does meet the buying public's deeper needs, but ultimately the customer is king, even if his or her taste doesn't conform with the more informed sensibility of the more innovative providers.

In trying to persuade potential customers, you should accommodate rather than bewail their penchant for loyalty. Someday, when you are more established, you will probably be grateful for this trait! Of course you will want to emphasize your superior ability, but perhaps you should focus on new services your competitors don't provide, rather than on existing services that you may excel at, but which place you in direct competition with others. Try and cultivate an image of someone who belongs and fits in to the community, so that "tribal loyalty" will work for you rather than against you. Remember that closely-knit communities rely heavily on word of mouth reputation (what professionals call "buzz"); work to cultivate a positive reputation for professional service combined with respect for community norms.

It's easy for a cordon bleu chef to bemoan his customers declasse tastes, but ultimately the market rewards merchants who give customers what they do want, not what they should want. The customer can be educated, but above all needs to be respected.

SOURCES: (1) Bava Metzia 60a.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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